MOST of the weddings I have conducted during my ministry have been from the now-defunct ASB. In my younger days, I was not fond of the Prayer Book ceremony: the lack of symmetry in the vows worried me; but that was a detail, for the most part I knew what I was doing and felt happy with the balance of the service, old or new.

Except for one element. As the couple kneel, I had to ‘tie the knot’, and over their heads utter the solemn warning to all those present, ‘That which God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ (‘Divide’ lacked gravitas.) It is so short! I wanted a booming, operatic voice with which to grab the congregation metaphorically by the throat and insist, ‘This means you!’ The words are excellent (remember the source), but the phrase is so short. I had always wanted an introduction in order to tell people what it meant, ‘Don’t you dare do anything to separate these two. This means you, parents, complaining that he/she is not good enough for your son/daughter. This means you, friends, relishing rumour and gossip,’ and so on. But that option was not available.

So when Common Worship arrived, I warmed to the sort-of-warning-cum-promise at the beginning of the service, ‘Will you, the families and friends of N and N, support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come?’ The Church House commentary notes the parallel in the ordination service, and continues, ‘This is a significant statement for couple and congregation alike and contains a whole raft of meanings, ranging from emotional support to prayer and practical help.’

I agree. But what if the congregation does not reply? What if they do not respond with a clear ‘We will’? Presumably the service cannot be stopped. The marriage cannot be dependent upon the vow or undertaking of the congregation; but it is utterly dependent on the two vows of consent made by the couple, to each other, immediately before.

The unintentional, implicit proclamation seems to be, therefore, that some ‘vows’ are only expressions of good intentions. Not the best start to a marriage service. I wonder how other ministers feel.