Ask a Protestant clergyperson whether she or he prefers conducting funerals or weddings, and the answer may surprise you. Most in my circles over the years have said funerals, hands down.
Why? All sorts of reasons are offered. Funerals provide a better means to make meaningful pastoral connections. Funerals are more about the ritual and the caring for each other, and much less about the trappings. And funerals often feel more like worship by all present and less like a stage production designed to impress an audience. Though the funeral service references and provides opportunities for folks to share about the life of the deceased, ultimately the funeral is more about enabling all of those gathered to express their grief and care and to confess our hope in the resurrection of Christ than it is to showcase one person or family. And at funerals, all who knew and loved the deceased are openly invited. At weddings, the invitation list is much more exclusive.
Overall, funerals more often feel connected to God, to each other, to the church and the wider community. Weddings, by contrast, more often feel disconnected from the rest of "normal" life, from the church and its worship, from the wider community and even from God.
We have the wedding-industrial complex partly to thank for this state of affairs. Beginning in the 1940s, dressmakers, fashion designers, and the birth of the bridal magazine evangelized and idealized a largely fabricated vision of "the traditional wedding" that every American girl should dream of for "her special day." This led to the proliferation of bridal boutiques, the insistence on single-use white gowns (and gowns themselves rather than dresses), as well as tuxedos and patent leather shoes rather than suits and dress shoes for the groom's party. This cabal also championed the adage "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." Beginning in the 1960s, candle makers began promoting the purchase and use of "The Unity Candle" and ceremonies relating to it. Florists and cake makers continued to specialize their wares to fit every whim and wallet. Photographers and videographers along with sound and light specialists became quintessential part of the package. And in the last 30 years, "wedding planners" have joined the ranks of the industry in order act more or less as general contractors to mediate and help organize and direct the dizzying variety of choices available to brides to be.
And then there's the party afterward. And all that must be arranged for that... and all the expenses involved there, as well.
Personally, I thank God for good wedding planners! Clergy have little or no training, experience or time to deal with all of these other pieces that have now become "de rigeur" in even the average wedding.
But given all of this, is it any wonder that weddings now feel removed from the life of the average pastor and Christian worshiping community? Is it any wonder so many clergy say we prefer funerals to weddings, hands down? (By the way, the majority of those whom I've asked that question have actually said, "hands down"). And that despite the fact that the funeral-industrial complex has made its mark on what happens in and around the funerals we conduct as well?
Are there ways for us as Christians (laity and clergy!) to reclaim and redeem our roles in weddings with integrity, so that we might perhaps feel a bit better about what happens at weddings?
I believe there are. And they both start with remembering and then rethinking why we offer weddings in the first place.
A Sociological Role
What do Christians think we are doing in celebrating weddings? If we answer that from a sociological perspective, we may think we are primarily offering a ritual in which we unite and bless a couple as they begin a vowed life together. That we certainly do, and we are and perhaps should be a bit more glad to do it than some of us (myself included!) may appear to be at times.
We needn't feel overwhelmed or pressured by all of the wedding-industrial complex expectations that the couple or their families may bring. Perhaps our best role in relationship to all of that baggage is to listen non-anxiously, but not seek to fix or address much of that ourselves. Dealing directly with that baggage is the role of a good wedding planner. Get to know some, or develop one or two in your congregation, and refer couples to the ones you trust!
We have other work to do, both as clergy and as a people. Preparing the couple for their life together is an important part of this. This doesn't (and shouldn't!) come down only to a series of classes or counseling sessions between the pastor and the couple. Create or connect with existing couples networks that focus on helping "beginning" couples address some of these issues as well-- including finances, communication, and decision making. This can be as simple as connecting the couple to another couple in the congregation or community who do these things well and are willing to spend some time talking about this with the new couple.
