We all have our wedding stories. We who officiate at weddings have all experienced our share of obsessive brides and grooms, fanatical family members, and theologically challenged wedding coordinators. We have witnessed wedding preparations that can only be described as glaring examples of “acquired situational narcissism”—also known as “My Day Syndrome,” according to Emily Yoffe of Slate Magazine.1
My own wedding stories include the bride who made her wedding party and guests wait more than an hour before they could begin the rehearsal dinner because she had broken a fingernail at the rehearsal and required an emergency manicure. Another bride asked me—a week before the wedding—if I could find a male pastor to officiate in my place “because the pictures wouldn’t look right with two women in the pastor photograph.” And then there was the wedding with dueling fathers—both professional photographers by trade—who almost came to blows in the balcony during the processional, fighting over the best “down the aisle” shots.
Every clergyperson alive has a collection of these stories. And it’s not much of a secret anymore that many of us would rather officiate at a dozen funerals for every wedding. We know that grieving people generally do not care—or even notice—if the flowers don’t match the carpet. But brides and mothers of the bride and opinionated friends of the bride often care very much. Some of them have been pondering such details for decades.
While bridal magazines have long inspired some women to begin planning “their day” since prepubescence, The Knot (www.theknot.com)—a Web site that reports 3.2 million new visitors each month—is credited for fueling the wedding industrial complex to move toward eye-popping new heights of consumerism. The Knot “assists” brides—and their grooms, mothers, and friends—in the execution of every possible detail that will create The Perfect Wedding. The site covers everything from wedding dresses to wedding cakes, from tuxedos to table settings, from hairstyles to honeymoon reservations. They even sponsor The Nest (www.thenest.com) and, of course, The Nest Baby (www.thenestbaby.com.) for future needs.
The wedding checklist appears to be more like a shopping spree tool than a helpful device for scheduling. But this is hardly a surprise to anyone who has planned or attended a wedding in the last 20 years.
According to writer Meghan O’Rourke of Slate Magazine, weddings have indeed become statements of love: “the love of buying things—particularly things that have been personalized to express one’s taste … and essence.”2
So when did weddings become showcases of personal “essence” rather than a holy rite or sacrament of the church in which two people of faith declare their lifelong intentions and ask for divine and community support? Or a civil act in which two people without faith can declare their lifelong intentions and ask for community support?
While church tradition describes a wedding as a service of worship, these days one can no longer assume that the focus of that worship—even in church weddings—is God. Often what is worshiped is personal pageantry and self-expression. Increasingly, brides and grooms hope to create something that honors their spiritual tradition while also expressing their own unique quintessence.
So what does this mean for the officiating minister? It means that negotiating music, readings, photographer placement, and vows can involve tense premarital discussions. Some couples, busy with other details, find little time to meet with the pastor at all. What simply used to be “the wedding” has evolved into “the wedding weekend”—an extravaganza including such matrimonial activities as
- sporting events like the wedding-party softball game or the groomsmen’s golf outing
- multiple breakfasts, brunches, lunches, cocktail parties, and dinners
- group spa treatments, intended not only to relax the wedding party but also to assure the bride that all fingers, toes, and hair will match.
It’s no wonder that the actual wedding ceremony has lost its place as the focal point. The wedding liturgy, therefore, may seem like an afterthought, pondered only after selecting numerous invitations, dresses, menus, and signature colors, not to mention the reception and honeymoon venues. The whole spectacle has resulted in the prenuptial phenomenon commonly now known as the creation of Bridezilla—a term first used in a Boston Globe article in 1995.3 Occasionally, but more rarely, Groomzilla also makes an appearance in the months and weeks before the wedding.
Stories detailing Bridezilla behavior could fill several books, and in fact, they have. Altared: Bridezillas, Bewilderment, Big Love, Breakups, and What Women Really Think About Contemporary Weddings by Colleen Curran offers a collection of real-life stories by both known and unknown personalities about their own wedding experiences. Many confess that—much to their surprise—they were sucked into the wedding vortex themselves.
Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding highlights the increasingly consumerist trends of 21st-century weddings. What’s clear is that—secular or religious, simple or excessive—couples want the day to be meaningful and memorable, according to their own beliefs and tastes.
Making it Meaningful
What is a meaningful wedding? Even the most obsessive and consumer-driven among us still hopes for a nuptial end result that brings some semblance of spiritual fulfillment—whether that fulfillment feels more like a “happily ever after” Disney movie or the fruition of what Karl Rahner called the establishment of a new “little church”—a faith community of two in which there is prayer, ritual, sharing, and a Christ-like contribution to society. Either way, there seems to be a universal desire to create at least a moment, a glimpse of existential peace, as two people become one.
