Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


John Walliss (2002) ''Loved the Wedding, Invite Me to the Marriage': The Secularisation of Weddings in Contemporary Britain'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 4, <>

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Received: 3/10/2002      Accepted: 26/11/2002      Published: 30/11/2002


This article explores the extent to which weddings have been secularised within contemporary Britain at both the societal/institutional (objective) and personal (subjective) levels. Firstly, I present an extremely brief historical sketch of the changing nature of weddings within Britain over the course of the last thousand years. I will also draw on statistical evidence to discuss the trends relating to weddings over the course of the last 160 years. Following on from this, I draw on interview data to explore the reasons why non-church attendees still opt for a religious marriage service. Finally, I conclude by relating both sets of material to the question of whether weddings may be seen as a site of secularisation within contemporary Britain and exploring the nature of this situation.

Weddings, Secularisation, Tradition


In 1999, approximately 117,000 marriages - 40% of the total number - were celebrated within Great Britain with a religious ceremony (Social Trends 31), a fall of over 10% from the number at the start of the decade. In the same year, a church near to my home displayed a large poster on its public notice board. This poster, from which the first half of this article's title was taken, read,

Loved the Wedding, Invite Me to the Marriage.

As one who has long been curious - and not a little suspicious - about the phenomenon of couples who would not usually darken a church's door opting for a religious wedding ceremony, this poster immediately caught my attention and, indeed, I went so far as to take a photograph it.

What this poster was expressing could be understood on two levels. On one, perhaps cynical, level, it is expressing the view that many couples' involvement with the Church often begins with their wedding preparations and ends with the ceremony itself or as soon afterwards as (politely) possible. On another, more constructive, level, what the authors of the poster and the church in question may have been hoping to express was the view that Christianity should be a part of one's life during the marriage itself also, not just for one day or maybe a few months before and after the wedding ceremony or until there is need for a christening or a funeral.

Looked at more broadly, these two interlinked phenomena highlight the process of secularisation in a number of interesting ways. At the most obvious level, the decline in the number of ecclesiastical wedding ceremonies could be held up as an example of the waning strength of Christianity as a cultural and institutional force in contemporary Britain (Bruce, 2001). Conversely, the fact that 40% of marriages still take place in this way could be seen as evidence that some level of nominal belief persists beyond the settings of institutional Christianity: the glass, in other words, is 40% full rather than 60% empty (see Davie, 1994). Second, it could, more specifically be seen to represent the declining importance of the Ecclesiastical ritual in peoples' everyday life. Moreover, both could potentially be cited as evidence of the shift within modern European societies, discussed by authors such as Bruce (1996), where roles that were once fulfilled by religious institutions are increasingly fulfilled by secular agencies; where couples may marry in civil rather than religious ceremonies and then, if necessary, work through their marital issues with therapists, marriage guidance counsellors, agencies such as RELATE or via family mediation rather than necessarily with religious professionals.

In this article I am going to explore, following Berger's (1990) distinction, the extent to which weddings have been secularised within contemporary Britain at both the societal/institutional (objective) and personal (subjective) levels. In the first section of the article I will present a historical sketch of the changing nature of weddings within Britain over the course of the last thousand years, examining in particular the changes in legislation dealing with weddings over the last 250 years. This section will, by necessity, be extremely brief and will serve simply to place the contemporary situation within an historical context. I will also draw on statistical evidence to discuss the trends relating to weddings over the course of the last 160 years, exploring in particular the relative fortunes of - and impact of legislation on - religious and civil ceremonies over this period.[1] Following on from this, in the bulk of the article I will explore the reasons why non-church attendees still opt for an ecclesiastical wedding ceremony. This will be based on interviews conducted with couples who are either getting married for the first time in the next year, or who did so during the last decade (1992-2002). I will also draw on interviews that I conducted with members of the clergy, registrars, and wedding co-ordinators at approved premises. Finally, I will conclude by relating both sets of material to the question of whether weddings may be seen as a site of secularisation within contemporary Britain and exploring the nature of this situation.

