Religious vs civil marriage: untangling the knot

Marriage|June 1st 2016

Say the word ‘wedding’ to most Brits and you can pretty sure it will bring certain images to mind: walking down the aisle, the bride in white arm in arm with her father, a vicar waiting for the happy couple with a wry smile. In other words: a church wedding – I think it is fair to say that is the default image in most people’s minds.

The details differ, of course, for those from certain backgrounds. The particulars and traditions of Jewish, Muslim and Hindu weddings are all distinct  but the fundamental message is the same: getting married is a religious as much as a social and legal event.

But of course that is not necessarily the case.  It is perfectly legal  in this country to turn marriage into an entirely civil affair by marrying in a registry office, although even then, marriage is given a unique status through the compulsory exchange of vows. It is this element, more perhaps than any other, that distinguishes marriage from civil partnership and which arguably fuelled the drive towards the legalisation of same sex marriage. Civil partnerships convey the same rights but are essentially a form-filling affair, lacking the special ceremonial allure and magic of marriage. It was not no surprise to me or many others that same sex couples would want the latter too.

You can marry in hotels and similar venues provided these have been approved by the local authority. Sadly, for the more adventurous amongst us, it is not legal to marry in the open air in England, by a waterfall or in a flowery meadow, unless the happy couple also conduct a legal ceremony in a ‘fixed’ structure licensed for the purpose.

Oddly, this is not the case, however, in Scotland or Northern Ireland!

Yesterday, I received an interesting question from a reader of the blog. A gentleman calling himself urtly wrote to ask:

“Hello , I want to ask because it is not very clear to me yet.

I have done a wedding ceremony in the UK in a Pentecostal church but has never registered my marriage, after one year she have abandon me. I always thought that the marriage is not valid so I moved abroad to a Dutch Caribbean Island.

Overhear I have med a young lady and we have married, but now she is stating, that what I am doing is polygamy and that I can face the jail and that she wants her divorce. She wants me to go and divorce the other lady first and then come back to get married with her. Because she is a Christian. But where does she wants me to go and divorce that lady while we have never registered our wedding.

Can you please help me and tell me the truth, if my first wedding ceremony was legal to the UK law or I am not legally married and can not face jail sentenced over hear in this Island.

Hope to hear very soon of you.”

I thought urtly’s dilemna raised several interesting points.

At heart, marriage is a legal contract and signing the certificate a civil process. That’s why it’s perfectly legal to tie the knot in a registry office and go away just as married as the participants in a full white wedding. But in recognition of tradition, special dispensation is made for some religious traditions.

As establishment organisations, the Churches of England and Wales both have the automatic right to conduct legally valid marriages without the involvement of a registry office, as long as both parties are residents of countries in the EU. If not, then 28 days’ notice must be given.

At this point, things start to get a little more complicated. Ministers and priests of other Christian denominations, as well as rabbis, imams, and representatives of other religions are not given an automatic right to conduct weddings that can dispense with the need for civil registrations and need to apply for this.

For Jewish and Quaker weddings authorisation is given as a matter of course, but this is not the case with other churches and religions, including Pentecostalism, where authorisation may not or may not be given. If it is not, then one of two things must happen: either a registrar must attend the ceremony to legalise it, or the happy couple will have to attend the registry office separately, before or after the ceremony, to sign the forms.

So we cannot know for sure, without a little more information, whether urtly’s wedding was legally valid in the UK. If he believes it was not, it is unlikely he and his first wife attended a registry office or a registrar attended the wedding. But it is just possible that the Pentecostal Minister had authorisation.

If he did not, then it is likely that urtly’s marriage was invalid under English law – or to use legal terminology, a ‘nullity’, something that never achieved legal validity in the first place. He could apply in the English courts for a ‘decree of nullity’, certifying the maybe-marriage’s lack of validity – once he has established that, of course.

But there’s another question to be asked here: what is the legal situation in his new home? How does the law of this Dutch Caribbean island view marriages like his first, which may be null and void? I would advise him to investigate as soon as he can and seek legal advice if at all possible. What do the authorities on his sunny new home need him to do, if anything, in order to ensure his second marriage is fully recognised and legally valid?

I wish him the best of luck.

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  1. Andrew says:

    If there was no attempt to comply with the Marriage Act 1949 the result is not a void marriage but a non-marriage – from which no legal consequences flow. Either party can walk away with no financial claim. If one dies the other will get no relief from Inheritance Tax as a surviving spouse.

    That is unfortunately the case with many so-called Nikah marriages in this country and the problem is growing. It does not help that social workers often refer to “cultural marriages” instead of “purported marriages” no doubt in an attempt to be culturally sensitive.

    It is broadly correct to say that if there was a ceremony in England or Wales but there is no certificate in the familiar form there is a non-marriage; no status, no ties, no obligations and no rights.

  2. Ysia says:

    What if in Urtly’s case there was an exchange of vows and rings in an all white wedding in front of witnesses ? And the only thing they didn’t do was to go and register their marriage? But they did receive a church certificate? Would it be considered a legal marriage, because of those elements?

  3. Andrew says:

    From the information given I still think we have here not a void marriage but a non-marriage – from which no legal consequences whatever spring – not even the right to a decree of nullity and financial relief. He can apply for a declaration – not that the marriage is void – but that on a particular day (such as the day after the purported ceremony) he was not married.

    What effect that will have in the other jurisdiction is of course a matter for the law of that jurisdiction.

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