Next Sunday instead of being at a carol service I will be at a wedding. Although it will not be a church wedding, it will nonetheless be a Christian wedding. The happy couple will begin the afternoon with a civil ceremony; then I have been asked to conduct a Christian wedding service. Both families have strong church connections, but the couple themselves do not go to church. If you like, the couple have rejected the Christian church – but they have not rejected the Christian faith. They don’t therefore want me to say just a prayer of blessing – they want a Christian wedding. So, apart from the signing of the marriage registers, it will be very much like a normal wedding. True, there will be no organ and no hymns – instead, once the civil registrar has gone, we will sing some Christmas carols before moving into the Christian wedding.
This Christian wedding will, of course, have no civil or legal status. Although this is unusual in the UK, elsewhere this is not so strange. For instance in France since 1804 religious marriages of any kind are not recognized and must be preceded by a civil ceremony, I believe that the same is true in Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland – as also in Russia.
From a theological perspective, the civil ceremony is a form of marriage. There is nothing distinctively Christian about the institution of marriage. Marriage is a ‘creation ordinance’, which was there before the Fall. Marriage is part of the so-called ‘common grace’; that God has poured out on us all for the good of the human race. It is like the sunshine and the rain that fall upon “the evil and the good” alike (Matt 5.45). So in the eyes of God the couple will already be married before we embark on the specifically Christian marriage rite. Interestingly, for the first thousand or so years of the Christian church, weddings never took place within the context of a worship service. Weddings took place in family settings – just like even today in Africa traditional weddings are not conducted within a religious framework. In the early church there was no special ritual for marriage because it was the Christian lives of the couple that made it a ‘Christian marriage’. After 400 AD when Christianity became the faith of the Empire and Christians took over public buildings in Rome and made them ‘churches’, then the marriages of clergy (notice that priests were married in those days!) began to be celebrated in these church buildings. But this was not the case for ordinary people. It was only in about 1100 AD that the first weddings of ‘lay people’ (non-clergy) were celebrated in church buildings. Even then the rituals used were still the rituals of families; it was only gradually that specifically church rituals were developed. Eventually, in England at least, the church took over the institution of marriage: for in 1753 the Clandestine Marriage Act (usually called the Hardwicke Act) made it obligatory for all marriages to take place within Anglican churches – it was not until the Marriage Act of 1836 that couples could get married elsewhere. Finally in 1994 the range of venues for civil weddings was dramatically widened to include stately homes, hotels, and even the First Class Lounge at Ashford railways station. Today only 27% of weddings in the UK take place within a church.
To return to the happy couple. Like most of their peers, they have already been living together for some little time. Some might argue that as a result of their cohabitation they are to all intents they are de facto a married couple. However, although they may enjoy sexual union, they are not truly ‘one flesh’ – sexual intercourse is an integral part of marriage (indeed, in law a marriage without sexual union is not a marriage and can therefore be annulled), but by itself it does not make a marriage – consent before witnesses is necessary.
Furthermore, marriage involves the making of life-long vows which has the future therefore in view, while co-habitation is a present relationship with the future ill-defined.
The happy couple want more than a civil ceremony. By contrast with a Christian marriage, civil marriage ceremonies tend to be pretty bare. They must contain the so-called declaratory and contracting words:
- I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I [name] may not be joined in matrimony to [name].
- I call upon these persons here present, to witness that I [name] do take thee [name] to be my lawful wedded wife / wife – husband / husband.
True, after this ‘legal part’ the couple can become more creative and personal, as they declare their love for one another, but there must be no mention of God! So after their civil ceremony they want a Christian ceremony. This ceremony will be more than a blessing In the first place they want to consciously make their vows in the sight of God before their friends and family. Then, because they recognise that it is so easy to fail God and one another, they want God’s blessing upon their relationship with one another. In addition the Scriptures will be read and I will have an opportunity to speak of the difference that Jesus makes when a couple invites him into our life together. It will be a Christian wedding – but not a church wedding – and in my view none the worse for not being held in church.
Very interesting. Personally I would be much happier of we followed the European model of having a civil ceremony for everyone with a church one for those who wish it. Others may disagree, but I find it difficult to conduct “church” weddings for people who clearly find the environment an alien one, who have little notion of who “God” may be and who are clearly wanting to get “the church bit” over so they can get to the reception. Some would say that it is an evangelistic opportunity, but I’m really not so sure.
It seems to me that “church weddings” are really a relic of a “Christendom” model of society in which everyone is understood to be a Christian unless they have actively opted out. That seems to bear little relation to the situation today. I know that some people have “folk-religion” understandings of weddings performed in church (i.e. they will “do better”), there can also be family pressures to get married in the same church as mum or dad.
I believe I am right to say that, historically, some Nonconformist ministers have refused to do “legal” marriages as they see that as enacting the business of the State. They are or were of course happy to lead a Christian ceremony without legal validity.