To Church or Not to Church: That Is the Wedding
So you’re getting married!
The wedding industrial complex in America has lots of things for you and your beloved, your family, and your friends to do regarding the wedding. Most of them are, by and large, not necessary for the wedding or the marriage, but perhaps they are fun and somewhat traditional. You really don’t need wedding attendants in gowns, flowers or rings, or gifts for those who attend or even a reception. But if they are important to your celebration of this day, enjoy!
The ceremony, the actual wedding liturgy, is necessary for the wedding. But just how complex and intricate does it need to be, and how should it reflect the grace and hope of the couple?
For those who are part of a traditional faith community, you have a few thousand years of help with all things wedding ceremony. Celebrating a wedding for active members of a congregation within the traditions of that community is a part of our life of faith. Marriage is one of the works of the people of faith - one of many that mark our lives together. Celebrating this covenant of marriage between two people in the church is a profound moment.
But what about couples who aren’t part of a traditional faith community, who are “spiritual but not religious,” or who don't have one particular expression of spirituality? Well, you have a few thousand years of help, too (don't get me started on just how much of our modern idea of church weddings comes from ancient pagan customs). That notwithstanding, I very much recognize the declining number of citizens actively engaged with a traditional faith community is inevitably leading to fewer traditional “church” weddings. And here’s the thing, I think anyone who wants to mark this significant moment in their lives should have a ceremony that embodies their thanksgiving, their hope, and their love.
Over the decades, the work of the people to celebrate the expression of love between two people and their hopes for their lives together hasn’t changed all that much over thousands of years. Ancient wedding rituals and our modern incarnations, no matter how original we think they may be, still contain within them a celebration of the mystery of love and hope for a new incarnation of life together.
So wherever you are in your life of spirituality, I offer some insight I’ve gotten from years of helping couples have a meaningful day to help you with your wedding.
1. Remember that this is one day in your life. That truth stands regardless of traditional faith or non-traditional faith. The wedding is not the most important day of your life; it is a day marking a transition. Important? Yes, but from insight of married couples, they frequently say the wedding was a moment, not the moment. As you plan this day of celebration, remember its context - a moment, not the moment.
2. Decide what wedding liturgy is important to you. Liturgy is a word that has roots meaning the work of the people. Liturgies reflect the joy, grief, concern, and hope of the gathered community across the human experience. They can be sacred, secular, or both. Weddings fall into the both category. They hold within them the sacredness of joy for the new couple and hope for their lives together and the secular aspects of the law of our land. If you are both members of a religious community, then getting married within the traditions of that community makes sense, complete with the liturgy of the work of the people reflected in eons of the work of love in scripture, music, and prayer. However, if neither of you are active members, consider what is important to you.
With all couples, I ask them to consider some questions when planning their ceremony (because in the Episcopal church, as in other traditions, there are options, lots of options). These questions include: What words matter to you as you describe your relationship? What memories are important to share with those gathered so they can join the celebration? What hopes do you have for your lives together? What vows do you want to make to each other and with the community gathered? How can the community help you live out those vows? Those are a few of the questions that can help create the ceremony that is truly the work of the people being married.
3. Make sure your officiant is legal and is familiar with the legal requirements for a marriage. If your officiant is your congregation’s rabbi, priest, or pastor, you’re good. If you use a professional wedding officiant, s/he is likely registered, as well. If you would like to have a friend or family member be your officiant, this will take some effort. Yes, I realize there are online instant ordinations, but not all of those ordinations are legal in all jurisdictions to officiate at a wedding. States, counties/parishes, and municipalities all have varied rules and regulations. Some require an officiant to be registered and licensed, and these usually require fees. Almost all jurisdictions require the marriage to be performed by a licensed officiant with two adult witnesses, along with appropriate signatures and the wedding license returned within the limits prescribed by law. This is a long way of saying, no, not just anyone can officiate at your wedding and yes, you’ll need to make some inquiries to make sure all is legal. Some states have some interesting requirements for the adult witnesses (and no state allows them to be intoxicated when they sign the marriage licenses). If you’d like a family member or close friend to officiate, make sure you follow all the steps required by law.
4. And be realistic about what your officiant will do. If you choose to have a friend officiate your wedding, expecting that person to offer pre-marital counseling, coordinate all things wedding, or be able to write and preach a wedding sermon might not be realistic. Those are expectations based on traditional religious weddings with ordained people who may have decades of experience with weddings. If you take a non-traditional route, embrace the differences. If you’d like some kind of premarital counseling, meet with a couples’ therapist for several sessions for some insight about how marriage will change your relationship. Hire a wedding coordinator to handle the details of the ceremony, and remember you don’t really need a sermon at your wedding or have the officiant read a meaningful poem or other writing instead.
4. You don’t actually need to say vows. Contrary to what’s out there on the internet about planning your wedding, the laws of our country don’t require the couple to say vows. They require a licensed officiant and usually two witness to be present as the couple declares themselves or is pronounced married. Yep, that’s it. If you want a religious ceremony, the vows are part of sacred covenant between the parties, God, and the community. However, if a traditional religious ceremony isn’t what you want as a couple, then you have creative freedom for a ceremony that reflects you. Write your own vows, or have a symbolic act instead of written vows or omit the vows altogether.
5. Consider a wedding planner. If you get married in a church, most have a wedding planner or consultant to help with cuing the music, getting the wedding party lined up, and other details. The clergy also keep all this in order, as well. But if you are using a friend or family member as your officiant, my experience is you’ll save yourself some stress by hiring a wedding consultant who is trained to take care of the details.
6. Know what faith communities can and can’t do regarding weddings. Before a couple decides they can’t have a “church” wedding because they are interfaith or same sex or aren’t sure they believe in Jesus Christ, double check. Many faith communities regularly celebrate interfaith weddings, same-sex weddings, or ceremonies that reflect the beliefs of the couple that might not be purely Christian or other traditional faith. My own Episcopal faith requires one member be a baptized Christian (which means interfaith weddings are welcomed), and one of the most remarkable weddings I officiated was an interfaith Episcopal-Hindu wedding. Many denominations celebrate same-sex weddings. Some churches require membership; others don’t. So ask questions before making assumptions.
7. But remember not having a traditional “church” wedding is also okay if that is a more accurate reflection of your beliefs. So if you’d like to create a ceremony not from a traditional religious wedding, do that. While there are many models (an internet search will yield an overwhelming amount of results for possible wedding ceremonies), this is one I’ve shared when I get emails or phone calls from people looking to have a not-church wedding and feeling a bit overwhelmed by writing the ceremony:
- Gathering statements - why we’re here today
- Declaration of intention of couple to be married and declaration of support of community
- Readings and/or music meaningful to the couple
- Vows or other action representing their promises to each other (including rings)
- Signing of the marriage license and wedding promises
- Prayers/hopes/blessings from the gathered community
- Announcement of the marriage and kiss
8. Remember this is a celebration of love - a love between two people and love far bigger than any of us. In my Christian tradition, the sacrament of marriage is one expression of God’s love for us, made visible in the relationship between two people and the vows they make. We pray their love will be a witness to this broken and hurting world that love does indeed win in its many incarnations. May your wedding remind those who celebrate it with you of the strength of love in a world that so desperately needs to remember this. Maybe the heart of planning a wedding is to remember it isn’t, in the end, all about us, but a confession of the belief that love wins and hope does spring eternal.