Marriage – Catholic and Civil
Questions are sometimes asked about the relationship between Catholic and civil marriages. Strictly there are no links between the two, except the particular couple involved. The Church has a set of laws (Canon Law) that governs the work of the Church and likewise the state has its own laws, (the civil law).
After the Reformation, the Church of England and the English state used the same basic legal principles, whilst the Catholic Church was a prohibited organisation. Marriage was the union of a man and a woman for their mutual support and family life, solemnised by a Clerk in Holy Orders. Over the next century or so, other religious groups, particularly of a dissenting Protestant nature, were emerging, and the rules governing marriage were increasingly manipulated, bent, or ignored. Records were not well kept. The State and the Church of England were increasingly concerned about these developments.
In 1753 an “Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages” (Hardwicke’s Act) was passed to make the rules for a legal marriage clear. One of the provisions was that marriages had to take place in a licensed church of the Established Church before an authorised minister. This meant some Anglican churches ceased to be able to do so after 1754. The Act applied to all except for Quakers and Jews. There were no exceptions for other non-Anglican communities. This meant that for a legal marriage, Catholics had to marry in a licensed church of the Church of England. Attendance at such a service had previously been seen by the Catholic authorities as an act of recognition and acceptance of the new (Anglican) religion. The senior Catholic clergy were not happy, but eventually it seems that a compromise (unofficial?) was accepted. The couple would marry in the Anglican church to meet the civil laws and in the Catholic chapel for sacramental purposes. One consequence of this is that all Catholic marriages should appear in an Anglican register from 1754.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was gathering momentum and migration from rural areas to centres of employment was increasing. This period is sometimes known as the Age of Enlightenment because of the growth of education and the spread of knowledge. Printed works enabled knowledge and ideas to be spread rapidly and this applied to theology as well as to science and industry. Within the Anglican community, the Wesley brothers and others were concerned that the Anglican Church was not reaching out to the new industrial towns, and they went on preaching tours to address this issue. Their work eventually led to the founding of the Methodist Church. The Independent chapels were discussing their theology, and slowly coalesced into the Unitarian, Presbyterian, and Congregational Churches. The Catholics were emerging from the shadows, as some of the penal laws were repealed in the later 1700s. In 1791, an Act was passed that permitted Catholic chapels and schools to operate within the law, provided they, and the persons responsible for them, were registered with the Quarter Sessions. It is from this time that Catholic Registers were compiled more freely, very few existing from earlier times.
In the early 1800s there was concern within the Established Church about the quality of sacramental records and an attempt was made by an Act of Parliament to introduce Anglican sacramental registers based on a format devised about 1770 by William Dade for the Diocese of York. The original Bill met with considerable resistance from the clergy as it was seen as imposing a great deal more work on the clergy in compiling the original entries and in making the Bishops' Returns. The Act that finally became law (Rose's Act 1812) was much diluted. It required separate printed registers for Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, and these contained little more information than had been collected previously and much less than a Dade register.
The growth of the non-Anglican congregations, led to less observance of the 1753 Act in relation to marriage. Eventually this, and the changes in the Poor Law system, led the civil registration of births and deaths, and of marriages, and these civil registers started in July 1837. At the same time, non-parochial chapels were asked to send their registers to the Registration Commissioners for 'authorisation' and most non-conformist chapels complied. The Catholic clergy were reluctant to comply with this request and in Lancashire, St Alban's, Blackburn, was the only Catholic chapel to comply.
As the Church of England had been responsible for marriages under Hardwicke's Act, it continued in this role with the authorised minister taking the duty of Registrar. The main difference was that, as well as a book of certificates, the church had two Registers that were compiled in parallel. At the end of each quarter the Minister had to make a return of the marriages he had solemnised. This was/is sent to the Superintendent Registrar who then forwarded all the returns for his District to the Registrar General. When the two church registers were full, one copy was sent to the local Superintendent Registrar as his permanent copy, and the church retained the other as its religious register.
The big change was that the new laws provided for a Registrar to solemnise marriages either in his office or in a licensed non-Anglican chapel. This change enabled the non-Anglican congregations to solemnise marriages according to their own rites and customs, provided a Registrar was present to fulfil the requirements of the state. The Registrar completed the civil register and the chapel could maintain its own religious register, if it wished.
Catholic chapels did keep religious registers and at this time they were mainly in longhand and written in either English or Latin, or both. From about 1855, the English Catholic religious registers were printed books of certificates in Latin where the priest entered the information in appropriate blanks in the certificate. The couple did not sign the religious register, nor were they provided with a copy of the entry.
The next big change in the civil law was in 1898 when an Authorised Person (AP) could be appointed for a non-Anglican chapel to act as a Registrar. This facility was taken up quickly by many Methodist and other Free Churches. However, the Catholic chapels seem to have been reluctant to adopt it. This may have been because of a long-standing suspicion and fear of state intervention in Catholic matters.
By this time (ca 1900) travel world wide was becoming much easier and the Catholic Church was concerned that this made bigamy much more likely. A man could have a family in one place and then move to a distant place where he would start a fresh family. In 1908, the Pope issued a document referred to as “Ne Temere”. This laid down procedural rules for the marriage (similar to those in the 1837 Marriage Act) and in addition required each of the couple to provide a “Certificate of Freedom to Marry”. This takes the form of a copy of the entry in the baptism register for that person. After the marriage ceremony, the priest who solemnises the marriage has to send the details back to the church of baptism where the details are entered against the baptism entry. Then if that person wished wished to marry in a Catholic church again, the Certificate of Freedom will include the information about the earlier marriage and the person will not be allowed to marry in the Catholic church unless s/he can prove the earlier spouse has died. As a result of this decree, details of marriages may appear in Baptism Registers from about 1870, Sadly, details of the place of baptism are rarely noted in the marriage register.
The 1970s saw many changes in civil law relating to marriage. Some of these encouraged Catholic churches to adopt Authorised Persons for marriages.
It was only after the Second Vatican Council (ca 1970) where the Church had considered its relationship with the outside world, that Catholic parishes began to appoint Authorised Persons, few had done so before this time. A few (very few) Authorised Persons had been appointed to Catholic churches ca 1930 when there was a threatened strike of Registrars.