Planning the logistics of the ceremony is another important part of your work with the couple. Pastors, don't leave this to the last session! If you do, you may find that the ceremony has been planned "for" the couple, even down to what you will wear and where you will stand and how long you will speak. (Experience teaches some things!). Think about each session you have together having at least two agendas-- their life together and the ceremony itself. In the first session, you might lay out the overview of the service in our ritual, describing the overall flow and even doing a general walk-through in the worship space so the couple can begin to visualize how this may work in the space. Do plan to include communion as part of this overview-- our ritual provides for this! Just remind them that in our church, as in most Christian churches, communion is offered to all who attend and are eligible to participate, and not solely to the couple, and remind them as well that they may act as servers if they wish. Then, in subsequent sessions, focus on helping the couple flesh out the details of one or two sections of the service (entrance/presentation/declaration of intent, proclamation and vows, thanksgiving and communion, sending) depending on how many sessions you may have. This way, when you "put it all together" at the rehearsal, the couple at least will have thought through and even walked through the elements of the ritual several times already.
With this kind of preparation and connection between the pastor, the people and the couple, there may be far less anxiety for all involved and far more ability for the celebration to be a celebration and not the stress-filled drama that too much attention to the "trappings" promoted by the wedding industrial complex can so easily make it.
A Theological and Discipleship Role
Dismissing none of the grace and power of the sociological role of the Christian wedding, what if we were also to prepare Christian couples from a theological and discipleship perspective? Here we're not talking so much what we are doing, but what we are meaning in the Response to the Word in this service, the vows of the marriage covenant.
As Christians, our first covenant is the covenant of baptism. That is true for us no matter what other vows we also take. As a Christian pastor and people, it is perhaps our chief interest to help Christian couples who come to us to celebrate and bless their marriage to understand how their marriage vows are not just important in their own relationship to each other and their families and friends, but also and especially to their ongoing discipleship to Jesus and the life of the community called church.
For persons who enter Christian marriage, marriage does not replace but rather becomes a primary means by which they will fulfill the baptismal covenant. Loving, honoring and cherishing one another throughout life come what may are expressions of discipleship in themselves. But the Christian marriage calls and enables us to share that love, that honor and that cherishing beyond just ourselves, so that the marital relationship becomes a vehicle that enables the couple and others to continue to "renounce Satan and all his works," resist evil, injustice and oppression, embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and serve as his representatives in the world in all they do in union with the church Christ opens to persons of every station.
So in your sessions with the couple, pastors, consider how you will bring the two sets of vows into dialog with each other and invite the couple to begin to describe and even define a bit how their marriage vows will help them live out the baptismal vows, and how the baptismal vows will influence the ways they attend to their marriage vows. This isn't a lecture, but a conversation you help the couple to begin to have, and continue over multiple sessions.
It's a conversation they may not be accustomed to having, since perhaps few, if any, may have made this kind of connection for them before, much less seriously discussed with them how they can live out the specifics of the baptismal covenant faithfully. So plan to incorporate some part of this conversation over multiple sessions as well, introducing it at the first and perhaps walking through how this might play out with the first of the baptismal vows during that session. Before the next session, assign the couple to spend time in further conversation, discernment and at least initial decisions about the first and the second baptismal vow, and so on for subsequent sessions. In this way you a helping them develop a fruitful habit of conversation about their vows, marriage and baptismal, than can continue to be discerned and negotiated throughout their lives.
Finally, a big what if. What if you could cut through the whole "special, expensive ceremony on a different day" element that has become so endemic to weddings in the United States, and offer an older Christian option of celebrating and blessing the marriage during a regular Sunday service with congregational reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, the marriage vows as a response to that reaffirmation, and communion-- and of course a big party for all after that! What if the couple were dressed not in gown and tuxedo, but in simple albs provided by the church, a sign even more tightly linking marriage and baptismal covenants? What if the couple were presented by those who were sponsors for them at baptism or confirmation, as well as by their parents? What if the couple were the first served and then were servers at communion that day? And what if they read the scriptures or led the prayers of the people that Sunday?
If the preparation and leadership of Christian weddings were indeed rethought like this... even if the "what ifs" just mentioned were but a rare treat at first... I can't help but imagine that weddings might rise a considerable bit on the pastor's preferred list, that congregations might feel much more empowered rather than used primarily for their space, and that the couple and their families may have saved thousands of dollars that could be put to better use during their lifelong discipleship to Jesus.
How would you rethink Christian weddings?