The Secularisation of Weddings: Legislative and Statistical Dimensions

At present within the UK, couples wishing to marry for the first time may opt for either a religious or a civil ceremony. Prior to doing so, however, certain legal preliminaries have to take place, these being determined by the nature of the ceremony. For those wishing to marry in the Church of England, the Church of Scotland or the Church in Wales there are certain ecclesiastical preliminaries, whilst for those marrying in via a civil ceremony there are a number of civil preliminaries (Office for National Statistics, 2002).

However, this level of formality is a fairly recent phenomenon. Before 1836, and certainly before 1754, there was little or any formal structure and much confusion regarding the state of marriage law. Up to the thirteenth century casual polygamy was widespread, with easy divorce and much concubinage. Marriages, where they occurred, were seen largely by those with property as a private contract between families concerning property exchange, whilst for those without property, where it occurred at all, marriage was a private contract between two individuals enforced by the community (Stone, 1979; Houlbrooke, 1992; Ribordy, 2001). Moreover, those wishing to marry could do so in a variety of ways and with different levels of formality; from oral agreements with or sometimes without witnesses, through 'clandestine weddings' illegally conducted by unscrupulous clergymen and rituals such as 'handfasting' or 'jumping over the broom' to solemnisation in church (Houlbrooke, 1992; Cressy, 1997). Indeed, even when the Church finally managed to take control of marriage law in the thirteenth century and it became the accepted practice, for the propertied class at least, for the exchange of vows to take place within church, before witnesses and with the blessing of a priest, confusion persisted. For example, according to ecclesiastical law, oral promises before witnesses (spousals) were as legally binding a contract as the church wedding itself. Indeed, marriage in church without prior oral consent was deemed to be adulterous and of no validity. To much of the laity, however, they were seen as no more than just a conditional contract, similar to a modern engagement.

Nevertheless, by the Elizabethan period, the great majority of marriages took place under ecclesiastical auspices (Gillis, 1985). As Cressy (1997) notes, whilst unchurched marriages based on oral promises may have met the minimum requirements of the law, "...they were severely deficient in social and cultural terms. The vast majority of couples in early modern England acknowledged the importance of religious ritual in establishing conjugal unions, and accepted the role of the clergy in the solemnization of holy matrimony" (Cressy, 1997:316). Indeed, "even so-called clandestine weddings were usually solemnized by an ordained minister using the words of the Book of Common Prayer in a consecrated building in the presence of lawful witnesses" (ibid.). Courts also increasingly judged the legitimacy of marriages not on whether each party had expressed consent or on the nature of the oral agreements, but on whether or not the ceremony had been performed by a minister in church in accordance with the ecclesiastical canons.

Ecclesiastical control of marriage was, however, only fully consolidated in England with the passing on Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act 'for the Better Preventing of clandestine Marriages' of 1753. The Act stated that only church weddings could be legally binding, not verbal spousals, and that all marriages had to be entered into the church register and signed by both parties. In addition, the Act made illegal any wedding that did not take place between the hours of eight in the morning and noon in the church at the place of residence of one of the pair, after the banns had been read for three consecutive weeks. The minimum age for marriage without parental consent was set at 21 and enforcement of marriage law was transferred from the Church's courts, which had been largely powerless, to secular courts (Stone, 1979; Gillis, 1985; see Outhwaite, 1995:169-80).

The religious monopoly on weddings was, however, to end less than a century later with the passing of the 1836 Registration and Marriage Acts. The Registration Act established the General Register Office in London for keeping a register of all births, deaths and marriages in England. A Registrar General was appointed, whose task it was to arrange for register books to be printed and supplied in duplicate to all members of the clergy of the Church of England, to the recording clerks of the Society of Friends and to the Secretaries of Synagogues for the recording of marriages. The Registrar General was then to submit a general abstract of the number of births, deaths and marriages registered during the previous year to the Secretary of State. The Marriage Act made use of this Act by conferring on the Superintendent Registrars within each district the additional duty of registering marriages. Provision was also made for those who objected to marrying with a religious ceremony to have their marriage solemnised before witnesses at district registry offices in the presence of both the superintendent registrar and a district Registrar. In addition, Catholics and Nonconformists were allowed to marry in their own places of worship provided that the ceremony took place in the presence of a Registrar and at least two witnesses (Haskey, 1987).

