THE common sight of meringue-wedding dress brides and suited grooms being festooned with confetti outside the church could soon become a thing of the past in Oxfordshire.

Over the past five years, the number of weddings conducted by the Church of England in this county fell 16 per cent, from 2,710 in 2011 to 2,260 in 2016.

In the same period, the number of civil ceremonies carried out by Oxfordshire Registration Service rose steadily.

And, since the legalisation of gay marriage in March 2014, the number of civil partnerships in the county has dropped from 72 to just seven last year.

These figures indicate both gay and straight couples are increasingly choosing the registry office over the church.

Among those troubled by the trend is Revd Ginny Thomas, a vicar in Tew, West Oxfordshire.

She said: "It's a loss to the church because it is an important part of our ministry.

"Weddings are a good opportunity for people to come to church who don't normally, and we can reach out to people through these services."

However, she said she did not think the loss of those opportunities through the church's ban on gay marriage was significant enough to change the rules.

Revd Margreet Armistead at St Mary and Nicholas in Littlemore said: "It would be sad if the number of church weddings went down.

"At this church when people come to get married we try to make them feel welcome and not force something onto them."

Under the current rules, the Church of England does not allow its clergy to conduct gay weddings, but 'non-established' churches can register themselves as wedding venues, meaning same-sex couples can chose to get married at a church if they want.

One couple who considered that path are Jade Huffey and Laura Nottage from Didcot.

After Jade popped the question in August, the couple, who both work at British Gas in Cowley, are planning to tie the knot in 2019.

Miss Huffey, 26, said: "We did think about a church, but we're not Christians and we just thought because of the whole gay marriage debate it wouldn't be the most normal thing to do.

"A church just isn't somewhere we can feel comfortable.

"That's not because of any person in particular, it's just that perception that if you walk into a church and you're gay, you may not be welcome."

Kayleigh Davies, who married partner Anthony at Oxford Register Office in June, said: "To be honest I would have loved a church wedding but we're not church people.

"You have to go to church beforehand and it's a lot of money – we've been together so long we just wanted to get married.

"I would have done it in the back garden."

The 30-year-old from Kidlington, who spent £475 on the ceremony, said she guessed many non-Christians chose churches in order to have a beautiful setting.

Eleanor and Joseph Rimmer did get married in a church over the summer, forking out £850 to tie the knot at St Peter's, Wolvercote, on July 29.

Mrs Rimmer, a social worker, said she had actually dreamed of getting married in the Bodleian Library, but the church had a special significance for her husband who grew up in Wolvercote and whose grandfather Paul Rimmer used to be the priest there.

Mrs Rimmer, who lives with Mr Rimmer in Radley, said: "We are both Christians, though I think it meant more to his family than mine.

"Oxford is so beautiful, there are so many places you could get married but this place had a lot of sentiment for us.

"I do think it is a bit strange to want to get married in a church if you're not religious."

Kloe Ayala, 24, from Kidlington, is planning her wedding to fiancé Ashley Skinner now, and trying to decide church or registry office.

While she comes from a Catholic family and would love to have the scenic setting for her big day, she is not a practising Christian.

The private medical secretary said: "I feel like I would be kind-of lying.

"The other side of the family want us to choose a church because his mum and grandma both had church weddings, and I had to say I'm not sure I want to.

"I know a lot of people feel if you're paying for it should just go for it, but I guarantee nine out of ten people who get married in a church wouldn't go back."

The decline in church weddings in Oxfordshire reflects a wider decline in the number of people going to church in the county and across the UK.

From 2011 to 2016 the number of people going to church in Oxfordshire every week dropped from 52,600 to 48,500.

Rev Andrew Bunch at St Giles Church in Oxford said the entire Church of England had been misrepresenting the founding principles of the faith.

He said: "The key thing for me is – does a person know what love is about? Do they show love? Do they enter into what love is?

"It's not about stressing that you must live in one type of way – I just want you to have the best possible life you can have together, and for me that is where the teaching of the church has got misplaced: we have taught Christianity as a moralistic religion but it is fundamentally an enabling religion."

Asked what he would say to a non-religious couple who wanted to get married in his church, he said: "I'd love to talk."

Oxfordshire Registration Service

Weddings Civil Partnerships

2012/2013 – 2481 78

2013/2014 – 2300 72

2014/2015 – 2491 12

2015/2016 – 2311 10

2016/2017 – 2562 7

Oxford Diocese weddings:

2011 – 2,710

2012 – 2,800

2013 – 2,550

2014 – 2,400

2015 – 2,310

2016 – 2,260

Total weddings in Oxfordshire:

2012 5,281

2013 4,850

2014 4,891

2015 4,621

2016 4,822