The Church of England is offering couples a two-for-one service — marriage for them and baptisms for their children.
The church says it is recognizing the changing reality of British families. Statistics show that 44 percent of children in Britain are born to unmarried women.
New guidelines sent to the Church of England’s 16,000 parish churches encourage services that combine a wedding with a christening or a service of thanksgiving for the birth of a child. Some clergy welcomed the move Thursday, but others said it undermined church teaching about the sanctity of marriage. The church said it was responding to demand, but still believed the best place for sex was within marriage.
The Church of England’s decision to allow two-for-one marriage and baptism ceremonies is part of a concerted effort to woo people back to the pews and make the church more relevant and accessible to 21st century society.
Earlier this year, when representatives met at General Synod in Westminster to discuss female bishops, rainwater tax, recession and asylum, there were strong views about official figures showing a sharp decline in marriage rates.
The bishop of Bradford, the Right Rev David James, believed the Church of England had been complacent. “The church was resting on its laurels and the alternatives which are coming have caught us unawares. We’ve not responded until the last few months.”
To raise its game, the Church of England website has a page dedicated to marriage and weddings, which includes details of several initiatives: the marriage measure, which relaxes the rules on who can marry where, opening a network of 16,000 churches; and the wedding project, single-session workshops focusing on the service and helping couples prepare their vows. The church has exhibited at wedding fairs to compete with secular venues.
The changes seem to be working, with many churches reporting a corresponding rise in weddings.
The focus on couples with children follows church research which showed that one in five couples who approached them for a wedding already had children, either together or from a previous relationship. These findings were supported by the Office for National Statistics, which published figures showing that having children, rather than marriage, was the first major milestone of adult life for couples.
A church spokesman said the new service was a response to consumer demand. “We wanted to find ways of saying yes rather than saying no and it’s a way of recognising changing times.”
The combined service might also appeal to the financially stretched. The fees for a church wedding are about £315 and a baptism certificate costs £12.50. But big savings could be made on having a joint reception afterwards.