Published: 00:01, 07 July 2017
A concerned Christian wrote to the Queen after discovering young children were being "married" by the priest at the church she attends in Greenhithe.
Pupils from Knockhall Primary School were taking part in role play with the Rev Andrew Avery at nearby St Marys while on an educational visit.
But Helen Rund is worried the pretend ceremonies could lead to youngsters being bullied and result and very young children being pressured into kissing or even having sex.
She became aware of the marriage role play about two years ago and has been locked in a battle with the church and school ever since, trying to get the practice banned.
After an initial letter to St Marys she has also written to church wardens, archdeacons, bishops, the former head of the primary school and the Queen, but does not feel she has had a satisfactory response.
She feels the fact the “marriages” are conducted by an authority figure – an ordained priest – is almost giving the children permission to behave like a married couple.
The former psychiatric nurse, who has grown-up children, said: “I remain deeply concerned. It’s rife for confusion.
“I am told the purpose is to teach about the sanctification of marriage and that role play is a good way for children to learn.
“I feel it is difficult enough for adults to de-role from acting roles, let alone small children.
"I have not been present at a ceremony, so am not in full possession of the facts, but I wonder about the ‘you may kiss the bride’.
“This part, apparently, is not re-enacted but children have access to real ceremonies and the television and I’m sure they know that it is part of the real ceremony.
“If nothing else, I believe, when staff are out of sight, there is the real potential for bullying to occur – ‘why don’t you kiss the bride, you’re married now?’
“At no time has the church taken my views seriously. No formal route has ever been taken to deal with my concerns.
"I admit I was emotional as I feel very strongly about this. This has been a long and stressful period of my life.”
Mrs Rund started a petition to put an end to the lessons but stopped at 30 signatures as it was making her more emotional.
She declined Mr Avery’s offer to meet as she felt he had already expressed his views in a letter.
She said: “There are very real risks here. If a school can ban all sorts of things for the potential risk of harm, then surely they should clearly ban the practice of allowing the Church of England to ‘marry’ our young children.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Rochester said: “The Reverend Andrew Avery has been at St Marys Greenhithe for four years.
“He has 27 years’ experience in education as a teacher and as an education officer for inclusion and special educational needs.
“Andrew has worked hard to foster a good relationship with local schools, leading assemblies, attending school functions and being involved in the direct education of children.
“This happens in churches and schools all over the country.
"If nothing else, I believe, when staff are out of sight, there is the real potential for bullying to occur – 'why don't you kiss the bride, you're married now?'" - Helen Rund
"To this end, Andrew has enabled many classes of children from Year 2 to Year 6, to take part in role play weddings and baptisms.
“When ceremonies and celebration comes up in the curriculum, class teachers approach Andrew and together they agree the content.
"The class teacher, sometimes with the help of the children, chooses the parts that will be played – bride, bridesmaids, family, the bridegroom, the best man and so on.
“On the day of the ‘wedding’ the class, with appropriate adult supervision, arrive in church.
"There is a preliminary talk by Andrew explaining that they are playing a wedding.
"It is made clear that the bride and groom are not actually married and the legal requirements of marriage are explained to the children in an age-appropriate way.
“The bride walks down the aisle, the groom takes his place, and most of the usual components of a wedding service are followed.
There’s no kissing in this ‘wedding’. Andrew explains to the children that in a real wedding the bride and groom kiss but in the role play that doesn’t happen.
“Andrew also never refers to the ‘sexual union’ of husband and wife (as is written in the traditional marriage service), but instead talks about two people now living together in the eyes of God.”
In a statement issued by the diocese, Mr Avery said: “I’m a great believer in experiential learning, and what better way to explain what we call ‘occasional offices’ than to re-enact them in church?
“It is always an enjoyable occasion and not once has there been any complaints from children, parents, teachers or school governors.
“In fact, everyone involved has been positive about the experience.
"I want to assure anyone who may be concerned about this activity that safeguarding is our highest priority and nothing improper is ever done with or talked about to the children.”
Knockhall Primary School was approached for a comment, but Helen Rund had corresponded with staff and trustees under its previous sponsors, Lilac Sky Academies Trust.
A spokesman for the school and its new management, Woodland Academy Trust, referred us to a letter sent to Mrs Rund by the chairman of the former board of trustees late last year.
It said trustees had agreed not to enter into any further correspondence with Mrs Rund and considered the matter concluded.