Ecclesiastical control of weddings was further eroded by the 1994 Marriage Act. This effectively increased the number and variety of places in which civil marriages could take place by allowing couples to marry by civil ceremony outside of their district of residence and, perhaps most importantly, to marry in 'approved premises' other than register offices. As with registry office marriages, these approved premises marriages have to be solemnised in the presence of the Superintendent Registrar and the Registrar of the registration district in which the premises is situated. Such premises have also to be approved by the local authority for the purpose and have to meet a number of criteria. The local authority, for example, "must be satisfied that the approved premises - and its management - will support the dignity of marriage" (Haskey, 1998:39). Likewise,

the premises must have no recent or continuing connection with any religion, religious practice or religious persuasion which is incompatible with the secular nature of civil marriage. Consequently private chapels, or indeed buildings with contents or characteristics associated with a place of religious worship, such as stained glass windows depicting religious images, cannot be approved for solemnising civil marriages (ibid.).

Furthermore, the Act also requires that "any reading, music, words or performance which forms part of a marriage ceremony on the premises - including any introductory, concluding or interval material - must be secular in nature" (op. cit.). In terms of legislation, then, the last two-and-a-half centuries, and certainly the last 160 or so years, has seen a general erosion of ecclesiastical control over weddings; from a situation of complete monopoly following the 1753 Marriage Act to the situation where, as a result of the 1994 Marriage Act, churches have to compete with other premises, such as hotels, stately homes and sports and leisure clubs (see Haskey, 1998: 41).[2]

This picture is also clearly borne out by the statistics pertaining to marriage since the implementation of the 1836 Marriage Act. In 1838, for example, only one in every hundred marriages was a civil marriage. Thirty-three years later the number had grown ten-fold, by 1901 it was one in every seven marriages, and by the early 1990s just under half of all marriages in the UK were civil marriages (Haskey, 1987; Social Trends 23). Similarly, since the 1994 Marriage Act came into force, the number of premises approved for civil marriages increased from 10 in April 1995 to 800 by the end of the year. One year later this had increased to 1,300 and by May 1998, there were just over 2,000 'approved premises' (Haskey, 1998). As a result, the number of civil marriages grew over the remainder of the 1990s, from 55% of all marriages in 1995, 59% in 1996, to 60% in 1999 (Haskey, 1998; Social Trends 31). Indeed, following the implementation of the 1994 Act, the number of weddings in 'approved premises' alone quadrupled from one in 71 in 1995/1996 to one in 18 in 1996/1997, this growth being predominantly at the expense of registry offices (Haskey, 1998).

Nevertheless, religious ceremonies would appear to still retain a strong popularity for those marrying for the first time. For example, over the course of the last three decades, the proportion of first marriages taking place within a civil ceremony has increased from 31% (1981) to 46% (1999). Over the same period, the proportion of first weddings taking place in a religious setting has fallen by the same amount, from 69% of all first marriages in 1981 to 54% in 1999 (Social Trends 23 & 31). All the same, the proportion of first- time weddings taking place in a religious context still outnumber those taking place in a civil context (a ratio of 54/46% in 1999: Social Trends 31). How long this situation will last is, however, open to discussion. What can be noted though is that the largest drop in the proportion of weddings taking place in a religious context (from 65% to 56%) - and, conversely, the largest increase in civil ceremonies (from 35% to 44%) - was in the period immediately following the implementation of the 1994 Marriage Act (1996/1997: Social Trends 29 & 30).

Thus, whilst the proportion of the population getting married in general - and, particularly, within a religious context - has fallen steeply since the first year of registration, the religious ceremony still retains a relative popularity for those getting married for the first time. Why this is the case is open to speculation and, as yet, whilst it has been discussed at the theoretical level, it has not been the focus of any empirical research. In the next section, I intend hopefully to go some way towards addressing this gap in the literature through drawing on a number of interviews conducted with couples who do not attend church regularly, if at all, and who are either planning a marriage this year or who have married within the last decade, Superintendent Registrars, members of the clergy and the wedding co-ordinators at several Approved Premises.[3] To this end in the remainder of the paper I will examine the question of why seemingly secular couples who are marrying for the first time opt for a religious wedding ceremony rather than any of other (civil) options that are available.

