Christopher Trundle on the rich liturgy provided by the Prayer Book marriage service

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water, by the word; that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish’ (from the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer).

The Prayer Book marriage service is one of the elements of the Anglican tradition which has remained central to the life of the nation for many centuries. Indeed, the opening words, ‘Dearly beloved…’, are still known to many who are otherwise unfamiliar with the liturgy but have encountered them in literature, film or on television. While certainly forming a key part of our wider English cultural ‘backdrop’, it also continues to provide the building blocks of our society, establishing the basic unit of family life.

Clear teaching

The liturgy itself is rich in scriptural reference and imagery – the Epistles and early books of the Old Testament are particularly prevalent – and its teaching on the nature of marriage is clear and uncompromising: ‘First, It was ordained for the procreation of children… Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin… Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other.’

The Prayer Book is, of course, unrivalled in its insistence on instruction and explanation. As we would expect, an exhortation is provided to be read if there is no sermon, which focuses on the teachings of Saints Peter and Paul. Also notable is the final rubric which indicates the importance of the newly-married receiving communion either at the time of their marriage or ‘at the first opportunity after’.

Of course, no suggestion is made as to exactly how this might take place at the time of the marriage itself; appending the entirety of the Prayer Book Holy Communion service is rare, but not unknown (we can only suppose that a congregation invited to such an occasion would have greater forbearance and holiness than most).

Dignity and solemnity

It would be easy to suggest that this traditional marriage service is now ‘outdated’ given the variety of more ‘accessible’ texts provided in Common Worship, and to argue that it no longer speaks to our society in the way it used to. While developments in that society (not least regarding the place of women) make elements of the service difficult for many, it nonetheless conveys the dignity and solemnity of the marriage bond in an extraordinarily rich way.

Debate on the place of the Church in national life will continue for many years to come. The enduring value of the marriage service stands as a reminder, however, of Christ’s claims on all of creation, and of the role of his Church as his body in the world.

A now little-known entry in the marriage section of the English Hymnal is John Keble’s The voice that breathed o’er Eden. This hymn sets marriage in the context of God’s creation and sets forth the Church’s teaching (notwithstanding that the phrase ‘Be present, awful Father, To give away this bride’ is easily misunderstood). Rejected is the notion that marriage is simply a civil contract; rather it is presented as a means of grace and a participation in the wider scheme of salvation.

O spread thy pure wing o ’er them,
Let no ill power find place,
When onward to thine altar
The hallowed path they trace,
To cast their crowns before thee
In perfect sacrifice,
Till to the home of gladness
With Christ’s own Bride they rise.

John Keble