Thursday, April 08, 2010

No more Returns

In the morning's mail was the City Registrar's Quarterly Return form. My very last one to complete and send off. This is a full copy of the marriage register entries for the previous three months. It's a requirement of an Anglican cleric's job that these be filled in, signed as a correct record and returned to the office in City Hall - one of those mundane chores that Vicars 'just do', that come uninvited with the job, along with the status of being a legal registrar for church weddings. It's a task that requires concentration, patience and no distractions. I've never been good at it, always hated it, and will be glad to see the back of it. Working to make the ritual of marriage a wondrously joyful experience was always a challenge and a pleasure. Solemn form filling was always a nightmare to me.

When I went to Halesowen as Rector 20 years ago, there were 90 weddings a year. There could be up to two dozen wedding entries a quarter to be copied on to the sheets provided (NOT a photocopy, NEVER a photocopy). Thankfully, I had an elderly Parish Clerk who did the copies in immaculate copperplate, and brought them to me, on time, for my 'certifying' signature, as Vicar. By the time I left, recession had set in, weddings dropped to sixty and continued spiralling downwards from there. The Parish Clerk retired, and form filling eventually found its way to the Incumbent. Since I've been here, the most weddings I had in any quarter was four, and only slightly more in any year. In seven years at St John's, there have only been two dozen weddings.

On the other hand, colleagues in the Diocese in Europe are often busy presiding at ceremonies for couples in romantic holiday locations, where it's possible to hire a local church and invite minister to bless a couple after civil ceremony conducted elsewhere. Separation of church from state in most of Europe makes this the norm. It gives pastors more pastoral freedom to engage with people where they are. Last week, Church in Wales clerics were advised that parliamentary has approved the relaxation of restrictive residential qualifications for couples wishing to marry in a church with a personal or spiritual association for them and their families. This follows a similar move in the CofE a couple of years ago, reducing the need to apply for an Archbishop of Canterbury's Special (expensive) License. I don't think this extra bureaucratic concession will have many extra couples rushing to the altar. Having enjoyed a much improved quality of ministry to married couples in the nine years I was abroad, I'm sad I didn't see the separation of the legal engagements of marriage from its sacred celebration in the UK during my working life. There seems to be little appetite for such change.

Well, I made it to the St John Priory Chaplains' meeting this afternoon, which is just as well, since the Prior has asked if I will stay on as a HQ Chaplain. Hopefully, the local Cardiff division will also be able to make occasional use of my pastoral interest. While my involvement with the Order is a result of being Vicar of St John's in the first place, it's opened up a world of interesting pastoral engagements for me that looks set to outlast retirement. I was pleased to have an opportunity to address the meeting about the development of pastoral ministry to St John's teams staffing the Millennium Stadium plus one or two other major permanent event sites staffed by St John's in Wales, like the Builth Wells showground, and the Llangollen International Eisteddfod site. Chaplains visiting events for other reasons would I believe find their day much enriched by spending time alongside first responders on stand-by at big events.

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