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Beyond the value of money

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, May 25, 2014    

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IT is perhaps redundant to say that every Jamaican is aware that the number one problem occupying the attention of the nation at every level is that of the economic challenges we are facing, and the uphill task involved in staying in conformity with the International Monetary Fund's economic support programme to which our Government is the signatory.

In this regard, the Government, under the leadership of the front man, Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips, has been doing a good job in staying the course. Faithfulness in this endeavour has not only led to radical reductions in the provision of government funding for capital development, as debt servicing and recurrent expenses have taken centre stage, but it has given rise to the perception among many within the society that the development of the human capital is being neglected.

And while it is true that the hands of the Government are tied in this regard, there is, nonetheless, a perception that the social dimension of the human being is being neglected, and especially that which concerns the most vulnerable in society. This is undoubtedly due in part to inadequate attention to the ongoing education and information of the nation around these realities.

One aspect of the implementation of the policy of economic discipline has been the development of measures designed to remove certain expenditures from the public budget, but also the creation of executive agencies which are being pressed into becoming a source of funding for the Government's coffers from whatever surplus they may generate.

In this regard, one very troubling measure has come to public light in recent time without having been the subject of any consultation or educational process involving those who are affected. I speak of the fee structure for marriage officers which, I am told, has been gazetted and posted on the website of the Registrar General's Department, a fait accompli. The following fee structure is now displayed on the department's website:

Fee payable by a marriage officer and civil registrar

Upon Registration — $10,000

Annual Registration Fee — $10,000

Late Registration Fee — $5,000

Unlike civil registrars, marriage officers are usually ministers of religion, for whom the conduct of marriages is simply one aspect of their work and is not an avenue for earning an income. It is a ministry and service performed for the membership of the Church and the community within which they serve.

The majority of weddings affecting the general population are conducted by ministers of religion in churches. The churches have differing theological positions on their involvement in marriage ceremonies.

For some, it is a sacrament for which fees cannot be charged, but for all, it is part of the church's affirmation of marriage as the basic foundation of society and which provides the stability which families need for maximum growth and development. In addition, it is seen as a service which the marriage officers, as agents of the State, perform on behalf of

the State.

The RGD has data to prove that there has been no significant increase in the number of marriages taking place among Jamaicans for more than a century, in spite of the significant growth in population during this time. Increases in the statistics are coming from the weddings of foreigners which are taking place as part of the packages being offered by our hotels.

There is no question that alongside the primary preoccupation of the nation with finances is the overwhelming concern about what is happening to the family in Jamaica, with many of the social problems being traced to a breakdown of family relations and the failure of families to fulfil their socialising functions.

While we must acknowledge that marriage does not constitute the normative pattern of family in Jamaica, as we have adopted a variety of family forms in light of our historical experience and as a coping strategy, nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that marriages, though subject to breakdown, provide the most stable family pattern for the nurturing and development

of families.

It is through the stability which marriage provides, the nurturing and socialisation of our children, and the provision of love, respect, and a sense of permanence that spouses and children are afforded that they are able to develop a sense of wholeness and

well-being.

It is not surprising then that many of our social problems are being traced to unstable family patterns -- poor parenting, the neglect and abuse of children, children becoming parents, the marginalisation of our boys, the high level of indiscipline and violence. These are all being traced back to problems with the family in our nation.

It would seem to follow then, that every attempt would be made to strengthen those things which make for strong family life and not use them as a source of revenue and as a consequence push them further out of the reach of citizens.

How, then, is it possible for the RGD to turn marriages into a source of further money-making when they already require those who get married to pay a fee to have their certified marriage certificates available to them?

The RGD is already well aware that the marriage officers are primarily members of the clergy functioning in congregations in which there may be anywhere between two and five weddings per year, if not less.

Many of these weddings are for poor and simple people, some of whom have lived together for many years because they have been unable to meet the expenses which the society promotes as part of getting married. In some cases it is the congregation which provides some of the basic things needed for the people to get married.

I recall performing a marriage of a couple who were in that situation, in which the groom was terminally ill and confined to a medical facility. It was the nurses and other staff members in the institution who assisted in getting a ring, and in baking a cake and setting up a little clinical area for the few witnesses and staff to share the moment with the couple in order to save them from the embarrassment which they were feeling about not being able to afford the wedding, even in this critical moment.

This is not unlike many of the weddings which my clergy colleagues have to perform. From where, then, are we expected to get the $20,000 or $25,000 to pay the RGD?

So then, most of the marriages performed by marriage officers are of simple people, not the glamorous ones making the social pages, or the ones in the hotels and on their beaches. It is clear that many of those who make the social pages have taken on a vulgar character with persons boasting about how much they spend on flowers, videographer, wedding cake , reception and honeymoon.

This is not where the majority of our people getting married are located, and indeed, if we want to promote more marriages and more stable family life, we will need to dispel the fantasy which surrounds many of the social weddings

that are being given much

public mileage.

Responses to individual marriage officers who happen to have made a routine visit to the RGD office or made telephone contact, and who have learnt of the introduction of these fees include the following:

1. Marriages performed by marriage officers who have not paid the necessary fees to the RGD will be deemed invalid.

2. Marriage officers who do not pay their fees will have a debt accumulated against them.

It may be that the RGD is anticipating a surrender of the licences of clergy who are marriage officers, and if they

have not, it could become a

real possibility.

It is true that there are some members of the clergy who are performing weddings in hotels and on beaches and who are receiving hefty fees for this service. This is where the Government needs to focus, if the interest is on revenue from those who earn and do not report such earnings.

Indeed, the hotels and other institutions which engage the services of such clergy should be made to deduct the relevant taxes at source, as is required for other professionals and institutions. It must be pointed out that there are some denominations, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans, who do not permit their clergy to perform marriages outside of churches or consecrated space.

If the RGD, as an executive agency, needs to beef up its revenue or even provide an operating surplus to supplement government sources of revenue, it is a most misguided and backward step to look to exact fees from marriage officers for performing marriages, fees that would have to be passed on to those seeking to be married, when the society needs to do everything to facilitate and promote the number of marriages taking place, and not create disincentives to this course of action, thereby leading to more unstable family life in our country.

Clearly, there are some things which must assume a greater value than money in the life of a nation.

— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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