An interesting discussion broke out yesterday on Twitter. It was prompted by news that the Bishop of Burnley – Philip North – argued that current fees charged by the Church of England for weddings and funerals priced the poor out of utilising these services. You can read details here at the Church Times.
To a Nonconformist Dissenter like me, I find all this talk a bit odd. Mostly because – despite always going to churches that had someone on site who could act as a registrar (with the notable exception of the church I currently pastor) – no church I have ever attended has ever charged fees for a wedding or a funeral. To mind mind, nor should they.
As I noted on Twitter:
As I have argued elsewhere, weddings are not a church ordinance. A blessing/thanksgiving for the married couple is all well and good but I long for the day when churches are actively forbidden from conducting legal ceremonies (as they are in places like Holland and France). Then, we can get on with the job of gospel ministry that the Lord has uniquely tasked us to do, rather than embroiling ourselves in services of the state and acting as their agent whilst we do so. The conducting of legal ceremonies on behalf of the state serves to do little more than muddy the waters on the mission of the church and embroil us in things over which we have little say and are not commanded to do by Christ.
But if we are to undertake weddings (or, if not actual legal ceremonies, blessings), it is beyond me why we would charge for the privilege of doing so. If we are conducting marriages on the grounds that it is a societal good, what on earth are we doing charging people for the purposes of doing what we are telling them is right before the Lord (ditto, incidentally, baptisms, funerals or any such thing)? How can it possibly be right for us to insist that the Lord desires couples not to cohabit but to be married only for us to then turn around and invoice them for their obedience?
My argument that churches shouldn’t conduct marriages at all will find a ready supply of people arguing that we certainly should do them for the gospel opportunity they provide. Well, two things ought to be said.
First, the same gospel opportunity would be present in a service of thanksgiving that holds no legal standing as it would in a ceremony where the state dictate certain words must be said. Those who would marry in a church at all would presumably have no problem holding a legally non-binding ceremony in the church after they have undertaken their legal marriage at the registry office. If you were going to preach the gospel at the wedding, you will have precisely the same opportunity to proclaim the gospel in the church ceremony but without any potential misunderstanding about marriage being a church ordinance.
But secondly, and more importantly, this argument undercuts the argument for payment even more clearly. If we think it might be problematic to charge people for the privilege of obeying scripture respecting their nuptials, it is positively abhorrent to do so for the purposes of sharing the gospel. Which person did Jesus or his disciples charge for hearing his gospel ministry? How on earth can we justify profiteering on the back of God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ?
Then, of course, we come to the Bishop of Burnley’s big concern. Even if we sense we can justify such things (and I am unaware of any Nonconformist who would seek to do so), it has the rather unpleasant consequence of putting extra barriers to obedience, and apparently hearing the gospel if the arguments I have heard thus far are entertained on that front, specifically in front of the poor. Apparently they may be priced out of marriage, funerals and other things the Anglican Church deems fit to charge them for.
Then, to cap it all off, the whole thing is reduced to arguments about ‘service provision.’ The Bishop of Portsmouth argued: ‘The Church should feel confident in the value of the ministry it offers, and not be embarrassed about requiring a contribution towards the provision of ministry in the form of a fee.’ Others argued thus:
But if ministers already receive a stipend for their work of ministry, why are they double-dipping in respect to weddings and funerals? If these really are the wonderful gospel opportunities they aver, surely that comes under the general remit of being a gospel minister? Nonconformists tend to argue this way and are willing, as gospel ministers, to take up the gospel opportunity as part of their work.
If the argument is simply that these things would take up too much time, we are again pushed back to the question of the mission of the church. If doing too many weddings takes the minister away from his work as a gospel minister, equipping the saints for works of ministry, then perhaps we ought to get ourselves out of the wedding and funerals game. If we believe these really are great gospel opportunities, it begs the question what ministers of the gospel are doing charging for the privilege of them being able to share the gospel when they are already paid for the purposes of doing exactly that? Can it really be right to charge for pastoral care and bereavement support? It sounds both callous when framed that way and unclear precisely what they’re being paid to do the rest of the time. It is hard to see how charging an admin fee (and £450 for a wedding is some admin!) does anything to resolve either of those two issues.
If we really think weddings are a societal good, it strikes me as entirely wrong to charge people for being obedient to scripture. If we really think these things are great gospel opportunities, it strikes me as wrong to charge people for the privilege of being able to hear it. If we really think these things take us away from gospel ministry, it strikes me as entirely wrong to drag ourselves from the work of gospel ministry so that we can moonlight and be paid to do that which takes us away from the work of the gospel for which we are set aside. If we really do think it is legitimate to charge for service provision, why not have done with it and simply set up a ticket booth at the door of your church. I appreciate it is what many of the great cathedrals have done but that would appear to be one example among as growing list of many others on which Church of England Archbishops offer no example to follow.