The Secularisation of Weddings: Personal Dimensions

One response to the above evidence of a growing secularisation of weddings at the objective (societal) level could be to claim that secularisation should be understood as multi-dimensional; occurring on many different levels, at varying speeds, and sometimes in opposite directions (see Sommerville, 1998; Dobbelaere, 1999). Going further, one could argue that the continued relative popularity of church weddings signifies that, despite what may occur within society as a whole, a significant proportion of the population still hold private religious beliefs and therefore wish to have their marriage solemnised 'in the eyes of God'. Davie, in particular, argues that the prevalent form of religiosity in the Western world is a form of privatised, nominal Christianity. One manifestation of this 'common religion' is, she claims, "the widespread tendency of British people to approach the churches at the turning-points in human life" such as weddings, baptisms and funerals or at times of crisis (Davie, 1994:81). In other words, to quote one clergyman that I interviewed;

I come across very few atheists or agnostics - people who are prepared to put their head above the parapet and say they have no belief. Most people seem to have a belief in some supernatural power [or] force that we can call God. It's extremely ill-defined, incoherent but there's some sort of power there which may be turned to either identifiable points of a person's life - as, for instance, the 'hatchings, matchings, dispatchings syndrome' - or if there's a personal crisis where never having prayed before they will pray to this being because 'little Johnny' has been hurt, but it's not a structured theology.

Whilst I found some level of this latent religiosity in my interviews with the couples, in only one case was it the primary motivating factor in their decision for a church wedding. Here, the wife had had a Catholic upbringing, her brother is a minister in an Evangelical church, and she herself had, as she put it, "tried out quite a few" churches in her teens and early adulthood before becoming disillusioned with organised religion. The husband, in contrast, did not have a particularly religious background, although his father is a Buddhist. For this couple, it was not so much getting married in church per se that was important to them, but rather that "the ceremony was done in the eyes of God". Indeed, the wife in particular expressed the view that she "wasn't so bothered about the setting", but chose it simply because "that's the only place where you can get a religious service or one that says the words because the vows are before God...It wouldn't have had to be a church building, it was what was said that were important". Another important factor, for the wife in particular, was that her brother, being a minister affiliated with the (Methodist) church that they had chosen, could deliver part of the ceremony.

The above example was, however, very much an isolated case. For the majority of the couples that I interviewed a high level of latent religiosity was not it itself a significant factor in their choice of wedding location. Rather, even where such beliefs played a small role, they were motivated more by three main, inter-related considerations.

First, the couples almost always spoke of wanting to do what they perceived was 'the traditional thing to do' in the sense of possessing some sense of authority, gravitas or 'correctness' or simply being that which has been passed down by previous generations. For example, one husband stated that "I'm not a religious person but it just seems the natural thing to do to have a church wedding because of the ceremony". Another expressed a similar view, although for him the church was not the only place that possessed this sense of solemnity,

I think in my mind, despite not being particularly religious, I think [weddings] have got some kind of religious connotations. I think in my mind, vows taken within a church or maybe any historic building - possibly a castle or something like that - it just seems to have a history behind it. It just seems to be more meaningful

This notion of what was 'traditional' was often bound up intrinsically, for many of the brides in particular, with the romantic image of the 'fairytale wedding'. One bride for example, told me that "I think it's every woman's right to get married in a church", adding "it's like your day to be a princess isn't it? I know it sounds daft. You're on show for that one day and hopefully you do it just once in a lifetime so you should make it count I think". Another described how

I've always had this idea of getting married in a church ever since I was little and I'd never really gone off on a tangent and thought about anything else. It's always been there and that's what I've wanted to do since I was little... I think it's because it has a sense of [being] magical

