Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wedding How-To's

Lately, we've been party to quite a few disturbing online conversations, mostly among our younger colleagues.  Although various in detail, these boil down to variations on a question that ordained ministers really ought not need to ask:  "How do I perform a marriage?"

At the deeper levels, we see no problem.  Our young friends have many thoughtful theological reflections peculiar to the age, particularly regarding the relation of church and state in matrimonial matters.  With the rest of us, they are also exploring the pastoral care questions that emerge as same-sex unions are given a regular place within church orders.

But at the most superficial level -- what shall I wear?  Where do people stand? -- they seem strangely at a loss.  Perhaps we can help.  Here are some practical observations, which we hope may be useful.

I.  Civil Law.  

No matter what you think about serving as both a minister of religion and a servant of the civil state, and no matter what the customs of European nations now or in the Middle Ages, the people you are marrying (and those helping to bless their union) have a natural expectation that their marriage will be valid both ecclesiastically and legally.  For this, some due diligence is required.

Every state has its own rules regarding who may perform a legal wedding, as do some counties.  Learn these in advance, and be certain to comply with them.  Likewise, emphasize to the couple their responsibility to provide you with a valid license.  If either your credentials or theirs are invalid, no legal wedding may take place.

Occasionally, people ask for a religious ceremony but, for legal or financial reasons, do not intend to be legally married.  A minister who performs a wedding under these circumstances may well be abetting a crime, such as fraud or bigamy.  Such a couple may be blessed and prayed for, but they should not be married.

Alternatively, when a minister is asked to join people who may be married under church law but not civil law, such as same-sex couples in states which do not recognize their union.  While a marriage performed under these circumstances will have no legal standing, it may constitute legitimate pastoral care. Even if that is the case, however, the minister must be certain that both members of the couple understand that their "marriage" exists only in the eyes of the church, and not those of any state.  Should it later become possible for them to be married under civil law, they are ethically obliged to do so.

II.  Eucharist.

When the subject comes up, a surprising number of pastors seem unaware that Holy Communion is, at least historically, part of the wedding ceremony.  They occasionally say, "I've never had a couple ask for it."  Likely this is because they have not explained to the couple that it is customary, and will be celebrated unless there are good reasons not to.

Such reasons exist, and are not few.  If a large number of people cannot commune, it may be good pastoral care to refrain from a eucharistic celebration.  On the other hand, we once performed a wedding for a Christian/Hindu couple, and the Hindu groom's family was delighted by the celebration of the Eucharist, even though they could not receive it.  (The following day, many Hindu ceremonies were celebrated at which the Christians were passive, if joyful, observers.)

Under no circumstances should the married couple commune without opening the table to other communicant members of the assembly.  [This is spelled out in the ELW Leader's Edition, p. 46]

III.  Vestments.

At a Eucharist, one wears Eucharistic vestments -- normally, the alb, stole and chasuble.

If the Eucharist is omitted, a cassock and surplice is traditional.  (Among Lutherans, the stole is customarily, if unhistorically, worn over the surplice).  In many churches, an alb has come to replace the cassock and surplice; this may be regrettable for historical reasons, but there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

We are not aware of any rubric prescribing or permitting the use of a cope at weddings, except by Roman Catholic bishops.  If you are a Roman Catholic bishop, virtually nothing in this blog post applies to you.

IV.  Colors.

The color of the day.  The color of the day.  The color of the freaking day, okay, people?

The LBW Manual on the Liturgy says this very clearly:
The color for a season of the church year is not affected by the celebration of Holy Baptism or marriage; the color is not changed for funerals or for services of installation or commissioning.  On national holidays, the color is that of the season.  [p. 21]
(Incidentally, this is among the most abused and ignored rubrics in history, particularly at funerals.  Abusus non tollit usum, however, and ignorance even less so.)

Although the ELW Leader's Edition is -- surprise! -- less clear, it (a) classes colors among the propers of the day or season [p. 14] and (b) makes no provision for changing them for pastoral ceremonies [p. 16].

In other words:  don't change the colors to white on the dubious theory that marriage is a regressus ad baptismum.  Don't change the colors to white because it will match the bride's dress (although that is, like your own surplice or alb, ultimately a baptismal garment).  Above all, don't change the colors because somebody's liturgically ignorant mother or florist thinks it would make for better photographs.

