July 27, 2005


British authorities abolish "spinster" and "bachelor" from marriage registries

A story published today in the Times of London reports that the British Government is to abolish the traditional terms "spinster" and "bachelor" in new reforms to marriage laws that will coincide with the introduction of gay weddings this year.

Len Cook, the Registrar General, has decreed that marriage registers and certificates will no longer refer to newly-married couples in the late Middle English terminology. Instead, everyone tying the knot, whether gay or straight, will be designated as "single".

Divorced men and women are already denoted as such in marriage registers and on certificates. But those who have never been married are described as spinster and bachelor.

These terms will now disappear from England and Wales from December 5, when the change comes into effect. It is being made to bring marriage law into line with the new Civil Partnership Act, which becomes law on December 5, and which gives gay couples the right to legalise their relationship and enjoy the same tax, benefits, pensions and property rights as married couples. The wealthier partner in a couple will also suffer the same financial penalties on "divorce" or dissolution of the partnership.

Although it will be welcomed by those women who dislike the negative connotations of the term, the abolition of the word spinster will deepen the fears of bishops that the Government is set on undermining the institution of marriage as traditionally understood by the Church.

The Church has this week said that it does not recognise gay partnerships as marriage, will demand sexually abstinent partnerships of clergy who register under the Act and will deny any form of blessing to clergy and laity who want to celebrate their new legal status in a religious setting.

The Church of England, which refers to "spinsters" and "bachelors" of the parish when banns of marriage are read in church, is to come under pressure from the Registrar General's Office, part of the Office of National Statistics, to follow suit.

But the Church is firmly wedded to its spinsters and bachelors and the change is likely to generate a new Church-State dispute. A Church spokesman said: "We are quite open to the way language is evolving, but we do not see any improvement being made here. This is something we will resist.

"The words bachelor or spinster have never been part of the wording of banns, but many clergy customarily use them and will no doubt continue to. As for registers, clergy merely fill these in according to the registrar's wishes, so changes in the registers are not something we would expect to influence."

The wording of banns is not set in canon law and so a change would be easy to make.

A spokesman for the Registrar General's office said: "The proposal is to make things consistent so civil marriage is the same as civil partnership. Men and women will be described as 'single' in both civil partnerships and civil registered weddings. There is no compulsion for clergy to do this but obviously we would prefer it if they did because it would be more consistent. We have not made the change yet. The likelihood is that it will come in on December 5 when civil partnerships become law. It is something that has been on the modernising agenda for civil registration for some time."

Other planned changes to civil registrations have been shelved, but the spokesman said that spinsters and bachelors could be abolished simply by "order" and legislation was not necessary.

The term spinster developed as a way of describing a woman who spins, but developed into the legal definition of an unmarried woman. The occupational description disappeared as the spinning trade died out in the industrial revolution. By the 18th century it had acquired derogatory connotations, synonymous with "old maid".

Bachelor has always had more romantic associations. As well as referring to an unmarried man, it could also refer to a man aspiring to be a knight bachelor, or a man (and now woman) who had taken their first degree. Unlike spinster, the term also retained its association with youth, and unmarried men referred to as bachelors were invariably unmarried young men.