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In Sickness and In Health

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In sickness and in health? That’s too religious for a civil wedding.

But as Gary and Louise Lidington, from London, made final preparations for their wedding last weekend, they received an urgent telephone call from council registrars warning that they could not legally say the words “in sickness and in health”.

Officials in Tower Hamlets, east London, said that the phrase, which is used around the world, was too “religious” for a civil ceremony.The couple, were forced to rewrite their vows, which they chose because of their traditional ring, just hours before the wedding, which took place on Saturday.The phrase “to have and to hold” was also deemed too Christian, because of its echoes of the marriage service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.But, after discussion, the council ruled that to it would be acceptable to say “to hold and to have”.


And they were allowed to replace “in sickness and in health” with “in sickness and when we are well”.

The couple said they had no choice but to agree to the change of wording or face having to call off their wedding.

But they were so baffled by the change that Mr Lidington, a barrister, stumbled over his lines as he said the new vows, while his wife, a public relations executive, was overcome by a fit of giggles.


The debacle shines the spotlight on confusion over the law on civil weddings in which religious elements such as hymns or Bible readings have been officially forbidden since 1837.  But the rules were relaxed eight years ago, as part of a wider overhaul of the civil weddings system, allowing couples to choose secular songs with religious references such as Aretha Franklin's “Say A Little Prayer” or Robbie Williams's “Angels”.   Wedding websites and books list a range of sample vows suitable for civil ceremonies including several which feature the traditional phrases chosen by Mr and Mrs Lidington.


The council apologised for the confusion but said they were concerned the vows did not comply with “with the relevant legality process”.  Arrangements for the wedding, held in Wilton’s Music Hall, in the east end, the oldest surviving Victorian theatre of its type, had been agreed for months.  Formalities such as the vows, had also been apparently been approved at a meeting with registrars in February.  But on Friday afternoon Mrs Lidington, 39, received an urgent message on her mobile phone warning that there were legal problems.  “It was the registrar to say that she would not be able to marry us with these words and could I rewrite them over the phone,” she said.  Mrs Lidington explained they had chosen the vows from a website specifically because they were traditional without being overtly religious.


“I was horrified by it because they are so important,” she said.  “They have just stood the test of time, they sound like poetry, they flow beautifully and they are just the form of words that you expect at a wedding.

“Ever since I was 11 I just imagined that they would be the words I would use when I married my husband.

“It just seems ridiculous that words which don’t mention religion could be so problematic.”  But she added: “I just thought: 'I can’t be rude, I can’t be offensive because I have got stand in front of her tomorrow and pledge my life to my husband'.”

In the end the couple laughed off the legal difficulties and Mr Lidington, 43, surprised his wife during the speeches by asking her to join him by reciting the vows they had originally intended.  “Taking his lead, during my speech I said the words that we had originally chosen to him,” explained Mrs Lidington.  “It was incredibly romantic, and got a standing ovation from our guests.”


Kate Thompson of the popular weddings website confetti.co.uk – which includes almost identical vows among its list of suggestions - said: “I’ve never come across anything like this before – it does sound ridiculous to me and I do feel sorry for the bride and groom that this happened at the 11th hour.”  A spokeswoman for the council said: “We apologise for the short notice that Mr and Mrs Lidington received regarding changes to their chosen vows.  “It was important that their civil ceremony complied with the relevant legality process, and we worked closely with the couple to ensure that the vows they exchanged on their special day were as close as possible to those initially chosen by them.”  The council later pointed to a handbook for registrars which recommended avoiding phrases from the Prayer Book.



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