Second, and linked with this, couples were often influenced by their parents or significant others, especially when such people were paying for the wedding. In some instances this influence could be expressed overtly as an insistence to get married in a church rather than via a civil ceremony. In others, parents took control of organising the event on the basis of their wishes. For example, during an argument over the reception buffet, one bride was told by her mother that 'this is my wedding'. Another mother had very fixed ideas about her daughter's wedding, and according to the daughter, "when we tried to go against that we had comments of 'well, if that's what you want', making us feel very guilty about it, and 'don't expect me to be there' and that kind of comment". Indeed, during one exchange the bride's mother "turned round to [the groom] and said 'what does it matter what he wants, he's only there to make the numbers up!'". Similarly, one groom claimed that his main reason for opting for a church ceremony was "to please my parents more than anything else. There would have been pressure. They would have disapproved if I'd just gone and got married in a registry office". In another instance, the employer of the groom, who possessed strong religious beliefs and objected to the fact that the couple were 'living in sin', "pushed us into getting married in church...[saying] 'I'll pay for the church and I'll organise it for you if you get married'". Interestingly perhaps, this phenomenon was not confined to church weddings alone. One of the coordinators at an approved premise related the story of one wedding where the parents organised the whole event down to the smallest detail, the bride and groom coming to the hotel for the first time on the actual day of the ceremony. Another at a different venue told me how

the only time I find I have a problem is when [a] young girl comes with mum and generally mum does all the talking...well, I usually get to the door, thank them for coming and I whisper very delicately to the young girl 'do you want to talk to me next week and tell me what you really want?' [laughs].

In other instances, however, the influence of parents was more implicit and often bound up with the previously discussed notion of 'tradition'. For example, one bride stated that "if your mum and dad got married in a church I think you tend to follow on, don't you?...I think your mum and dad expect it really". Another described her reasons as being "partly due to tradition and partially due to the way that you've been brought up", adding "if you're always going to weddings in a church then you see a church more as an ideal place and it just feels right to be in a church rather than anywhere else". Indeed, one bride that I interviewed decided to marry in the church her mother attended so that she could 'show respect' to the church and to the small community that had seen her grow up. This was especially poignant for her because she had both delayed her wedding 'for so long' and become a mother before taking the step of getting married: "I think that was rebellion, and we just conformed at the end".

Third, aesthetic considerations also played a significant role in couples' decisions to marry in church and, in a great number of cases, determined their choice of a particular church.[4] This decision again was linked in many ways with the previously discussed notion of 'tradition' in that most couples' opted for a venue that was, in their words, 'traditional-looking' rather than 'modern- looking'. For example:

I mean there's a church around here and it's built like a pyramid, you know, a very modern thing, and I couldn't imagine getting married in something like that.
Is the church you chose an old building?
Yeah, old stone, hundreds of years old.
And would you say that was one of the main reasons you chose it?
Its look, definitely, because neither of us are religious. [5]

Another bride described how she was attracted to a particular church because of its "traditional-type shape...the spire and just the way it looked...rather than the new type churches where they're funny- shaped and that. I like that traditional style church". This phenomenon of couples metaphorically 'parachuting-in' to (typically) small, traditional-looking village churches and then not being seen again afterwards (a common scenario, judging from my interviews) was picked up by one member of the clergy who described how

...some people in the church that I'm responsible for...think that people are using the church because I have a very beautiful church with stained glass windows, very, very beautiful and the right size for weddings - it's not too big and not too small - and some people in my congregation think they're only using the church for their own purpose...

In sum, the couples who I interviewed were not in any significant way influenced by religious considerations in their decision to marry via a religious ceremony. Rather, their reasons for doing so were intrinsically bound up with the notion of 'tradition' in three main senses. First, in the sense of something that possesses authority, solemnity and gravitas. Second, in the sense of 'doing the right thing'; conforming to what parents or significant others expect a wedding to be or that doing that which has been done through the generations. Finally, 'tradition' was also invoked as an aesthetic criteria in the choice of a church wedding generally and also in the choice of a particular church - the old, 'traditional-looking' churches being favoured above and beyond the 'modern-looking' ones.

These three aspects of the notion of 'tradition' - that which is the proper thing to do, that which one is expected to do, and that which looks aesthetically pleasing - were also manifested in the reasons why the couples that I interviewed chose not to have a civil marriage ceremony in a registry office. For example;

I've been to a registry office wedding and it just doesn't feel like a wedding somehow.
In what way?
I don't know, I think it's not traditional and not as nice, not as formal.
What about approved premises?
No, I've been to one of those as well...It just doesn't feel right

I always thought that the registry office was somewhere where you got married if you'd been married before and you weren't allowed to go in a church and things like that

I think they just look like hospitals I think, the décor is awful really. It's just really cold, no atmosphere.

