A wedding is surely one of the happier events to take place in any Christian church, but, ironically, it also can be one of the most stressful There are several reasons: a number of people are involved, most of whom have seldom participated in a wedding; usually there is only one rehearsal before the ceremony; and everyone in the wedding party has different, often conflicting, ideas of what should and should not be done. Thus a certain amount of tension on the wed ding day is inevitable, and there is little that you as a pastor can do to reduce it. The best course is simply to remain calm yourself and let your quiet, relaxed manner have a calming effect on others.
However, there are several things you can do while the wedding is still in the planning stage to make the ceremony go smoothly.
The purpose of this article is not to teach you how to plan or direct a wedding. That task properly belongs to the wedding coordinator, not to you. In fact, you would be wise to resist anyone's attempt to cast you in the role of coordinator. It's a frustrating and timeconsuming job, and in any case, it isn't your responsibility. The purpose of this article is, instead, to provide some guidance in those areas of the wedding that are the pastor's responsibility.
You may seldom have given serious thought to this aspect of the wedding ceremony. You should. A wedding ceremony has not only moral and spiritual significance, but legal implications as well.
Remember: If any law pertaining to marriage has not been complied with, then, so far as the State is concerned, there has been no marriage! The unpleasant possibilities in such a situation are obvious. Your responsibility is to make sure that none of these possibilities become realities.
One of the first things you should do when you take a pastorate in a new State or area is to familiarize yourself with the local marriage laws. These are usually not complicated, but they are important. A brief visit or phone call to the county clerk's or registrar's office should give you the information you need.
One of the best investments a pastor can make is The Abingdon Marriage Manual, written by Perry H. Biddle, Jr., and published by Abingdon Press. This little volume is invaluable, particularly the section at the end of the book that summarizes the marriage laws of each State. If you are invited to officiate at a wedding in a distant State, this listing could save you the embarrassment of traveling several hundred miles only to discover that you are not authorized to perform a wedding in that State!
Because of possible legal problems, approach with great caution any wed ding requiring parental consent because of the age of one or both parties. Before you agree to perform such a wedding, be certain that the underage party actually does have the necessary permission. Don't rely on a phone call or verbal assurances. Obtain a copy of such permission in writing, and keep it in your files. You probably will never need it, but if you do, you will be very glad you have it.
Likewise, insist upon seeing the marriage license before you perform any wedding. If there is a date and/or time before which the marriage cannot take place it will be noted somewhere on the form. Under no circumstances perform the wedding before that date and/or time! Nor are marriage licenses valid indefinitely; the usual limit is thirty days from issuance. If the wedding does not take place during this period, a new license must be obtained. This means that the whole routine, including blood tests for both bride and groom (in those jurisdictions that require blood tests), must be gone through again. As annoying and inconvenient as this may be for the couple, it must be done.
For this reason, it's a good policy to examine the license as far in advance of the wedding date as possible so that potential problems can be handled in time. For example, if the scheduled wedding date is dangerously near the expiration date of the license, call this to the couple's attention and make sure they understand that they must obtain a new license if this one expires.
Also keep in mind that in some places a marriage license is valid only in the county or municipality where it is issued. If this is the case, mention this fact to the couple before they obtain the license. Weddings are often held in churches some distance from either party's residence. The couple should be careful to obtain a license that will be valid in the area or jurisdiction where the wedding is to take place.
Suppose you discover, even minutes before the service is scheduled to begin, that the license, for any reason what ever, is not valid. What should you do?
Your course is as clear cut as it is difficult: You must not perform the ceremony! The church may be packed with out-of-town guests, the ushers may already be lighting the candles, but you must not go ahead with the wedding. You will, no doubt, face a hysterical bride, an enraged groom, and two sets of angry relatives. Someone will probably suggest that you enter false information on the license. (After all, what real difference does it make where the wedding took place, or on what date?) Don't do it. If you do, the ceremony will be illegal, and the marriage invalid.
