When two people marry, the whole complex gathering of rites-some from the state, some from the family, some from the church-serves many purposes. For one, they show what all these groups think about marriage, and they try to impress these understandings on the couple. For another, they let everyone adjust to the idea that there is something new among us: We cannot think of these two tomorrow as we thought of them yesterday. And yet another task of the rites: Some of them are meant to allow us to express our sheer delight in the festival. When ritual does its work, all these things happen. But there are some¬times difficulties when it comes to the church’s part in the wedding. If the couple has no feeling of belonging, they are likely to be indifferent, seeing what happens in the church building as only another obligation. Apart from the bridal party’s entrance procession and a favorite song or two, they may say that “anything Father wants is fine with us.”Our goal is for people to feel they belong in the church and know that the church’s ritual is their own expression of what marriage means. It is often possible to begin with a sense that this wedding is a gathering of the church, the plain old small-c church: friends and relatives with all their faults and even lack of faith. It is these people, with their hopes and tears and sighs, who are the gathered church. It is their faith and their love, kindled by the marrying couple and encouraged by the presider’s leadership, that celebrates the sacrament. It is a family, a community of friends, a church, that celebrates. An understanding like this will enrich the couple’s experience, and prevent their approaching their wedding as a predetermined formula indifferent to them or as a stage for them to celebrate themselves.
Something has to happen between the church gathered here and the couple, something beyond the legal and social, something bound up with being the church. When we find or lose a job, when we move from one place to another, when a child grows up and moves away-these are crucial moments, times for prayer, but they are not times when we call the church together. A wedding is something more: more profound, more lasting. Our hope and our faith and our support need to be expressed in the church’s ritual in ways that are simply not possible in the other social and legal rites. In the liturgy of the wedding, we seek the deepest signs of what this church here, and the whole church, believes: gratitude to God for bringing this about, trust in God’s strength and grace to see it through, intercession for the couple and for all the church and world.
The ritual is to make such things felt, seen, heard and touched. With songs, processions, greetings, prayers, scriptures and silent reflection, the assembled friends and family join in the ritual with the couple. Such a spirit brings about the right moment for the couple to answer the questions put to them and to answer about freedom, about fidelity, about a Christian home and family. And it brings about the right moment for the vows, a profound moment, with clear, firm words spoken by and to each partner so that all can hear and can respond with some sign of affirmation. The giving and receiving of the rings expresses in one of our most ancient symbols the union and the hope that it lasts forever. The blessing of the marriage, which comes some time later if the eucharist is celebrated, is a chance for all present to voice all that is in their hearts for the future good of these two.
This involves more than choosing among the alternatives for scripture selections or picking out good songs. There is the presumption that the rite itself is celebrated well, with a presider and other ministers who do their tasks well, with a flow to the ritual that creates community among the guests and lets them express what is in their hearts, with a place for the couple to make their vows before the Lord and the church.