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The RGD made no vow to the Church

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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A furore seems to be developing between sections of the Church and the Registrar General's Department (RGD) in the payment of fees to be a marriage officer in Jamaica. A bishop of the Anglican Church has had his marriage register “confiscated”. Even the Diocesan Bishop Rev Dr Howard Gregory has indicated that he may have to discontinue doing marriages if the fee is to be insisted on. He says that he does not charge a fee to do marriages, as marriage is understood by the church to be a sacrament.

There are a number of things that ought to be made clear, or otherwise clarified. All marriage officers operating in Jamaica hold their licence, and thus permission to perform marriages, at the pleasure of the State. Marriage, when done in the Church, is understandably embellished or coloured with religious significance. But however beautiful or solemn such ceremonies are, a minister operating within the Church by himself or herself cannot marry a person unless he or she conforms to the relevant laws that govern marriage in the jurisdiction in which it is done. That is why in every country marriage is governed by laws enacted by the State.

For all intents and purposes, it is essentially a secular exercise. It might be a trite point, but contrary to what some people may think, it is not only religious persons who get to be marriage officers in Jamaica. A couple can be married in a few minutes before an approved marriage officer or in an elaborate ceremony in a church.

Even when the ceremony is done by the Church there are certain protocols that have to be observed. For one, in most instances, a notice of the intention to marry has to be published in a public place to give people who would have an objection about the couple to voice that concern. It is possible that one of the individuals to be married might still be married to a spouse from whom he or she has not been divorced. A member of the public, in seeing the public notice, will be able to register an objection as to the legality of the marriage to occur. Also, in the ceremony itself, those assembled have to be asked if they object or hold their peace. The couple has to make a declaration as to any impediment or just cause that would render their marriage illegal.

Since it is the State that issues licences it is within its remit to require that a fee be paid or that holders of its licences be subject to training and continuing education. Continuing education is all part of best practice protocols that are observed in other professions. Lawyers, doctors and other professionals who hold licences to practice their profession in Jamaica are subject to this. Situations constantly change in any profession and it is necessary that practitioners be abreast of such changes that might affect them.

The matter as to whether clergy charge fees or not to perform marriages is irrelevant here. One may argue as to the size of the fee, but the RGD is not being irreverent, sacrilegious or pusillanimous in charging a yearly fee. Staff has to be assigned to preside over the provisions of The Marriage Act and to do other duties in the monitoring of the marriage division. They too incur costs.

There is no direct correlation between the RGD fee and a clergy person's refusal to charge a fee for doing a marriage. The RGD, which represents the State, is separate and apart (and long may they be) from the Church. If a church takes a philosophical, theological, or otherwise divinely inspired position not to charge a marriage fee, then this decision rests with that church and not with the RGD.

As an Anglican, I know that Anglican ministers do not charge a fee for doing marriages. This is because we believe that marriage is a sacrament; meaning that is it is a sacred union between a man and a woman which binds them in mutual love inspired by Jesus Christ himself. For us it is almost reprehensible to hear or know of a clergy brother or sister who charges a fee for such ceremonies.

But the Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches do not make up the full complexity of the Church in Jamaica. It would be unjust and very cumbersome in any event for the RGD to make a distinction between those who charge for marriages and those who do not.

It may be argued by some, and in my view rightly, that if a clergy person incurs costs for travelling and other expenses in attending to a marriage that they should be compensated for this. Clergy like me who are trained marriage, couple and family therapists may charge for their services as there are psychosocial modalities that may have to be addressed in a couple which takes counselling beyond the realm of the merely religious. Here, to charge or not to charge a fee is left to the discretion of the clergy concerned. Mostly, clergy leave it to the discretion of the couple to attend to any monetary gift or compensation. This often happens where the couple or one of them is a member of the church.

I would urge the church to apply more calm and rationality in dealing with the RGD on this matter. Threats of withdrawing one's service by surrendering one's marriage register are unworthy of the clergy who makes them. Is one going to disbar or suspend oneself from exercising one's sacramental duty in such a vital and necessary sacrament of the church on the basis of a fee being charged by a government agency?

Also, there seems to be no cogent communication between the RGD and the churches on this matter. Seizing the register of clergy that are seen to be truant appears arbitrary. There ought to be a more patient and considerate response to the matter at hand which prevents the kind of acrimony that seems to be developing between these entities.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

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