To mention only one of the many unpleasant, possible consequences of such an indiscretion: a frightening number of marriages end in separation, annulment, or divorce. An illegally-performed ceremony could easily become a weapon in the hands of a disgruntled husband or wife; or, for that matter, in the hands of anyone who knew the truth and wanted to cause trouble. If this should happen, the stain on your personal integrity and professional competence would be embarrassing to say the least.
The marriage license usually consists of several copies. The married couple receive a copy; the officiant receives one for his files; and one or more copies, properly filled in, must be mailed to the designated office within a specified time (usually 5 days) after the wedding. The copy that is mailed to the government office is very important. This is the official record of the marriage. Without this, there is no legal record that the marriage ever took place. It goes without saying that this must not happen, so I take care of mailing this copy myself. The couple, excited and about to leave on their honeymoon, are, I fear, too likely to forget. I prepare a stamped, addressed envelope before the wedding and mail it on the way home.
While we are on the subject of legality, here is something else to remember: You are under no compulsion, legal or moral, to perform any wedding ceremony. The choice is entirely yours. The fact that the parties may have a legal right to marry in no way obligates you to marry them. If, for any reason, you have serious doubts about the advisability of any marriage, you are fully within your rights to refuse to officiate. Simply tell the couple that while you don't question their legal right to marry, you cannot, for personal reasons, officiate. If you care to explain the reasoning behind your decision, do so, but you need not make any explanation at all.
Two standard items in the wedding ceremony should, perhaps, be mentioned before we leave the subject of legality. The first is the question, "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?" Today, many women object to the concept that they believe is implicit in this question. To them it says that the woman is a piece of property, and that at marriage, her ownership passes from one man to another. Other people, including most parents of brides (and certainly most fathers of brides) do not use this implication at all. To them, it is simply a beautiful, tender, and touching part of the ceremony. A certain amount of friction between the bride and her parents over this question is not unusual. If your counsel is sought, the wisest course is to remain neutral. Just tell them that it is a tradition going back several centuries, but not a legal requirement, and let them work it out among them selves.
Likewise, I have encountered a growing resistance in recent years to the statement, "If any man can show lawful cause why these two may not be joined together in matrimony, let him speak now or else forever after hold his peace." Just why this should be, I don't know. Perhaps couples see the statement as an open invitation to any potential trouble maker! Perhaps they resent the implication that there could be any lawful reason why they should not marry. In any case, I discussed the matter with an attorney friend who assured me that the law does not require this statement as part of the marriage ceremony. The best way to handle the matter is simply to ask the couple whether they want it included.
Another area in which you have a responsibility is the music that will be performed. More specifically, you are responsible to see that the music is appropriate. You need not be a musician to know what is appropriate; your own good taste and sense of what is fitting should be adequate.
Unless you are personally acquainted with those who will perform the music (and sometimes even if you are) you should insist on knowing exactly what music will be used. If it is something with which you are not familiar, listen to it before approving its use in your church. Don't be satisfied with a vague assurance that it is "gospel music," or that it will be performed by a "gospel singer" or a "gospel group." The word gospel is freely applied today to things which have little or no connection with the gospel, and particularly is this true of music. Some, of course, is reverent and quite suitable for use in the church; some is so irreverent as to be sacrilegious, if not actually blasphemous. Between these two extremes are many shades and variations. All you can do is listen to it yourself and decide. If you are still uncertain, you might wish to ask one or two musicians from among your church members to listen to it and advise you. Personally, I have found that the safest course, if I have any doubt at all about the suitability of a piece of music, is to ask the couple to make another selection.
If your church or denomination has an established marriage liturgy that neither you nor the couple can change, you have no problems in this area. If your church has no such liturgy, however, problems can arise. Occasionally, a couple may request a change in the marriage vows which you cannot conscientiously grant. For example, they may wish to change "so long as we both shall live" to "so long as we both shall love.'' The only proper reply in such a case is a flat refusal, however diplomatically it may be worded. God recognizes only those marriages which are based upon a life long commitment; nothing less deserves the name of "marriage." You cannot, of course, be certain that any marriage you perform will not end in separation or divorce; but you can make certain that the marriage vows don't contain a loophole that a dissatisfied partner might later use to try to justify a dissolution of the marriage.
