As a minister, I am (obviously) called on from time to time to officiate at weddings. In helping a couple plan their wedding and begin their new life together it is important to help them recognize that as our culture changes, so too must our traditions, if they are to remain relevant and meaningful. Therefore, no tradition is so sacred that it can’t be rethought or even entirely omitted.
Along these lines, the New York Times recently published an article entitled “What Wedding Traditions Should Be Tossed?” Which brought together the thoughts of a number of experts on various aspects of marriage and relationship. These authors’ suggestions are all worth considering when helping a couple work through their plans to marry – and for the ceremony itself. I thought I’d highlight some of the suggestions that I find most helpful in my role as the officiant and spiritual guide, and I’ve added a couple of additional suggestions of my own…
1. Giving Away the Bride…
Ariel Meadow Stallings points out in her article “Rethink Giving Away The Bride” that this tradition seems less and less relevant and helpful as our views of what a marriage is evolves. Especially considering that many individuals now marry multiple times over the course of their lives, many often marry much later in life than they used-to, and same-sex unions are becoming widely accepted. Also, and in part because of these trends, the biological father of the bride may be absent, or nonexistent, or may not be the person who fulfilled the role of parent and guardian for the bride. Stallings suggests a variety of alternatives that may be more meaningful.
2. It’s Not Just The Bride’s Wedding…
Chris Easter points out that this is not just the bride’s wedding, but the groom’s too. (And, I’d carefully add – to some extent, the community’s as well.) Also, a wedding celebration is the first opportunity many couples have to actually work together as partner to accomplish a major task. There will be many more (pregnancy, buying a home, etc). Therefore, we should encourage the groom to be an active partner in the planning of their “special day.” The very act of participation will help both of them gain experience in working together to face major decisions and challenges, and is much more in tune with the modern view that both spouses are equal partners within the marriage.
3. The Bouquet Toss…
In her post “Three Wedding Traditions That Need an Upgrade” Michelle Edgemont tells us that the bride’s toss of the bouquet to her single friends highlights their unmarried status (and, I might add, implies that marriage should be the goal of every unmarried woman). If we take a moment to think about it, most of us realize that we are no longer comfortable with these implications. And; with same sex weddings becoming more common, we need to consider whether this old custom is even relevant any more. Edgemont suggests that the bride should instead give her bouquet to the longest-married couple present, as a recognition of the life-long commitment, compromise, and hard work that goes into creating and sustaining a successful marriage.
4. ‘Til Death Do Us Part…
I have strong concerns over the use of this particular phrase – or any vows that are framed in “absolute and forever” terminology.
In this specific case, “‘Til Death Do Us Part” is a claim that marriage is an unbreakable covenant, one that will last forever. While declaring so in such absolute terms may have been viewed as true and worthwhile (most of the time) a hundred years ago, it certainly is not true in today’s world, no matter how well intended the newly married couple may be – and we know it. And, to be blunt, if one or the other partner in the marriage is abusive, or becomes abusive, then the marriage covenant is broken right at that moment. Claiming that marriage vows must remain in force after abuse occurs only leaves the door open for continuing that abuse, and makes it appear that God sanctions such abuse. This is simply not so!
It is better to avoid this phrase and declare instead that we will do our best to make the marital relationship work, as will the community that embraces us. Otherwise, it is much harder to recognize and accept that point in time where we are confronted with the reality the relationship is not working as it should, and can’t be healed. And, it makes it harder to see the end of the marital union as acceptable, let alone desirable. Such absolute language also makes it much more difficult to end the marriage gracefully, instead of acrimoniously – resulting in much more pain for all involved.
5. Forever Hold Your Peace
Finally, I strongly advise couples to not incorporate the tradition of asking those who have reservations regarding the couple’s union to “speak now or forever hold your peace.”
My concerns with this are threefold:
First, most who do have objections are probably not going to do so in front of a large group, as they know that doing so makes them a target of the anger of many others. Instead, they will usually choose to voice their concerns – whether valid or not – behind closed doors at a later time. So by asking this question, we are in fact encouraging those who are (presumably) closest to the couple to be dishonest and secretive with any reservations they may have regarding the union.
Second, if someone is obtuse enough to actually voice their concerns in such a public setting- whether those concerns are real or imagined – we are giving them a perfect opportunity to create a very painful and humiliating memory for the couple (and everyone else, too). What good will doing so accomplish, other than marring the ceremony, and generating a great deal of ill will and pain for all who are there? This cannot be good.
Third, this question is essentially a statement that if there really are issues, our job is to shut up and not voice them – and that burying them is the best way of making them go away. Doing so does not require us to be supportive of the couple and their union when they run into a “rough patch” – but instead suggests that hiding our flaws is preferred over confronting and dealing with them. Instead, a marriage celebration – from start to finish – must be a statement of hope and support made by all who are there, and is a mark of our commitment to not only start out the relationship in a healthy and supportive way, but continue our support as long as the marital relationship endures.
I suggest substituting this question with a communal statement: ask all who are able in the congregation to rise, and then have everyone repeat a public vow to actively support the new couple and their marriage. This is a positive statement and establishes a covenant among all who are there that we are all – individually and corporately – responsible for helping this couple’s union succeed, both now and in the future.
In conclusion, I see a marriage as a statement of a couple’s love for each other, and of their determination to share life together: exchanging vows to honor, respect, and support each other and their relationship. It is also a communal statement – emphasizing the importance of marriage in the life and continuation of the community, and (in turn) of the community’s responsibility to help these two individuals have a successful and happy life together.
Traditions help ground us in the past, making us part of a long chain of those who are “passing the torch” through this ritual of vowing to love, honor and cherish; from one generation to the next. Each marriage ceremony reaffirms the importance of preserving those things that make our relationships with our spouses healthy, strong, and supportive. Marriage is also a statement of our hope and determination to continue that chain of sharing, and the hope it represents, into the future – so that our spiritual (or physical) descendants will someday have their own opportunity to join with us in making the same affirmations.
That said, if a tradition no longer serves these purposes: of helping a couple’s union remain strong and healthy, of emphasizing the role of the community in keeping the marriage healthy, or of emphasizing marriage’s role in preserving and conserving our faith and community from the past and into the future, then the tradition needs to be reworked so that it does serve these purposes. Or, it should be set aside – perhaps remaining a fond memory for some, but recognizing that it is a tradition that is no longer helpful or relevant to us and those whom we love.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)