Page last updated at 12:26 GMT, Wednesday, 1 October 2008 13:26 UK

What choice now for the Big Day?

By Victoria Bone
BBC News

The beach wedding of Renee Zellweger and Kenny Chesney
In the US, it's easy to get married on a beach like Renee Zellweger

Couples in England now have a greater choice about which church they can choose for their wedding.

They can marry anywhere they have lived for six months or where their parents or grandparents were married.

But, nevertheless, their options for the Big Day are still limited - much more so than in other countries like Scotland.

There - if you can find a willing minister or registrar - you can get married anywhere you like.

In or outdoors, on top of a mountain, on a beach, on Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh - since changes to the law in 2002, virtually nowhere is off limits.

Stewart Cooper, from the General Register Office of Scotland, said: "It is certainly true that couples are more creative nowadays when planning their wedding.

"Last summer, there was a wedding conducted on a helicopter above the Forth Bridges."

In England, a civil wedding would open up more options for couples, but still only a limited number of approved premises - such as hotels - are allowed.

Getting married outdoors is not an option, nor is a tent or marquee, or any other movable structure, such as a boat or hot-air balloon.

A civil marriage also cannot take place in any building which has a past or current connection with any religion.

Regular attendance

Some churches will marry couples who do have some connection with the parish which is not a current one - a school or university chapel for example.

It depends on the individual minister in charge
Elsie Miller
St Michael's Church, Whitewell

To do this the bride and groom-to-be must apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury for a special licence.

But what if you're out for a Sunday drive and fall in love with a church, far from home, where you've never been before?

Well, some churches will open their doors to you if you're prepared to put in the time.

Some say you must become a regular member of the congregation for at least six months before the wedding - the definition of "regular" is down to the discretion of the minister and local bishop.

St Michael's Church in Whitewell near Clitheroe in Lancashire will, for example, marry couples who have no connection to the parish if they can attend six times before the wedding itself.

Elsie Miller, who is church administrator, says it's a very popular option. Her church, which is in a beautiful, but remote, rural location, has 40 weddings this year, considerably more than it would have from locals alone.

"It depends on the individual minister in charge," Mrs Miller said. "Our previous minister was happy to do it and so is this one.

"People come all the way from London - it's lovely. Sometimes they have relatives in the area so they can stay with them when they come to church. Others just fit it in somehow - they're prepared to make the journey.

Celebrating weddings with a church building is important
Ben Wilson, Church of England

"We've started doing it with christenings too. So people who joined the church to get married then come back with their babies."

Ben Wilson, spokesman for the Church of England, said that, unsurprisingly, the Church likes people to get married in church buildings.

"Celebrating weddings with a church building is important, as it represents the couple making their promises in front of their family, friends, their wider church family and God," he said.

He also pointed out that the Church only has so much leeway and when considering the extent of the changes that it wished to introduce, "had to be mindful of the parameters set by current civil law in this country".

Get ordained

Elsewhere in the world, things are very different.

In Australia, for example, you can have any kind of wedding, anywhere you like. You simply complete a Notice of Intended Marriage and agree the details with your celebrant.

They can then perform the ceremony of your choice - religious, secular, modern or traditional.

Forth Bridge
A couple were recently married in a helicopter over the Forth Bridge

The same is true in the United States, where quite often people choose their own homes or back gardens.

In England, private houses are excluded from gaining civil approval because in order to grant a licence a premise must be "regularly available to the public for either marriage ceremonies or the formation of civil partnerships".

So unless you are willing to open up your house for other people's weddings, it's a non-starter - although again, in Scotland, the rules are different.

In the US, you can even have a friend or family member perform the marriage.

They can get ordained for free through any one of a number of websites and then use their newly acquired ministerial credentials to officiate your service.

Your comments:

I would love to be able to get married at Dartmeet, a beautiful spot in Devon where the river Tamar and the river Dart, meet, but it's a non starter because of the current laws. If I want a setting like that, it means going abroad and reducing the chance of having my family and friends there.
Suzanne Butcher, Swindon, UK

I was married in 2006 in a hand-fasting ceremony underneath a willow tree in the West Sussex countryside. It was a fantastic day, deeply personal and totally individual. Cold, gloomy weddings in enormous churches, attended by people who aren't even religious (including the bride and groom in some cases) just don't suit everyone and if it is your day to declare your love and commitment, you shouldn't have to compromise. Unfortunately, our wedding was not legally recognised, and we had to (pay to) visit a soul-less registry office to seal the deal... where is the point in that?!
Stacey, West Sussex, UK

I'm due to be getting married next year, and my fiancée and I have found the church where we wish to get married. It's outside of either of our districts, but I have a strong connection with it, as it's under the jurisdiction of the same Minister as my family's church. I've tried phoning my local registry office to find out if I can get married there, and I can never seem to get a straight answer, One website I read, however, says that this decision rests with the Minister, who's said she's perfectly happy to do the wedding, so long as we get the licences. There needs to be a clear-cut system if the rules are to be this complex. A list: you can get married here. You can't get married there. It's confusing!
Tim Brooks, Cannock, UK

Have chosen a church in beautiful Curtisden Green, Kent near Goudhurst. My brother has lived out there for a year now, but the church is not happy that we would like to be married there. Surely if the church relaxed such antiquated rules, it would encourage the young to attend church, get chrisened, get married. It would also swell the coffers of the churchs especially in the rural areas.
G Johnson, London, UK

I was married in South Africa, in a beautiful little church in the middle of a forest. I have never attended that church, but I was allowed to hire it for the day and bring my own pastor. I just don't understand why there are laws to say how and where you can get married... so long as the ceremony is performed by an ordained person, it shouldn't matter!
Heather Philips, Edinburgh, UK

My husband and I wanted to get married out doors in a gardens that holds a special place in our hearts, but because of the ludicrous law which prevents this, we had to work around it. We signed the register on the quiet in a registry office to save money, then had a ceremony outdoors anyway. The law as it stands is pointless. It should only be the person overseeing the wedding who needs to be registered, not the venue.
Ellen Ward Lindley, Birmingham, UK

I got married July 2007 and was really frustrated that I couldn't have a Christian ceremony in a civil or outdoor venue. In the end a Baptist church in Welwyn agreed to marry us without us attending or living there. I would like to see the laws relaxed like it is in the US or Australia where you can marry in your back garden or beach if you want - the UK laws are pretty ancient.
Robyn Ballin, London, UK

I got married in October 20006 in St Nicholas Church in Shepperton, and like the report said, we had to get special permission from the church to get married there as my wife lived in the area when she was young but moved out a few years ago. We received a lovely ornate certificate from the Archbishop of Canterbury which gave us permission and I wonder if these certificates are still going to be issued?
Jim Carver, Worthing, UK

Couples can tie knot at tower top
08 Sep 08 |  Lancashire

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