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The banns of marriage, commonly known simply as "the banns" (from an Old English word meaning "to summon"), are the public announcement in a Christian parish church that a marriage is going to take place between two specified persons. It is most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church and with other denominations whose traditions closely match that of the Roman Catholic Church.

The purpose of banns is to enable anyone to raise any legal impediment to it, so as to prevent marriages that are legally invalid, either under canon law or under civil law. Impediments vary between legal jurisdictions, but would normally include a pre-existing marriage (having been neither dissolved nor annulled), a vow of celibacy, lack of consent, or the couple's being related within the prohibited degrees of kinship.

Roman Catholic Church

Under the 1983 Coder of Canon Law, publication of the banns is no longer required. Formerly, banns were read from the pulpit along with other parish announcements, and were usually published in the parish weekly bulletin. Under Canon Law before 1983, the banns had to be announced, or "asked", in the home parishes of both parties on three Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation prior to the marriage.

In some places, the form of words that were once spoken by the priest is as follows: 'I publish the banns of marriage between (Name of party) of the Parish of........ and (Name of other party) of this Parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is for the (first, second, third) time of asking'.

The original Catholic Canon law on the subject, calculated to check the increase of clandestine, or secret, marriages, was decreed at the Council of Trent on November 11, 1563. (Sess. XXIV, De ref. matr., c. i) which provided that before the celebration of any marriage the names of the contracting parties should be announced publicly in the church during Mass, by the parish priests (i.e., pastors) of both parties on three consecutive Holy Days (Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent, London, 1848, 196 ssq.). While the requirement was normally straightforward in canon law, complications sometimes arose in a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, where one of the parties to the marriage does not have a home Parish within the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestant

While the Council of Trent is best known as a Counter-Reformation Council, neither the Lutheran Church, nor the Church of England broke with the Catholic Church on the requirement of publication of banns (or the equivalent) prior to marriage. An equivalent notice was not required in the Orthodox Christian Churches, which used another method to verify eligibility to marry. The break between some Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church was over what would constitute an impediment to marriage (the Church of England, for example, permitted divorce in some circumstances), rather than over the means by which impediments to marriage should be identified.

In Englandmarker, under the provisions of Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act, a marriage is only legally valid if the reading of the banns has taken place or a marriage licence has been obtained, codifying earlier practice within the Church of England. By this 1753 statute, 26 Geo. II, c. xxxviij, the banns are required to be read aloud in church over a period of three Sundays prior to the actual wedding ceremony. Banns must be read in the home parish churches of both parties to the marriage, as well as in the church where the marriage ceremony is to take place (where this is different). Omission of this formality renders the marriage void. This statutory requirement had the effect of requiring Catholics and Dissenters to obtain marriages through the Church of England, a requirement lifted by subsequent English legislation.

Prior to this law, it was possible for eloping couples to marry clandestinely in various places—finding an imprisoned clergyman in the Fleet Prisonmarker was one well known way (a "Fleet Marriage"), at least for couples near Londonmarker. After the law, elopers had to leave England, usually for Scotlandmarker, and proverbially to the village of Gretna Greenmarker, in order to contract a marriage while avoiding these formalities. These details often figure in melodramatic literature set in the period .

According to the rites of the Church of England (Marriage Act 1984), similar wording is used. In addition:
  • (1) ... banns shall be published on three Sundays preceding the solemnization of the marriage at the time of divine service.
  • (2) Banns shall be published in an audible manner and in accordance with one of the following forms of words:
    • "I publish the banns of marriage between A.B. of ----- and C.D. of -----. If any of you know any cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second or third] time of asking". or
    • "I publish the banns of marriage between A.B. of ----- and C.D of -----. If any of you know any reason in law why these persons may not marry each other, you are to declare it now."


Civil

Austria and some other civil law countries have their own, secular, publication requirements in order to obtain a marriage.

Lord Hardwicke's Act was inapplicable outside the British Isles, and hence did not become law in the colonies that would later become the United States of America. For this reason, and as a conseqeuence of the American separation of church and state, banns or equivalent notice by publication is not required prior to marriage in most U.S. states, although most U.S. states require that a marriage license which establishes the freedom of the parties to marry be established prior to a valid marriage, often a certain number of days prior to the marriage ceremony.

Canada

In the Canadianmarker province of Ontariomarker, the publication of banns "proclaimed openly in an audible voice during divine service" in the church(es) of the betrothed remains a legal alternative to obtaining a marriage licence. Two same-sex couples married this way at the Metropolitan Community Church of Torontomarker on January 14, 2001, since the province was not then issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples. The marriages were ruled valid in 2003. See Same-sex marriage in Ontario. Banns being read once in a church ordinarily attended by both parties to the marriage is allowed in lieu of a licence in Manitobamarker.

In the Canadian province of Québecmarker, equivalent formalities are required for all marriages, although the statutes do not use the word "banns". There is no requirement for a government-issued license, but a written notice must be posted at the place of the wedding for 20 days beforehand, and the officiant verifies the eligibility of the intended spouses.

In British Columbiamarker, only Doukhobors can be married by banns.

Other uses

A second use of "the banns" is as the prologue to a play, i.e., a proclamation made at the beginning of a medieval play announcing and summarizing the upcoming play. An example can be found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Middle English miracle play written sometime after 1461.

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