Page last updated at 08:50 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Pledge Watch: Secular vicars

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

Wedding ring
Registrars can offer some marriage advice if they want to

Was it a genuine pledge, or a bit of spin put out by Tony Blair's team?

It was the weekend before the then prime minister's 1998 Labour Party conference speech.

Two Sunday broadsheet newspapers reported that Mr Blair would give registrars the power to be "secular" vicars.

This eye-catching idea would see them providing couples with guidance on how to make their marriages successful.

When they had children, parents would be encouraged to have a civil naming ceremony - like a Christening but with no religious content.

The Church is unlikely to be enthusiastic about proposals which appear to parody its own services
Church of England

Of course, Mr Blair never used the word "vicar" in his conference speech, but he said Labour would shortly be setting out plans to give more support to parents, families and marriage.

The registrar schemes and several other policies - such as encouraging a greater role for grandparents and making pre-nuptial agreements legally binding - were included in a government green paper published later that year called Supporting Families.


Charities, health groups and religious organisations were among those consulted.

In its response, the Church of England said registrars offering marriage advice might "invite a degree of ridicule".

It added: "Although the benefits likely to result from such changes are likely to be modest, the experiment is worth pursuing."

On registrars encouraging secular naming ceremonies it said: "The Church is unlikely to be enthusiastic about proposals which appear to parody its own services.

"But if there is a real demand for such innovation we would not wish to stand in the way of those who want such ceremonies.

The government felt it would be helpful if registrars made leaflets or information packs available to couples getting married
Home Office

"The intention of encouraging long-term commitment to the child by parents and the wider family is certainly one we applaud, but there are serious questions as to whether registrars should be asked to assume such novel functions."

This point was taken up by opponents of "nanny statism", angry at the idea that the man or woman in the town hall knows best how to run families.

Conservative Peter Lilley said it represented an "unprecedented intrusion into family life" and said the government was trying to "nationalise baptisms".

The Liberal Democrats warned against possible discrimination in favour of "government-approved relationships".

'Voluntary basis'

Amid the proposals and claims bandied about, it was often forgotten that registrars already had the right to offer wedding advice, in the form of leaflets.

After the green paper consultation, this was left much the same.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The government felt it would be helpful if registrars made leaflets or information packs available to couples getting married.

"However, a change to the law would be required to make this a requirement, but registration officers can make information packs or leaflets available on a voluntary basis."

Some still do. Some still do not.

But the law changed on civil naming ceremonies for babies, which had been offered by some charitable groups since the mid-1990s.

Civil weddings used to be so badly performed and cold. That's not true now
Former civil ceremony worker

A pilot scheme in late 2000 saw councils providing them, along with marriage renewal vows.

The 2003 Local Government Act gave local authorities the power to charge for them, providing a source of revenue.

They have become increasingly popular since.

The wording, which can be edited by parents, notes the birth of the child and tends to emphasise commitment and love.

But the ceremony is just that - ceremonial - and has no legal meaning.

Registrars performing it stand in front of the assembled family and friends and conduct affairs in the style of what some might call a "secular vicar".

Training courses

However, the roles of civil servant and priest are different.

One of the first people to offer the ceremonies, who did not wish to be named, said: "It was found that registrars weren't the best people to offer people advice. They were basically administrators.

"But there were training courses offered and some of them took to the ceremonial side of things.

"It had a knock-on, as many registrars really upped their game. If you go to a civil wedding now it's very, very much better than they were 20 years ago.

"They used to be so badly performed and cold. That's not true now."

A Church of England spokesman said: "The Church has broadly welcomed the expansion of the role of registrars, where it is clear that their activities would help support family life.

"But the idea of 'secular vicars' seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history."

There have been changes and registrars have a far greater ceremonial role than they once did. Whether or not they now amount to "secular vicars" depends on your point of view.

Here is a selection of your comments:

I am a retired church minister....and have only attended a civil wedding ceremony once but have conducted dozens of marriages myself. I was really impressed by the Civil Ceremony and the pastoral care and guidance expressed by the Registrar...this was some nine or ten years ago now... and I thought then that the advice given on the day, in front of the gathered guests was wonderfully apposite :no God talk but a lot of motherly advice that left no doubt in the mind as to the purpose and importance of marriage.
John Hardy, Meltham England

People in Britain do want to be able to mark the life events of birth, marriage and death with an enjoyable and appropriate ceremony but many do not want to be involved with the fantasies and dogmas of religion. This is shown by the huge rise in popularity of Humanist ceremonies performed by celebrants trained by the British Humanist Association. Humanists celebrants do not presume to give advice on how people should go about their lives but simply respond to the wishes of those for whom they are performing the ceremony. There is no need for another set of smug, self important people telling us what to do to replace the vicars that are slowly dying out.
Keith Denby, Barnstaple

