Faith Works 6-4-11
There Are No Spectators At a Wedding
There is a moment in just about every wedding I've ever officiated at, one part of the standard liturgy that is on my short list of non-negotiables. I'm fine with, and even encourage interest in writing one's vows, or being a bit creative with the outline, but there's something that always needs to be present, in my opinion.
It's adapted from the Episcopal "Book of Common Prayer" service, and it's after the "Declaration of Consent" from the bride and groom, which folks sometimes confuse with the vows themselves, being a statement of "yes, I know why I'm here, what we're about to do, and it's of my own free will."
The vows come shortly after, but before that and the readings and a homily from the officiant, even before I ask – or don't ask! – "Who presents this woman in marriage?" and just after I've asked each of the two main celebrants of the day their declaration, I look past the happy couple, at you.
The families in the front pews, the bridesmaids and groomsmen on either side, the more distant relations in the middle distance and dad's workplace colleagues in the back along with Uncle Charlie and the cousins who always come late, even when the wedding doesn't start on time. I look at you all.
And in my best ringing tones, projecting my voice up over and beyond the man and woman immediately in front of me, I ask "And YOU: do all of you gathered here, from far and near, family and friends . . . will all of you do everything that is in YOUR power to uphold these two persons in their marriage? If so, please respond by saying together, 'We do.'"
What occasionally startles the bride and groom is the strength of the response, as the roomful of invited guests, of all manner of connection, loose or strong, religious or merely tolerant enough to come to this sort of occasion, all prick up their ears at being asked to take an active role in the proceedings, and sing out with great emphasis, "WE DO!"
Do they all mean it? There may be moments ahead when one or another of them, maybe in the wedding party itself, maybe in the back row, is tempted to say "Ahhh, who cares what she says? C'mon, let's go; we'll be back by midnight I'm sure."
I'm just crazily optimistic enough to hope that, having said this "WE DO!" at the wedding, they might recall some years later that they promised to help build this marriage up, not tear it down.
And I'm encouraged in my lunacy by the vehemence with which people at least SOUND like they welcome being asked to play a part. Folks who assumed their role was to bring a gift and fill a seat, suddenly becoming an actual part of the ceremony, and in a low stress role to boot . . . they like it. Maybe because they immediately realize it makes sense, too.
A marriage is not, really, just about two people. It's about community, and a culture (small-c) around what it means to celebrate in the beyond-the-big-day sense of celebrate a marriage. It needs everyone at their oar, all of us invested, involved in getting the occasion off to a good start, and also carried on without untoward incident.
Without that wider view, when the vision narrows down to just the two, then it's easy for the focus to get misplaced, and look at the external trappings and décor elements as the real heart of the story. It's from this cramped viewpoint that you get brides asking "Can we get THAT thing out of here for the service?" (pointing at the cross on the altar), or grooms planning the honeymoon more carefully than they do the getting of the license (oh, yeah, can I bring that to you next week afterwards, pastor?).
We are all part of the marriage, even if we (rightly) have no part in planning the service. Or at least we should be, because any one person can get divorced, but it takes the whole community around the couple to make a happy marriage.
Just two people can pull it off, but it's hard, hard work to do on your own.
If you attend any weddings this summer, I hope you get asked to speak your support, and trust me, the couples hear how you say those two simple words, "WE DO!" and they draw comfort from them.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.