Andy Hawes looks at nuptials past and present

I have had a lot of fun in the past few months attending the Golden Wedding celebrations of parishioners: three since Christmas. They have been a series of very valuable case studies as I found myself reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the way people celebrate their wedding day. The reminiscences of the ‘golden couples’ have several features in common. First, their weddings were not large events; often there were far more people attending the anniversary party than the wedding half a century before. Secondly, they were largely ‘homespun’ – family and friends made dresses, cakes, refreshments etc. Thirdly, they were all church weddings. Fourthly, they all took place in the bride’s home parish church. Last but by no means least, the couple began to live together after the marriage, although not always in their own home – sometimes lodging with family or friends. Even twenty -five years ago, when this writer married, the kit for the wedding service and its consequent celebrations were home-made family efforts – thus there was a well established pattern where family, community, worship and prayer came together in the parish church to celebrate the new life of a man and a woman made one in marriage.

The Big Day

How things have changed! The last conversation I had with a prospective wedding couple included the following questions: ‘Do you mind if I wear an off the shoulder dress?’ and ‘Can we sing a modern love song instead of a religious one?’ This is all for a wedding planned for August 2004! The couple already own and live together in a house. Like many other clergy I have become used to this scenario but it does beg the question ‘How do I make this fit a Christian celebration of marriage?’ The wedding will cost a small fortune and will include essential extras like a pony and trap, the professional video man, an expensive reception (marquees in the grounds of the local stately home already booked). For all this – despite a damn good party – the lives of the couple will not change significantly, neither will the way the community perceives or relates to them.

For this and for other twenty-first century couples a wedding is not a rite of passage into a new life and new relationships; forsaking the old and standing on the brink of the new. It is an expression of wealth and taste; it is a statement of values; it is romantic materialism. It is the product of the spirit of the age and in many profound ways it is contrary to the spirit of Christ. The contemporary wedding day would seem to be a day for ‘golden couples’. Sometimes during weddings I have a dreadful feeling that I am letting the Lord down. I am smiling accomplice in hypocrisy. The bride’s father will play the part of handing over the bride, the bride will wear the white of virginity, and the bridegroom will endow with all his worldly goods – something he did years ago. It doesn’t look or sound right. Sadly, despite the best efforts that are made in the preparation for and celebration of marriages there is a sense that all is not well and that in some way a sacramental act has been used and abused.

The new ‘common worship’ marriage rite has made some adjustments to meet the needs of modern marriage. This making the service fit the social mores of the time finds many precedents; for example, the 1928 service offered the option for the bride not to vow to ‘obey’. It would seem the marriage rite is very flexible. There has always been a tendency to find ways of drawing the celebration of marriage into the church, rather than leave it at the metaphoric lych gate. The proposed changes to the qualification regulations are intended to do precisely that. It is often said, ‘Well at least they got married’ or ‘Something might have rubbed off’ or ‘The gospel was preached’ or’ ‘It’s good to see the community using the church’ or, less piously, ‘The money’s useful’.

Wedding List

There are signs, however, of a Christian renewal of weddings. This is accompanied by a growing recognition of the worth of pre- nuptial chastity. There is a realization among couples that to opt for a ‘church wedding’ is to opt for a ‘Christian’ wedding and that the two might not always be the same. There is a clear opportunity for evangelism here. Last year I was a celebrant at a wedding where the couple’s friends not only read the lesson but also led prayers for their new life together. Last year a member of the church married and the wedding involved the local church school, the church flower ladies and numerous folk provided food and help for the party. Last year 1 also prepared a couple for confirmation – they came to see that the marriage service only made sense within the context of Christian discipleship.

With all this in mind, what are the essentials of a good wedding?

Here is a wedding list with a difference!

1. By every means the couple should be encouraged to see a church wedding in the context of church life.

2. There is no reason why the church community should not become involved more than often is the case. Those responsible for flowers, music, verging etc must see the very real possibilities of ministry and witness they have.

3. Banns of marriage (whilst they still exist) should be used as an opportunity to welcome and pray for wedding couples.

4. The growing custom of involving family and friends in funeral services should be encouraged in wedding services.

5. The maximum help must be given in the choice of readings, prayers and music.

6. Make sure the focus remains on the action, not the setting – limit the amount of flowers!

7. There is no need for a cast of thousands – eight bridesmaids and a pageboy scratching his bottom does not help.

8. Don’t employ a pantomime photographer whose performance takes twice as long as the wedding and reduces people to tears. The excellence results of modern cameras means that a copy of the guests’ photos will probably make a better album.

9. If the church is near a pub, hold the service early in the day.

10. Don’t forget to invite the vicar to the party!

Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham-on-the-Hill and Swinstead and Rural Dean of Bettisloe in the Diocese of Lincoln

The modern wedding is an expression of wealth and taste; it is a statement of values; it is romantic materialism.