Your report omitted much the worst thing that registrars have done - the conversion of civil partnerships into marriages in everything but the name. Some gay men want this - the great majority of us gay men despise it as an attempt to make us take on straight institutions, to abandon the difference that makes us gay. That the ceremonies which the registrars, with no legal authority, took it on themselves to provide, are not compulsory is irrelevant. The point is that they take place, and by doing so taint and debase the partnerships, to an extent that many of us now are reluctant to take them on. They are excellent in themselves; the registrars have ruined them by making them into mockeries of marriages.
H H Atkin, Hull

Civil marriages are undoubtedly performed with a bit more feeling than they were a few years ago but this does not make the registrar a "secular Vicar". The term is a contradiction in terms. We Atheists are getting a poor deal from the BBC. How about a "thought for the day" from a leading Atheist every morning.
Colin Boother, Kingston, Surrey, UK

My father who was an atheist died earlier this year. His widow, my stepmother, on the other hand is a Christian and was upset that it was not to have been a religious ceremony. The undertakers arranged for a retired Church of England vicar to carry out a secular ceremony which had great dignity. The net result was that everyone was happy and my dad got the send-off that he would have wanted. Certainly, as a fellow atheist it was a ceremony that I would be happy with.
Ian Pope, Bristol

I am an Atheist Anglican Christian. I enjoy ceremony and ritual. The Anglican Church is the mythology that my culture is based on. However I have not had any luck with a number of local vicars - who have refused to encourage me to participate in their services without being a hypocrite by adding a few words that encourage all to participate, whatever their belief system. Ceremony and tradition are important to a lot of us, regardless of our belief system - and it is a pity that both the church and the Conservative party seem to have been dismissive of the initiative mentioned in this article. I also think that quite a few people setting out on a life long relationship that could well involve children could do with some help - and I am not sure that if you are an atheist - or an atheist Christian like me - that the church is the best place to get such advice. I am sorry that the initiative was not taken any further.

George Taylor, near Oxford

The idea was stupid to begin with. "Vicars" are people with at least 6 years of specialist training to deal with people during the many high and low points in their lives. The idea of asking a local government employee to do this after perhaps a 5 day course would actually be detrimental to people. A surprising number of registrars are active members of a faith group and would find it very difficult to undertake what is a form of 'ministry' without including some of their own beliefs and values - and neither should they. This is just another example of the secular minority trying to undermine faith groups - using taxpayers' money to do it. The dustbin is the right place to put this. One last question - how many people have secular funerals ? That is the real place to test commitment to religion.
Chris Billington, Wetherby, West Yorkshire

Of all the so-called 'pledges' upon which you could have chosen to focus your attention, this has surely got to be one of the most irrelevant and ludicrous of all. Aside from the fact it was a pathetic attempt to impose out-dated Christian morality by stealth, futher reinforcing the continued persecution of co-habiting couples, who honestly cares if registrars are 'required' to provide marriage guidance or are able to perform naming ceremonies?

James Uscroft, Stoke on Trent

It seems to me that many religious folk, such as Tony Blair, assume that their approach is right and a few minor fiddlings at the edge will make it applicable to all. It could simply be that many people don't want an ill-informed outsider giving bad advice, whether he or she is a vicar or a civil servant.
Jeff Green, Harrow

Its quite a struggle to think of who I'd be less likely to apprroach for advice than a vicar, but I think you've cracked it. Local government employess probably fit the bill.
Mark Allen, Nottingham

I recently attended not a wedding but a funeral which was conducted by a member of the Humanist Association. While he performed the ceremony at the crematorium as adequately as many a minister I have seen, where the service fell down was not in its lack of religious content but by the lack of the personal touch by the conductor (for want of a better term), which is a criticism which could be levelled at many a religious service too. Certainly the family members who spoke did so from the heart but the service leader had not known my friend and, although he did his best, it showed. I hope that my funeral will be conducted by someone who knows me well and who will be able to remind friends and family of who I was, warts and all, who will make them laugh as well as cry.
Nick, Sheffield, UK

From what I've seen on the news and from my visits to England I would say there are plenty of "vicars" there who aren't actually Christian - therefore they are "secular vicars".
Johnny Ark, Belfast, N.Ireland

I can't think of anything more insulting for a new parent than the idea that they would need a bureaucrat to carry out a naming ceremony to encourage their "long-term commitment to the child". It's from the same school of thought that thinks morals only come from religion and that secular people have something 'missing' from their lives.
Steve, Peterborough, UK

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