"Once in the dear, dead days beyond recall," to quote a sentimental ballad of the past century, the groom promised to "love, honor, and cherish" his new wife, while the bride promised to "love, honor, and obey" her husband. Those days, for better or for worse, are gone forever. It is rare, indeed, to find a woman today who will promise to "obey" her husband, while he promises only to "cherish" her. Today, the vows of the bride and groom are, in this respect at least, identical. Don't even suggest anything else, unless you are prepared to deal with a small riot! Of course, the couple themselves may request that the word "obey" be included in the bride's vow. A word of caution, however: If it is the groom who makes this request, be sure he does so in the presence of the bride and that she agrees to it. Other wise, if the bride hears the word "obey" in her vow, when she was expecting to hear "cherish," you just might have an embarrassing interruption in the ceremony.
Today, more and more couples wish to personalize the wedding service by writing their own vows. There should be no objection if your church does not have a required marriage liturgy. Such vows can be a very beautiful and significant part of the ceremony. But you should be alert to potential problems. Request a copy of the vows well in advance of the wedding date and go over them carefully to be sure that they reflect dignity and good taste, and that they clearly express that commitment which is the foundation of Christian marriage.
When I examine such personallywritten vows, I look for two specific aspects of commitment: a clear expression that is total and permanent. Total commitment is referred to in that part of the traditional vow which says, "Forsaking all others, I will keep myself only unto thee." Permanent commitment is dealt with in the next phrase, "so long as we both shall live." I'm not too concerned with the precise way in which this total, permanent commitment is worded, as long as it comes through clearly and unmistakable. I explain this to the couples who ask to write their own vows, and I have never had a problem.
If the couple have written their own vows, they will usually read them at the proper point in the ceremony. Be sure they have a typewritten copy; type the vows yourself if necessary. A nervous bride or groom squinting and stumbling over a scribbled handwritten copy of the vows adds nothing to the serenity and dignity of the service. I have the vows typed on half sheets of paper and slip them into the back of my Bible to hand to the bride and groom at the proper time. This eliminates groping and fumbling as the groom tries to remember in which pocket he put his copy (and perhaps finds that he forgot to put it in any pocket).
If a couple plans to recite their vows from memory, warn them that human memory is very unreliable in moments of stress. If they insist, have a copy in your Bible anyway, just in case.
If they plan to repeat the traditional vows after you, be careful to speak slowly and distinctly, so that they can hear clearly the words they are to repeat. Also, be sure to pause after every three or four words, so that you don't strain their memories unduly.
By common concensus, wedding sermons are strong contenders for the title, "Most Dull and Least Remembered." Many deserve such distinction, but they need not. The wedding is a solemn occasion, but it is also a joyous one, and the sermon—serious, but not somber— should reflect this joy. You don't have to fill it with the trite, stereotyped phrases one so often hears. The spiritual aspects of marriage can be blended with practical counsel without being dull. Even a few smiles from the wedding party and the congregation will not be out of place.
Keep your sermon short. I remember a wedding (how could I forget) at which the minister preached for an hour and fifteen minutes! Temperature and humidity were both in the 90s. One bridesmaid fainted, and the others no doubt wished they could! Fifteen minutes is ample for your sermon.
When you arrive at a new pastorate, the church will probably already have an established policy governing weddings that are held in the church building. If not, see that the church board or a special committee formulates one soon.
The policy should cover such things as: Use of the church building by members of your congregation; use by members of your denomination, but not of your congregation; use by persons who are not members of your denomination; the fees, if any, to be charged these various groups; whether clergy of other denominations may officiate at weddings in the church; use of candles, rice, and confetti in the church; use of church facilities for receptions; use of the organ by persons other than your own church organist(s); et cetera. Don't fill page after page with minutiae; what you are striving for is a set of guidelines that will deal fairly with everyone, and at the same time protect church facilities.
