by Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 42 - Jul 2011

Recent statistics show that less and less people in England are even bothering to be married and less and less of those who do want to be married in Church.

My daughter was married in church - a big one - York Minister as Ralph, my husband, was Canon Treasurer at the time. Seven years and three children later my daughter's husband  left her and went to live abroad. I asked the local Vicar to visit her as she was devastated and we lived some distance away. He never did.

Partly because of this she has completely lost her faith. I took my three grand daughters to church for years and they were confirmed, but then my daughter told me that they did not need church any more and they have never been since - something which grieves me greatly.

At the moment the girls insist that they do want to get married in church. However, when they came to lunch on Easter Day and we all, somehow, got drawn into conversation about marriage they all took it for granted that people would live together first and could see no reason why people should not get married if they did not want to do so. My daughter took the line that only religious people get married in church and mother and daughters all thought that only the very religious did not live together first.

This division into religious and non-religious troubles me. It might please evangelicals who want to draw a deep line between the genuinely religious and the dangerous secularists outside Christianity. In my view Church boundaries are much more open.

As Roger Scruton wrote about the Church of England in a recent supplement in The Times:

'At the same time through its quiet but sacramental presence it has helped the ordinary embarrassed person  to find a way back to God'.

As far as marriage in the Church of England is concerned I said very firmly that it was not  just for the 'religious', however defined, but for all. As the preface of both ASB and Common Worship  Marriage services says, 'Marriage is a gift of God in creation'.

In the essay by W. K. Lowther Clarke on the 'Solemnisation of Matrimony' in Liturgy and Worship, he says,

'Marriage is a universal human institution, which the Church has ratified and blessed  following the example of Christ'.

In the light of this truth it is not surprising to find  that many of our marriage customs are of pre Christian origin. For example, the price paid to the bride's father to compensate him for the loss of a valuable worker was later given by him in whole or in part to his daughter and was finally symbolized by the ring. The original purpose of having bridesmaids dressed up in festival clothes seems to have been to deceive demons about the identity of the bride.

In the Old Testament period betrothal was considered the first stage of marriage. The actual wedding consisted of a procession bringing the bride, a marriage feast and the entry of the pair into the bridal chamber. No religious ceremony is mentioned...

There is no evidence to indicate what exactly took place when two Christians married in the very early church. In Tertullian's time (cAD160-220) marriage was blessed at the Eucharist but the actual marrying was a private ceremony. The first description of a Church rite is found in chapter 3 of the 'Response to the Bulgarians'; by Pope Nicholas, written in AD 866. He mentions two categories of acts. The first consists of the betrothal which included consent by the parents and the couple, the delivery of the ring by the bridegroom to the bride and the delivery of the dowry by written document in the presence of witnesses. The couple were now married and various ceremonies followed later. The couple went to church, made offerings, received a blessing and a 'heavenly veil' and they left the church with crowns on their heads.

Western marriage rites developed from this basis and in the Sarum Marriage Service there are two parts. The first part conducted in English consisted of consent, troth and the giving of a ring. It sometimes took place in the church porch. The second part was in Latin and was always held in the Church building. It consisted of blessing, the saying of psalms and prayers and eventually nuptial mass.

The 1549, 1552 and 1662 services followed the same pattern except that the whole service took place in church and a long exhortation was added at the beginning.

The proposals of the Liturgical Commission to the General Synod followed the traditional pattern following the traditional historic structure of preface, final charge, the mutual taking of vows, the giving and receiving of a ring and the blessing followed by reading, prayers and an address which could, if desired, form the first part of the Ministry of the Word of the Eucharist. A strong group in General Synod, led by Father Brian Brindley, wanted the marriage service to be set within the context of the Eucharist on the same lines of Baptism and the Confirmation.  We resisted this strongly on the grounds that marriage was a service which must be open to all and not just 'churchy' people. In the end, by rubric, an attempt was made to ensure that the service could be structured in a variety of ways but the dominant one was the traditional one.

In the ASB Service we also made other changes to bring the service more in line  with the ideas and aspirations of young people in the 20th century. There is nothing in the service to say what the bride must wear, or who accompanies her down the aisle. The first rubric in ASB states 'the bride and bridegroom stand before the priest'. It is the same in Common Worship. It is left to them how they get there and an increasing number do walk in together.

We changed the order of the purposes of marriage and put first 'the commitment to life long friendship and support'. In speaking of sex we wrote of 'delight and tenderness and the joy of bodily love'. When Father Brindley mocked and said these words and the language provided for the exchange of rings sounded  'like a women's magazine', I snapped back that I wanted it to be meaningful to ordinary women who read such magazines in the hairdressers!

Many of these changes were kept in the Common Worship service although in my view  they fiddled about with the preface and words of commitment in unnecessary ways. In my view, one change they made is disastrous. Common Worship sets the first part of the service as Ministry of the Word, with provision for a Communion Service but no provision for the traditional pattern. This not only breaks with the tradition of centuries but makes the service much less 'user friendly' to people today.