Indeed, talking to the couples who opted for a church wedding, it seemed like their image of the registry office ceremony was in binary opposition to what they thought the church wedding represented. Thus, whereas the church allows for the possibility of opulence, the registry office was perceived to be 'cheap'. Similarly, whereas the church was associated with 'our special day', the registry office was perceived by many to be a 'conveyor belt' for those marrying for the second and subsequent time. Whereas the church was seen to be aesthetically pleasing, the registry office (as a municipal building) was typically deemed to be 'ugly- looking'. Finally, perhaps most importantly, whereas the church was perceived to be a romantic location, the registry office was perceived as legal and bureaucratic.

A final point that can be pulled out is why couples marrying for the first time opt for a civil ceremony. There is not sufficient space here to discuss in any depth the various reasons given by the couples that I interviewed, but what is perhaps most interesting in the context of the argument that I have been developing is that religious considerations typically played a significant role in their decision not to marry in church. When, in the course of their interview, I asked such couples why they had opted for a civil rather than a religious ceremony, they commonly responded by citing a lack of religious belief as the prime, but not sole, motivating factor;

We're both atheists anyway so religious-wise it seemed pointless and pathetic really.

...I just felt that I'd be a hypocrite standing in church when I don't go to church or believe in anything like that even though everyone else in my family is religious. I didn't see the point.

This latter point of it being hypocritical for one to marry in church if one does not believe was a common theme in my interviews with those who had opted for a civil wedding. Indeed, generally speaking such people had tended to give the matter more thought than those who simply married in church because of some vaguely articulated notion of 'tradition'. One interviewee, for example, described how when he began thinking about his wedding, he "realised that some fundamental part of me had thought of marriage as getting married in a church". However, as he had "never believed...I just realised how hypocritical it was [as] it wouldn't reflect our feelings and it would be rather an insult to the people who did believe". As a result he and his partner opted for a civil marriage in approved premises.

Couples' decision to opt for approved premises were also influenced significantly by the desire to exercise a high level of control over their wedding. Their aim was to make 'their big day' an expression of their individuality rather than conforming to what they perceived to be the 'one size fits all' church ceremony, this being achieved in four key ways. First, through decorating the room in which the ceremony takes place to their own taste rather than conforming to what they believe a vicar might think was 'appropriate'. Second, by choosing music for the ceremony that reflects their lives - e.g. an 'our song' - rather than having to use hymns. Third, being permitted to say vows that they have written themselves, again reflecting their own lives, rather than having to use what they perceive is a very limited choice within the religious ceremony.[6] Finally, couples have the option of adding elements to their ceremony, ranging from poetry, pieces of music, or readings by friends through, in some cases, to more novel expressions of their individuality.

The growth within the civil wedding sector in the years following the 1994 Marriage Act thus finds couples taking a more active role in not only exploring other locations where their wedding can take place, but also in shaping the wedding ceremony so as to reflect their own personalities. It would be inaccurate, however, to see this as an example of some postmodern attitude of irony, "...pastiche, eclectic mixing of codes, bizarre juxtapositions and unchained signifiers which defy meaning and readability" (Featherstone, 1998:20). Whilst this may be the case in some instances, my own findings were that despite the almost unlimited possibilities for the wedding ceremony itself, couples were keen to utilise what they perceive to be the 'traditional' - that is the Church of England's - form of the wedding ceremony, albeit with any reference to religion removed. To quote from the experience of one superintendent registrar;

We have people for example who say 'well, we'd like this ceremony' and it's the ceremony that comes out of the Church of England virtually except they've just crossed any reference to religion out of it, but the vows are the same...Because that's what people assume a marriage ceremony is. 'To love, honour and obey' does not form any part of the ceremony at all - it's a religious rite - but in people's minds when you're getting married properly - which is what some people believe the church is - and I've had people say that to me: 'my daughter wants to get married properly like in a church and in a church they say "love, honour and obey"...People are very much looking for that church kind of feeling. Hotels always set an aisle down the middle and two lots of chairs, they don't have to - they could have it in a circle if they wanted to - but that's what people want by and large.

