THE WAY WE LIVE NOW:

MARRIAGE CUSTOMS OF THE PRESENT AGE

It all began with the couple who wanted to get married in Bali. They arrived at the door of the Vicarage clutching a form provided by British Airways requiring the signature of the parish priest certifying that the couple in question were (as they claimed to be) members of the Church of England.

Now you will know as well as I do that it is the hardest thing in the world to decide who is (or rather, who is not) a member of the Church of England. You will probably also be aware that, where matrimony is concerned, membership of the Church of England, however it be defined, is an irrelevancy. Any pair of bona fide residents of a parish, baptized or unbaptized, practising or lapsed, Muslim, Hindu or Druid has a right to be married in the Parish Church if the fancy so takes them, provided (for the time being at least) that they are of opposite sexes.

So I took an oblique line with the couple. Kutar Beach (the site of the proposed entanglement) is, I said from recent and bitter personal experience, hardly what it is cracked up to be. If a honeymoon accompanied by overweight Sydneysiders on a potentially suicidal binge of Castlemaine XXXX was their idea of the Romantic they should certainly go ahead; but I accepted no responsibility. I signed the paper; they left for Bali. I know no more.

My next encounter with matrimony in exotic parts resulted from a chance meeting at a drinks party with a wealthy Japanese entrepreneuse. The lady, it appeared, was well on the way to cornering the market in European weddings for the upwardly mobile Japanese. What they want is the whole show: a church (preferably Gothic); a choir and organ to accompany a lengthy walk up the flower-lined aisle; a white dress with a long train; and a Christian minister suitably attired. To the firm which can assure all these elements, of course, goes the lucrative additional business of planning and providing the luxury honeymoon.

And it is very big business. My Japanese acquaintance started in a modest way. She bought up redundant church furnishings from the West and kitted-out a fully equipped mock church, "St Michael's", in a Tokyo suburb.

But a more discriminating clientele is now demanding the `real' thing, and getting it from, among other places, two central London churches. By an amicable arrangement the Buddhist or Shintoist participants get the photographs and whatever else it is that they want; and the churches in question get the hard cash.

This whole episode, from my point of view, came pleasingly full circle when, a week or so after our meeting, my Japanese friend sent me the brochure advertising her latest venture; a Gothic Church in Bali for honeymooners from Honshu.

This trend, which is so profitable to British Airways, and to more than one Japanese company, seems to me to signal a terminal stage in the long transformation of matrimony from a public to a private event; from affirmation to sentiment. The recent decision of the British government to permit weddings in country houses and other venues licensed for the occasion, and the Board for Social Responsibility of the General Synod's proposed soft line on those who simply decide not to get married at all, are of a piece with these more exotic developments. For, paradoxically, an elaborate wedding rite according to one's own fantasy (in a hot-air balloon over the Loire valley, or on a deserted beach in the Maldives) and no wedding at all, amount in the end to the same thing. They both seek to customize matrimony to the consumer and so subvert its very nature.

The couple who maintain that their relationship "is just as valid without the piece of paper" and the couple who want to `celebrate' their relationship in their own idiosyncratic and private way, are victims of the same basic misunderstanding. Even if, like a Report to the General Synod, we rather incline to ignore the divine dimension, matrimony remains essentially and necessarily a public act. It is a contract, not merely between two individuals, but between both of them and the community in which they live; a contract which is binding on their relationships with others, and binding in the obligations it acknowledges toward their own children. It is solemnized in a public place according to an agreed form precisely because it is an act which involves more than the immediate participants.

It is also a rite which seeks to institute a relationship based on something other than emotion and sentiment. It seeks to harness the potentially destructive forces of Romantic love to social ends...'and is therefore not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly to satisfy man's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding...' as Dr Cranmer rather fulsomely puts it, `but reverently, discreetly, advisedly and soberly...duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained."

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's, Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark.

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