Synod, wedding fees and allowing some churches to rake it in
In other news from General Synod, I hear they have decided to reject the call to raise the fees for weddings and funerals.
A good thing too, you might think. However, it’s not quite as simple as it seems.
So what are the positives? Well, the proposed move was to make some pretty sharp hikes in the basic costs of a funeral (Â£102 to Â£150) and weddings (Â£284 to Â£425) as part of a larger body of work sorting out the way in which the church charges for occasional offices.
However, in anyone’s book, those price rises are pretty steep and, naturally, many clergy, church congregations and Synod members were concerned about what that might mean for mission and ministry at local level. It may not be much of the overall bill for a wedding or a funeral, but it’s still a hefty increase and it doesn’t really look good.
And herein lies the problem. In actual fact, what was proposed was eminently sensible but the Synod has allowed itself to be swayed by a media who weren’t interested in the detail but only a headline.
If the new system had come in, churches couldn’t charge what they like for ‘extras’ (more of that in a minute). If the new system had come in, clergy would have had the right (for the first time ever) to waive fees for poorer families. If the new system had come in, the current convention of not charging for the funerals of young people and children would have been set in stone. For more detail, watch this brief interview with the Bishop of Rochester on the BBC website.
Instead, we are left with a system where ‘extras’ run amok in some churches. I know a parish church, not too far away from here that is very, very pretty. Because our building is definitely not pretty, many of our parishioners have their weddings there. The basic nationally agreed fee for a wedding in 2011 is Â£284. This church charges all sorts of ‘extras’ which makes the total bill Â£713. What are you paying for? They don’t say – the wording just tells you that it’s a combination of national and ‘local’ fees.
Another church that I know of, across a diocesan boundary, charges over a Â£1,000 a time.
They do so because they can. Because they know people will pay for the picture-perfect building that fulfills their long-held dreams for what their wedding will look like, and because they have a queue half-a-mile long of people who will be happy to pay if this couple won’t. The church’s recently relaxed ‘qualifying connections’ also play into the process as well. Since now there are more valid reasons to qualify you to get married in a particular church, it means that some of the very pretty churches are even busier than they were before.
Personally, I think their ‘extras’ are hugely unethical and nothing short of daylight robbery.
In one case, I know that the church is only kept going financially because of these astronomical charges. There aren’t enough people in their village, let alone enough financial giving between them, to fund their beautiful little church any other way. So they take advantage of couples who can stomach the cost; after all, it’s probably only a small part of what those couples are paying overall for their ‘big day’.
The whole thing is hugely problematic and, unfortunately, the Synod’s decision this weekend (and the media’s reporting of the proposals that seem to have pushed Synod into a corner) will mean that this church down the road and others like them can keep doing what they are doing. Meanwhile, couples who go to them for the biggest day of their lives and who ought to be treated with grace, hospitality, and joy will, instead, continue to be seen as cash cows ready to be milked.