Likewise, one of my interviewees who married in Approved Premises in 2001, described her ceremony as;

If you can imagine the church wedding but without the religious element, that's what I feel I got. There was no religious icons, no talk about religion, it was something that was between myself and my husband. The guests all shared in that, but I still had the aisle, I still got to walk up the aisle with my dad and I still had bridesmaids and I still had the music playing and we had the readings and so on but the religious aspects were taken out because they didn't actually mean a great deal to us.

Why this may be the case is open to debate. One explanation could be that couples actually want a church wedding but cannot have one for various reasons and so they 'make do' with a civil ceremony, attempting to make it as similar to the church service as legally and practically possible. Whilst this is indeed plausible for divorcees, it is questionable whether such couples would not, if turned away from one church, continue to search for an obliging church rather than settling for a 'second best' (civil) option. Moreover, it does not explain why couples, such as the one above, who are marrying for the first time opt for a civil ceremony when, all things been equal, they are far less likely to be denied a church wedding than divorcees. My interviews would suggest that a more likely reason is that couples either want, or feel obliged to have, the ritual of the 'traditional' wedding ceremony. However, they wish to have it both divorced from any religious connotations and also with some scope for customisation. For example, one bride who married at approved premises described to me how, although she didn't want a church ceremony, still wanted "certain recognisable things [such as the room layout] so it seems like a ceremony set out in a recognisable way". As with couples marrying in church, this is also influenced by ideas of what is the 'correct' thing to do and also by cultural ideas of what is romantic and meaningful, such as walking down an aisle of some sort, being 'given away' and exchanging vows before loved ones.


To sum up, my findings would therefore seem to suggest a middle position in regard to the secularisation/'believing without belonging' debate: belonging (or wanting to belong) without believing. On the one hand, the historical and statistical evidence points to a increasing secularisation of weddings over the last 250 years. Over the course of this period, the ecclesiastical monopoly on weddings has been replaced by a free market situation and the State has increasingly taken over the formulation and enforcement of Marriage legislation. Moreover, since registration began in 1838 the proportion of civil weddings has grown from one in every hundred to the current (1999) level of six in every ten. Yet, on the other, statistically-speaking the Christian wedding ceremony still retains a relative - albeit declining - popularity amongst those marrying for the first time. However, when one moves from the objective level to the subjective level (Berger, 1990) and examine the reasons for this continuing popularity, a more ambiguous picture emerges. My interviews with the couples revealed people who were not completely secular as they still wanted an ecclesiastical ceremony, but who were not, on the whole, basing this decision on any kind of confessional considerations - however implicit. Rather, for them, the ecclesiastical ceremony represented some vaguely articulated notion of what was 'traditional' in the sense of that which is the 'proper' thing to do, that which one is expected to do, and that which looks aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, my interviews with couples who opted for a civil ceremony often revealed people who, whilst they had clearly rejected the ecclesiastical ceremony, still desired to draw on some of its structure, gravitas and formality and, again, this vaguely articulated notion of 'tradition'.

This emphasis on tradition, however, challenges one of the central assumptions of contemporary social theory; that within contemporary late/post-modern societies there is an increasing erosion of tradition as a motive for action. Anthony Giddens (1990), for example, writes of the emergence of a post-traditional social order whilst Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1996:30) speak of "pre- conscious 'collective habitualisations', of matters taken for granted", and of how these are "breaking down into a cloud of possibilities to be thought about and negotiated". Whilst, again, the fact that increasing numbers of couples are able and willing to take control of their civil wedding ceremony and customise it to reflect their own identities, would seem to support these claims, my findings point to not only the persistence, but also the rejuvenation, of tradition (see also Walliss, 2002). Thus, as noted previously, despite the wide variety of options open to couples planning their weddings, for many of those that I interviewed, 'tradition' was a significant, if not sole, influence on their decisions. More significantly perhaps, even those who had opted for a civil ceremony still wished to draw on as far as possible what they perceived to be the 'traditional' wedding ceremony, albeit divorced from any overtly religious connotations. It is also interesting to note in this regard how the image of the 'ideal church' articulated by the couples was typically that of a bygone age; the village church at the heart of the community. Thus, rather than something to be negated or transcended, it would appear that for the couples 'tradition' was perceived as something that should be respected, that has a value in its own right, and that, as a result, should influence behaviour. In contrast, religious considerations typically played little or no role in the decision to have an ecclesiastical wedding ceremony. Indeed, one could perhaps argue that for many couples the meaning of marrying in a church has been 'hollowed out', all that remains being the veneer of 'tradition' and the vague notion that it once held some deeper meaning. God may, in other words, not even be invited to the church itself, never mind the marriage.