V.  Non-Rubrical Ceremonies.

Movies and, especially, the predatory drones who make up the wedding industry -- florists, dressmakers, taxi drivers and so forth -- have imbedded in the popular imagination a vast number of "wedding traditions" found in no service book, and few truly traditional weddings.  One of the greatest kindnesses a pastor can perform is to assure brides and grooms that they do not need, inter alia, ring cushions, rose petals, rice or birdseed, candles in paper bags, aisle runners, unity candles, or mercy knows what other doodads.  A lot of honeymoon money can be saved by saying "No" to junk.

Here is what you need for a wedding:  a couple, an officiant, a license and (depending upon the jurisdiction) some witnesses.  Everything else is optional (although if the officiant is not ordained and the blessings of God are not invoked, the wedding may be civil rather than Christian).  We often mention this at rehearsals, when explaining that we will not delay the ceremony for late arrivals.

Most rubrics call for the exchange of rings (although the ELW makes it optional).  This is an extremely old and widespread custom.  It may be argued that the exchange of property is a crass reminder that marriages, historically, had as much to do with family fortunes as with God or romantic love.   Be that as it may, they are a powerful and enduring public symbol of marriage.

Moreover, the exchange of goods is so deeply connected to the history of matrimony that Luther, and not Luther alone, has used it as a tool to interpret the reconciliation of God and humanity in Christ.  The "froehlich Wechsel," or joyful exchange, is an idea that seems to have passed from Augustine to the Augustinians, and which Luther picked up from von Staupitz.  Briefly, it proposes that in the marriage of Christ and the Church, the Lord gives his eternal life and righteousness, and we give our sin and death.  Although it is not the only model of the Atonement that one finds in Luther's writings, it is one which has attracted a lot of attention.

No rubrics that we know of have ever prescribed a "unity candle," which seems to have been invented in the 1960s or 70s.  Philip Pfatteicher observed (in the Manual on the Liturgy) that this practice
... may be strong on sentiment, but is weak on theology.  The bride and groom do not extinguish their own lives to begin a new one.  Rather marriage should enhance the individual life of each.
The Roman Catholic US Conference of Bishops wisely recommends that, if these things must be used, they be lit at the reception, rather than grafted awkwardly into a religious ceremony to which they are alien.   As a last ditch, they propose that the unity candle be lit by the bride and groom from the Paschal Candle.  Under no circumstances should it be placed on the altar.

There are other ceremonies, however, which may have no historic place in Lutheran churches, but which have a deep resonance for the faithful of other confessions.  The crowns from an Orthodox ceremony, which mark the husband and wife as co-regents (under Christ) of their own family; the broom to be jumped, the glass broken, the veil to be placed upon the shoulders of the newlyweds.  These may have their place, not merely as expressions of cultural sensitivity but as authentic religious traditions.

Although few service books prescribe a place in the ceremony for things like this, it happens that ELW does.  It places these "other symbols of marriage" after the vows and acclamations, but before the blessing.

VI.  Common Sense

Obviously, rubrics are made to be broken, most especially (we regret to say) by Lutherans.  A certain amount of pastoral flexibility is just good evangelical sense.  Still, people who choose a Christian wedding should be offered a ceremony which makes full and unembarrassed use of Christian symbols, language and traditions.

This requires, first, that pastors know the symbols and traditions, and, second, that they take the time to patiently teach their significance to people who are preparing for marriage.  It may seem like a lot of work, some of it picayune and antiquarian, but the results, both for the family and for the church, may be enduring.


Pastor Joelle said...

Or...do what most pastors do now...whatever the hell they like.

Whit Johnstone said...

Interestingly, the Episcopal Church has the opposite rubric, at least as regards funerals. In TEC a funeral is always white. I'm not sure about weddings.

Father Anonymous said...

So, I believe, does the Roman Catholic Church. The old rite called for black, the new one for white. I'm sure that Lutherans who use white for funerals are instinctively copycatting.

And in funerals, it makes sense. Heck, we're lighting the Paschal Candle; why not go whole hog and pretend it's Easter Sunday? In a sense, of course, it is.

Weddings, however, are different. I don't know the Episcopal rubric, but I'd be surprised if it called for anything but the color of the day. (Of course, I get surprised by something nearly every day, usually before noon).