Once a policy has been accepted by the church, it should be neatly typed, duplicated, and an ample supply kept on hand in the church office. Important provisions of the policy should be typed in capital letters and placed at the beginning. Even so, it's still a good idea to go over these important features with individuals personally. A wedding is an exciting event, especially for the bride and groom, and they can easily overlook things in the excitement and hurry of wedding preparations. Then, too, human beings have an amazing capacity for seeing only what they want to see. If the church's policy does not permit the use of candles in the sanctuary (either because of the fire hazard or because of the wax they invariably drip on the carpet), you should point this out to the couple before they get too deeply involved in their wedding plans. The bride who has looked forward to candle light shedding a soft radiance over the wedding scene will quite likely fail to see the paragraph prohibiting candles. She is going to be a very unhappy young lady if she doesn't become aware of the ban until an hour before the ceremony, even if she should have known. And you are probably going to be a very unhappy pastor, because you will almost certainly face a tearful young bride pleading with you, between sobs, to make an exception "just this once."
This brings us to the matter of exceptions to the established wedding policy. The following advice comes from one who knows whereof he speaks: Make it an iron-clad rule that only the church board can authorize exceptions to the established wedding policy. Requests for such exceptions must be made to the board in writing at least thirty days before the scheduled wedding date. In all such cases, the board's decision will be final. Type this rule in capital letters, underline it, and put it on the front page of the wedding policy. This rule may not keep you from having to listen to the pleadings of winsome young brides on the day before the wedding, but it will give you some solid support when you refuse to yield to their pleadings. You can simply tell them, truthfully, that the matter is out of your hands.
The board should make as few exceptions to the policy as possible. Other wise, the wedding policy will soon become meaningless. Remember, too, that once you have made an exception for one couple, it is very difficult to refuse to make an exception for another. Besides this, brides who have complied with the church's policy will be under standably upset if exceptions are made later for brides who pleaded a little more earnestly. The result is bad feeling, resentment, and accusations of favoritism. This can be avoided by working out a set of reasonable guidelines, and then sticking to them.
The wedding rehearsal usually takes place the night before the ceremony. A few are pleasant, relaxed affairs; far more resemble a debate in the United Nations Security Council. Be prepared for end less discussions (or arguments) about the placing of the flowers, who will stand where, how fast the bridesmaids should walk down the aisle, and similar matters. Take no part in these discussions unless you must. If your opinion is asked, try to be noncommittal if possible. There will probably be enough tension as it is. Eventually, a compromise will be hammered out, the pieces will fall into place (more or less), and you can go home.
If you wear a black suit, black shoes, white shirt, and black tie you will be appropriately dressed for virtually any wedding, however formal. If the bride and groom want you to dress more formally than this (in a tuxedo, for example, or cutaway coat and striped trousers), it is only right that they should bear the expense of renting this type of clothing.
You may encounter a situation in which the bride chooses, for personal or professional reasons, to use her maiden name after her marriage. This can cause a problem in the introduction of the newly married couple to the congregation. Normally, of course, you introduce them as "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith." If the bride wishes to be introduced by her maiden name, you will have to improvise. Two possibilities to consider are: "John Smith and Mary Jones, husband and wife;" or "John Smith and his wife, Mary Jones. "Both of these sound strange to ears accustomed to the traditional formula, but either is a perfectly work able alternative.
One final caution: If you use a lavalier microphone during the service, by all means don't forget to take it off before the recessional! When the wedding party leaves the platform you will come off last, and there will be no one to remind you if you forget. You will be walking fairly fast in the recessional, and when the microphone cord tightens, the result will not be a gentle tug! I attended a wedding where this actually happened. The slack in the cord ran out about halfway down the center aisle, just in front of my pew! I have never forgotten the incident, and I am sure that pastor has never forgotten it, either. The wedding is to be a happy occasion; it shouldn't climax with the near-decapitation of the minister!
Once you reach the vestibule, you can relax. Have the witnesses sign the license; give it to your wife and tell her to remind you to mail it; have a slice of the wedding cake; and enjoy the reception.