I recently heard a news report that, in America, fewer couples are turning to the church for their wedding services; more are planning to write their own script for the whole event; and a still-growing number are moving in together without a wedding service of any kind.
These are not surprising trends as secularism continues to oppose the Judeo-Christian mores and values that have shaped our culture. Moderns may say that no religious institution should prepare rituals for others to follow; after all, every couple will have its own ideas.
But the thought lingers that traditional marriage has had a constancy through the centuries. And that it is a venture so sweeping in its possibilities that it requires some elevated acknowledgment in the form of vows or declarations — if not holy, at least metaphysical. A wedding is one of life’s few rites of passage.
Although the percentage of weddings held in churches may decrease there will always be brides and grooms who want to be married in a Christian context.
I celebrated many weddings across a lifetime of pastoral ministry. I remember with particular warmth couples such as Ken and Judy, Larry and Cheryl, Jim and Fern, David and Faith, John and Sharon.
And I have had the blessed privilege of uniting in marriage eleven couples from my own family circle including children and grandchildren. Those moments were special for me and for them. In each case, every effort was made to reflect the Christian faith in word, symbol and song.
The Christian church broadly has always treated marriage as a rite to be celebrated, one of life’s most important events. It is an adventure in hope, intended as a once-in-a-lifetime pledging.
Across the years I have held that the core of a Christian wedding is not the attire the couple wear, the music they choose or the sanctuary’s decor. All are helpful in creating a beautiful setting and all must be chosen carefully. Nevertheless, the dominant feature of a wedding is the ritual — the words that are spoken, what they affirm and require and how they are delivered.
Thus, here are questions to ask of the words spoken: (1) Are they consistent with biblical truth about marriage? (2) Do they reflect with accuracy and beauty the commitments being made? (3) Do the words bear the influence of established and time-tested rituals of the past? (4) Are they Christ-honoring? (5) Are they linked to the ages as marriage is?
If a congregation is to be present for the service it is good to remember that there will likely be young, in the gathering, people with eager ears; perhaps an elderly man who with his now-deceased wife repeated similar vows years earlier and now sits alone; a couple in marital conflict who may be privately discussing divorce; and a young man and woman gathering ideas for their own upcoming nuptials.
For a congregation a wedding may be both a resonating chamber for Christian truth and a microcosm of human experiences.
The key to a lovely, moving wedding service is a good rehearsal. Wedding parties for this event usually arrive with a high level of excitement. It is the pastor’s task to take charge and manage the event, making sure that every participant understands his or her part. Rehearsals can be chaotic and overly long if not properly managed.
The reason for such care at the rehearsal is that there are no do-overs for weddings. If a Saturday-night youth gathering goes poorly there will always be another Saturday night. Even if a pastor’s sermon should fail, the next Sunday is only a week away. But the wedding is a singular event with no opportunities to run it through again a day or two later.
Yet, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go often askew). So wrote Robert Burns, in Scottish dialect. Indeed they do. Things may happen at the best-planned weddings that excite laughter or sometimes the opposite.
On one occasion after all preparations were carefully made and the congregation was gathered I learned that the bride had forgotten her special gloves in a neighboring community and had gone after them. The congregation sweltered for an hour in a sanctuary without air conditioning. The organ played and re-played the music that had been chosen. When the bride returned the wedding proceeded. On a wedding day, guests usually take such a glitch in stride.
The hope is to plan and practice so as to keep anything from happening that distracts from the solemnity and beauty of the event. And beyond that, to provide the couple with a memory that will still be held as sacred decades later.
What serves better as a standard than the advice of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Photo credit: Ryan Blyth (via flickr.com)