In the days before her marriage, pictures in the newspapers showed Kate Middleton get thinner and thinner as her nerves made it difficult for her eat. No wonder she was nervous of walking down the Abbey Aisle with all those people present. Many other couples feel the same. They are nervous and scared and more and more so as they become increasingly unfamiliar with church buildings. Until they have 'said their bit' and preferably signed the register they are not going to relax. Only then will they be prepared to sit and listen to readings and an address and join in prayers before going out to the music they have chosen.  No rubric or note gives permission for the Common Worship Marriage Service to be conducted following the traditional pattern but some of us do so for pastoral and historic reasons. This I believe needs to happen more and more.

The services in Common Worship were made much more 'churchy' and much more difficult for people who did not go to church regularly. Although the ASB Preface survives as an alternative, Common Worship gives a longer and less poetic Preface. Bodily love is referred to in terms which are more coy and 'churchy'. I never thought we got the prayers right in the ASB Marriage Service but in Common Worship they are even worse. They are long winded and filled with ecclesiastical gobbledygook.

These changes to the service in Common Worship coincided with the move to get married in hotels instead of in church. My younger daughter who has attended weddings of friends in both church and hotel commented that often churches were cold and unwelcoming and clergy took little care while hotels were warm, friendly, welcoming and took infinite pains with each detail.

Just at the point when people were increasingly growing away from the church we made occasional offices more 'churchy' and more difficult for those who did not often come to church.

Some clergy put up great barriers for people to overcome in the case of both baptism and marriage.  They demanded proof of sincerity and long periods of preparation. PCCs demanded bigger and bigger fees and charged extra for a few flowers or non existent heat. The evangelical and catholic wings have seemed determined to turn us into a sect and, sadly, have had a lot of success. Hence my family talking about 'religious people' and those 'outside'. People who wanted  to be married after divorce were turned away even after General Synod had made provision for this.

Now society has gone further and people do not bother to get married at all. Some people do not mind this but I confess I do and it saddens me. As a church which is the established Church  we have a responsibility to the whole nation and we are failing.

The Royal Wedding may serve as a wake up call to us, and challenge us to connect more with society where people are increasingly alienated from the church and yet at certain times do value its ministry.

We need to meet people where they are with welcome and care. The centuries of experience should teach us to let them get the issues of promises and rings over as soon as possible in the service.  Where we move on to prayers, etc. we need to change our language and our imagery radically to be of relevance to contemporary needs.

One final point I would wish to make. When people have a 'secular wedding' in a Registry Office, a hotel, by the sea, in a balloon or any of the varied places now chosen, they are not allowed to have any religious element at all. One hotelier told me that he had even had to move a picture from the room as it showed parts of the building which originally had been a monastery!  In conversation I find that many people would actually like some religious element: a prayer,  a reading, a song or something. They do not want to go to church but would welcome some mention of God. Anglican Clergy in England are forbidden by law to conduct a wedding outside a church building in line with legal requirements. Yet some of us go to Civil Partnerships and say prayers and give blessings. Why can we not do this at Civil Weddings? It need not actually be clergy. Lay people can read a reading  or religious poem or say a prayer or sing a hymn. The Church, I believe, should encourage a change in the law to make this possible for those who desire it.


In an email discussion with some of our Anglican anti-Covenant partners from the USA and Scotland Jonathan Clatworthy raised the issue of the 'perpetuation of a myth'. He wrote:

Add in the white dress, the car from her mother's home even though she hasn't lived there for years, etc. etc., and quite clearly we're dealing with yet another nostalgia ritual, of the sort modern affluent society is so fond. The words and actions express not what is the case, but what would have been the case in an imagined idyllic past. Nostalgia. As though the real things happening here and now are not worth celebrating, so we have to imagine something else.
To my mind this indicates a widespread, socially normal, underlying discomfort about the way things are. The actual process of two people committing themselves to each other, and wanting to tell their acquaintances that they are so committed, no longer has a means of joyful public expression, unless they decide to throw a party to announce something akin to an engagement. The first time they have sex together, and it's wonderful, has no means of public expression. That's a shame.
On giving away. There's a real issue in political philosophy about the extent to which we are, and should be, independent individuals free to set our own goals in life, and the extent to which we are born into a tradition and brought up with roles we have a duty to perform. Giving away goes back to a time when the emphasis was firmly on communitarianism rather than individualism,  so the bride's role was to marry and obey whoever she was given to in marriage, while the bridegroom's role was to provide house, money and children. Going to the other extreme, and insisting on complete individual autonomy, doesn't work because nobody has responsibility for looking after the ill and elderly. In my view we need to accept that to some extent life gives us duties we wouldn't have chosen. However, when brides are given away in weddings, the communitarianism being expressed is very selective!

As usual he stretches the limits of my mind wider than my narrower concerns. I hope he will write more for Signs of the Times about this modern challenge.

Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.