1 Whilst the historical and qualitative data presented in this article relate to England, e.g. the 1994 Marriage Act related only to England and Wales, the statistical evidence - coming, as it does from the < ult.asp> National Statistics Office's Social Trends - covers the whole of the UK. As a result, the statistical data does not match perfectly the area covered in the historical or interview sections. One must remember that there are possibly regional variations within the national picture pained by the statistics. For example, whilst nationally the proportion of civil weddings increased rapidly during the latter 1990s (e.g. from 51% in 1996 to 60% in 1999: Social Trends, 29; Social Trends, 31), in Scotland the proportion fell from 46% of the total number in 1996 to 40% in 2000 (GROS, 1996; 2000). Indeed, one interesting avenue of future research would be to examine the potential secularisation of weddings within the different regions of the UK.

2 More recently, in January 2002, the Government outlined proposed changes in wedding legislation that would further increase choice in the location of the ceremony. In the white paper, it was suggested that it is the celebrant, the person conducting the ceremony, and not the venue itself that is licensed for marriage. If this becomes law, weddings could take place anywhere that the celebrant deems to be safe, appropriate and open to the public (see the <http://ww>National Statistics homepage). Similarly, a Bill has recently been presented to the Scottish Executive to increase choice for those opting for a civil ceremony in Scotland. The current legislation, the Marriage (Scotland Act) 1977, places no restrictions on places where religious marriages may be solemnised, although civil ceremonies may only be solemnised within one of 247 registry office. The new Bill would effectively bring Scotland in line with the 1994 Marriage Act of England and Wales, by giving local councils the authority to approve specific sites as venues for civil weddings (see Scottish Parliament, 2001).

3 Interviews were conducted with fifteen couples who had either had a church wedding in the last decade or were planning to do so within the next six months. Ten couples were also interviewed who had had a civil ceremony within the same period (half registry office, half approved premises). All of the couples were marrying for the first time and had responded to several advertisements that I had placed on an email mailing list as well as word-of- mouth/personal contacts and recommendations/snowballing. Where possible the couples were interviewed together face-to-face. However, when this was not possible interviews were conducted over the telephone with just one partner - often the wife/wife to be. This was mainly because even where couples were interviewed together, the men would say very little and typically defer to their wife/wife to be on all the issues discussed. Demographically, those interviewed ranged in age between their mid 20s and mid 30s, were (in all but one case) white, English and would be classed as nominal Christians (in the sense of being having been brought up in a Christian culture, however vaguely classified). In addition, face-to-face interviews were conducted with two registrars, six managers of approved premises and four members of the clergy. I would like to thank all those who agreed to be interviewed for this research and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the previous draft of this paper.

4 Couples' choice of venue was also influenced to a lesser extent by other factors such as family connections to a particular church through christenings, marriages or funerals or through past involvement with events/groups connected to the church such as Sunday School or Cubs/Scouts/Brownies/Guides.

5 I am grateful to Dr. Sharon Boden of the University of Warwick for allowing me to use this example from her PhD fieldwork.

6 Having said this however, I was informed by one member of the clergy that even where couples are given a free reign in choosing the hymns for their wedding service, they tended to opt for four 'school assembly classics'; Jerusalem, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Lord of the Dance and Morning has Broken. As he described it,

...when [couples] choose their hymns and they're really excited about the hymns I think 'oh my goodness, not again!' and I sort of think 'what time-warp are these people in? Do they think that the church sings these things? This is the only thing the church sings?' and it's just a little window on a public perception of church culture that in my experience within church circles are incredibly hackneyed and if you had them in a church service people would be smiling because it would be a joke really.


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