An invalid marriage?

Many people are aware that the tribunals of the Catholic Church regularly make judgements regarding the validity of marriages according to Canon (ecclesiastical) law, often reaching a judgement of nullility. This is commonly known as an annulment. It is a judgement that something in the original marriage ceremony did not accord with ecclesiastical law and therefore is, as far as the church is concerned, null and void.

But many are not aware that marriages can be declared null and void by the state also, if something in the way in which the marriage ceremony was carried out does not accord with the law of the land. Marriage celebrants have to be very careful that they observe the norms and requirements of the Registrary of Births, Deaths and Marriages; attempting to contract marriages in a non-valid manner can result in the celebrant losing his licence and the couple being required to be remarried.

Now let me describe a marriage ceremony to you that took place in my family recently. I was not present, so I am going on heresay. I would like you to offer your opinion on the validity of this ceremony.

For a start, both bride and groom are members of the community in which I was raised: the Lutheran Church of Australia. Tragically, their original choice of marriage celebrant could not be present, due to a serious car accident of the intended celebrant’s daughter. So another Lutheran clergyman filled in. The event did not take place in a church (which is not a requirement of the Lutheran rite) but in a horse paddock. While thoroughly Christian in its themes and components, the service was not carried out according to the rites of the Lutheran Church but according to an order of service devised by the couple. Friends of the bride and groom acted as “MC”s. The ordained pastor who served as the official celebrant (and who later signed the certificate of marriage for the couple) did not take part in the ceremony in any way, but was a part of the assembled crowd. Witnesses to the event have said that (in effect) the couple “married themselves”.

From a theological point of view, there is something in this–the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the couple and not the celebrant–but the witnesses stress that the “celebrant” did not preside over the rite of marriage. Prayers were offered, but there was no blessing of the couple. Theologically speaking, this is the only thing that really concerns me. The essential Christian component of the ceremony (the blessing by the ordained priest) was omitted.

But legally speaking, I am concerned on the following levels:

1) the Celebrant–a religious celebrant only authorised to conduct marriages according to the rites of his church–would have signed the certificate to the effect that the marriage was conducted “according to the rites of the Lutheran Church of Australia”. This was not the case.

2) the Celebrant would have signed himself as the one presiding over the marriage–when in fact, he did not.

3) I do not have a copy of the order of service, but, in my experience, home-made orders of service tend to leave out crucial legal parts of the rite: eg. did they make a declaration of intent? did their vows include the crucial promise to be faithful “until death parts us” as required by law? who authoritatively declared them to be husband and wife in the presence of the assembly?

4) Finally, things get really tricky when, at the last moment, there needs to be a change of celebrant. The pastor who was prevented from attending by reason of his daughter’s accident would have been the one who had, up till this point, signed all the requisite forms and received the legal declarations. I presume that this “handing over” of the responsibility was conducted properly.

Some years back, a friend was married under the unfortunate circumstances that his chosen celebrant had been removed from the list of marriage celebrants for negligence in posting certificates through to the Registry in a timely manner. To get around this, they still had their chosen celebrant deliver the homily, prayers and blessing, but had to get another clergyman in to preside over the actual exchange of vows. The latter clergyman was the one who signed the documentation. This case illustrates the close connection between the act of presiding and the act of signing the certificate of marraige. The case cited above seems to break that nexus.

What concerns me about the wedding I have described here is that it might not have met the simple but strict requirements of the state for a valid marriage. Of course, that might save a lot of trouble later in the divorce courts or even before the tribunal of the Catholic Church, but surely it is preferable to begin one’s married life in the certainty that the knot has indeed been tied and not simple tangled up a bit.

But I would be interested in your comments.

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