Cynics might concur with O’Rourke’s point that Bridezilla is only interested in transforming her “inward self” by the “outward accumulation of stuff.”4 But there are others who sincerely hope to plan a wedding that serves more than self. This is where we pastors come in. We have the unique opportunity to help a couple plan a wedding that is about more than one perfect day.
In talking with colleagues and thoughtful former brides and grooms, I’ve learned that resources for creating a wedding that inspires more than envy or embarrassment are indeed available.
We, as pastors, can offer some meaningful suggestions for engaged couples to consider when planning their nuptial celebration. Consider sharing these:
Honor faithful examples of love and service from your own circle of friends and family. There are more ways to include beloved family and friends than asking them to wear a hoop skirt and carry a parasol, or inviting the mothers to initiate the lighting of the unity candle.
- Instead of choosing individual readers, ask significant couples in your lives to share the readings together. One colleague offered that, at her wedding, newlywed friends read Song of Songs, friends married for 30 years read from 1 Corinthians 13, and an aunt and uncle married for more than 50 years read the Gospel passage.
- Instead of increasing the number of attendants or reception staff, consider inviting people who share in your work and volunteer life to participate in the f
estivities. One bride who teaches deaf children taught her class the 100th Psalm in sign language. Lined up in front of the congregation, one speaking child recited the verses while the other students signed Psalm 100 as the Call to Worship. Another couple, wanting to include the entire L’Arche Community with which they had worked, invited their L’Arche friends to bring simple appetizers to share pot luck-style during the receiving line greeting time so that guests could enjoy refreshments while the wedding party received a long line of family and friends immediately after the ceremony.
Offer your wedding celebration as an opportunity to benefit other good causes. While weddings are great fun, life is bigger than dressing up as a prince and princess and riding away in a Cinderella carriage. The I Do Foundation, established by nonprofit leaders Bethany Robertson and Peter Murray in 2002 (www.idofoundation.org), blends the realities of wedding consumption with charitable giving.
- Instead of party favors, couples can make a donation in the name of each guest to their church or temple, literacy programs, homeless shelters, medical research facilities, or any number of other charities. The I Do Foundation makes available place cards informing guests of your donation in their name.
- Instead of expecting duplicate appliances and unneeded linens, couples can register a favorite charity, offering wedding guests the option of making a donation in the couple’s names instead of buying a tangible gift. Particularly in these days when couples often marry after establishing themselves, this solves the issue of what to give a couple who already own two fully equipped households.
- And if couples really do need new towels and tools, the I Do Foundation offers gift registries that give up to eight percent of the guests’ purchases toward a charity of the couple’s choice if guests make their purchases online.
Show your care for the environment by making your wedding greener. While some “green wedding” Web sites suggest incorporating Native American prayers and serving vegan food, simple choices such as intentional scheduling and limiting numbers will make an enormous difference in terms of reducing the carbon footprint of any wedding.
- Instead of scheduling a summer wedding, consider a date in which the sanctuary will already be decorated, if possible. While some congregations do not schedule weddings on weekends close to Christmas or Easter, some indeed allow weddings when the sanctuary is already decorated with poinsettias or lilies.
- Consider decorating with potted plants or shrubs that can be replanted near the first home of the couple or donated to a school.
- Instead of limiting the number of guests merely for the sake of your budget, consider limiting the numbers for the sake of the planet. According to DrivingGreen.com, large weddings are among the worst offenders in terms of generating carbon dioxide. A two-day wedding weekend for 250 guests produces 72,000 pounds of CO2.5
- Make a concerted effort to buy local in-season flowers and foods, to focus more on wearing “something old” and “something borrowed” and less on wearing “something new,” and to minimize the use of throw-away items, from wedding programs to paper products used at the reception.
Remembering Our Role
Couples with some sense that their wedding is about something bigger than the two of them will find satisfaction in incorporating these and other practices into their wedding plans. But even when brides and grooms integrate socially and emotionally meaningful practices into their wedding preparations and ceremony, a spiritual gap remains for many.
