A Passion for Weddings

Over the past few weeks we’ve been watching A Passion for Churches on BBC2. It is a series of twelve programmes, each looking at a different church. Amongst the varied programmes so far have been a church buried in a sand dune and a church reclaimed from devil worshipers, however tonights church was really interesting.

The church in question was St. Mary’s Church in Orchardleigh in Somerset. The church is located on an island in the Orchardleigh estate, and in terms of it’s parish consists of only a few houses. Back in 1999 the estate house wasn’t habitable, and there was talk of declaring the church redundant as congregations at the twice monthly services were minimal. However that all changed when the estate was bought and turned into a conference centre and wedding venue. Many of the wedding couples who booked the house were then keen to marry in the church, however this being a Church of England church they were subject to the rules on residence to get married. What is really good is that there are a significant number of couples who are willing traveling several hours one Sunday a month in order to qualify for the electoral roll of the church. This is also having an effect on the church with some of the wedding couples getting baptised and congregations as a whole increasing by three times.

This however has caused a problem. Like many churches in Somerset the church is grouped with others, with one priest responsible for the church and four others, and the others having local congregations, whereas St. Mary’s congregation are primarily people who are coming from far away, and only for a short period of time. With upwards of thirty weddings a year and climbing, when a new rector arrives he feels that it is too much work and that he should be devoting his time to his local parishioners, and sets a limit of three weddings a month.

The crunch comes when a fourth couple tries to book a December wedding, and the rector initially says no. However he then talks to the Bishop. Although you only get a report from the rector, it does sound like he got a fairly clear message to find a way from the Bishop. The rector is told that as part of looking for new forms of church, and with the possibility of many parishes not being able to maintain a viable congregation, having a good sized congregation, wherever they may come from is to be encouraged. He is told to share the workload between the local clergy in order to meet the demand, which is what he has done by the end of the programme.

Although it’s not to quite the same level, marriage couples are one of the larger groups in our congregation because again we’re a pretty church, but with limited housing. Again we have a relatively large number of couples who are willing to attend services regularly to use the church for a wedding. Also, as with St. Mary’s the regular attendance has effects with couples attending Alpha courses and the like, and ultimately becoming part of the Church. As the Bishop tells the rector, it is about new forms of Church, and whilst some may be concerned at marrying people who effectively are there for the location, rather than belief, the possibilities of bringing them into the Church, even if only for a few months should be encouraged.

Incidentally, in terms of the weddings at St. Mary’s, the final line of the programme revealed that there are currently over sixty booked for 2006!

3 thoughts on “A Passion for Weddings”

  1. I watched the program with interest and was torn about it.

    Yes it’s good that it has revived congregation numbers but, really, has that grown the church. Sure the NUMBERS look good and the small congregation feels ever so BUSY sorting the church out for the couples but what message have the couples heard? It seems we have reinforced the image of church being another accessory to the wedding. Is this really a “new way of being church” as the bishop described it or a new way of funding church? If the bishop was so keen I was really surprised that he hasn’t made the tiny church a house for duty post or at least provided the rector with some more ministerial support.

    I think the situation at Finchampstead is different as surely the people you reach out to are at least local and you have a chance of forming a relationship with them along their journey with Christ.

  2. Indeed, definitely agree that the situation is different at Finch, as most of the couples are fairly local (although we did have one couple recently that drove down from Wimbledon on a Sunday morning to attend). There are some couples who you never see again after the wedding, but others continue to attend, and indeed have brought their children along to be baptised.

    I think the approach pushed by the bishop is probably the most pragmatic, in that the wedding business is providing a good income for a Church that would otherwise be redundant. Whilst the couples coming down may not be long term congregation, maybe for some (as shown by the baptisms) there will be a spark ignited that they will continue to follow in one of their local churches after the wedding. Basically they are there, like it or not, and it is better to try and make the best of it rather than be obstructive.

    With regards to more support, I agree with you in that I did wonder whether the owner of the Orchardleigh estate could possibly pay the costs of a chaplin, or provide a house-for-duty, to help matters. Having said that, since the owner is also on the PCC it may be that he is already making a financial contribution towards the running of the church anyway.

  3. In my humble opinion, isn’t it worth the effort taken, to marry say 10 couples, that travel in to support the church for a number of months, if in the end one of those couples stays?

    That couple is brought into a life, a relationship with God, and therefore become role models to any future children they may have. Those children, and then possible future grandchildren also live with God in their lives. Friends and other family may join their journey along the way, seeing the evidence of a more fulfilling life that the church gives you.

    Other couples may not stay with that particular church, but find one more local to them. In the end, hopefully, more people on this planet have truly found a Christian lifestyle that benefits them and the world around them. Just a thought.

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