The truth about most weddings, and perhaps the core concern of most congregations, is this: we who take seriously our role in spiritually nurturing individuals and families know that marriage preparation has been wholly overshadowed by wedding preparation. And it shows in countless ways. We clergy have merely become “religious decorations at the narcissistic cleavage conventions we call weddings,” in the words of the Rev. Jody Vickery in Christianity Today.6
In her book One Perfect Day, Rebecca Mead features a nondenominational, “multifaith minister” named Joyce Gioia who does not serve any particular congregation. Her priestly duties solely involve independent officiating at weddings. For $1,000 per ceremony, Ms. Gioia will create and officiate over a personalized wedding that blends a variety of cultural and religious traditions, using resources from the Bible to Marianne Williamson. She has been known to dress in costumes—for instance, as a baseball umpire for a baseball-themed wedding, or in a hooded robe for a medieval theme. She routinely memorizes each ceremony, and offers benedictions recited in 15 different languages. She aspires to blend the ancient traditions with modern flourishes, removing all “offensive” features along with much of the “religiosity” of liturgy. In other words, Ms. Gioia is all about offering countless options and crafting a collage of spiritual and cultural symbols. No two weddings are the ever the same, and guests routinely approach her after the ceremonies, commenting that “that was the most beautiful wedding I have ever been to.”7
Interestingly enough, I often hear this comment as well, as do many of my colleagues. Perhaps it arises from the deep need people have to experience something authentically spiritual, even when the rituals result in a strange
stew of faith traditions, as in the case
of Ms. Gioia’s ceremonies. Especially when the presiding minister is authentic and personal, witnesses who rarely cross the threshold of church buildings anymore (if they ever did), or those whose secularism has erased even vague memories of the Divine, find themselves longing for more. They seem shocked that a wedding might involve real spiritual moments.
I remember officiating at the wedding of active church members whose spiritual journeys were well known to me as their pastor. Someone approached me after the service to repeat the oft heard, “That was a beautiful ceremony,” but then he added, “It sounded like you actually knew the bride and groom.” It seemed beyond this guest’s comprehension that I would know the bride and groom.
Most of the congregations served by my colleagues have taken a strong stand against becoming mere wedding chapels. They hold fairly strict requirements spelling out who can be married in their sanctuaries and what those weddings can look like. While some ministers still consider weddings to be a tool for evangelism (“Maybe through premarital counseling they will return to the faith and join…”), more churches refuse to allow couples to be married in their sanctuaries if neither the bride nor the groom has a connection to that congregation.
And even when there is indeed a connection to the congregation, couples often set out to reserve their reception sites before calling the church office to schedule the wedding. In almost 25 years of ordained ministry, having officiated in over 80 weddings, only once has a couple contacted the church office to schedule their wedding ceremony before contacting potential reception venues. Only once. It seems that finding the right reception space trumps finding the space where vows are exchanged between God and invited “witnesses.”
Perhaps we’ve lost the sense that we are witnessing something holy at all. Maybe we have forgotten that we marry—or celebrate, for that matter—in the presence of God. We focus instead on the presence of our favorite people, ensuring that they will be impressed, comfortable, and/or have a good time. p>
As Mead puts it, many couples in our culture believe “that a wedding ceremony, like a wedding reception, ought to be an expression of the character of the couple who are getting married, rather than an expression of the character of the institution marrying them.”8 This is so true that it is almost laughably unnecessary to say. Institutional allegiances have certainly weakened in our postmodern culture, clearly overshadowed by individual expression. Perhaps this is why couples gladly gravitate toward wedding ministers like Ms. Gioia and wedding venues like hotel ballrooms for their nuptial needs.
When traditional institutions require formal church membership, while also expecting couples to agree to restrictions about candles, flowers, and flash photography, many couples who would have respectfully agreed with whatever the church required in the 1950s now balk and head for the door. They have neither the theological background nor the patience to make the connection between church rules and spiritual expression. And so it makes no sense to them why, in the local Presbyterian church, for example, the bride and groom can’t serve each other communion while the rest of the congregation watches with glowing admiration.
So how does the 21st-century church convey its essential role in the engagements and weddings and marriages of 21st-century couples? It seems clear that most human beings indeed long for meaning and a connection between their own hectic lives and the Holy. Human beings indeed want something personal and real. The postmodern church would do well to remember that an attitude of survival (“Maybe we should turn this sanctuary into a wedding chapel because we sure do need the money.”) instead of an attitude of service (“How can we minister to couples planning to be married?”) will only result in a deeper cleft between the needs of God’s people and God.
Perhaps we who officiate at weddings need to remember that, even if a couple has come to us as an afterthought, and even if the wedding ceremony seems less important to them than finding the right wedding rings, we still hold the great privilege of pointing to holy things especially in the throes of busy wedding planning. We still have opportunities for sitting with a couple and lifting up the powerful meaning and beauty of the vows they will exchange. The trick is to avoid acting as if the ceremony is inconsequential to us, even if this is what the bride and groom appear to believe.
Before we can expect couples to recognize the sacred nature of what they are planning, we in the church who help them in this process—from the officiants to the sexton, from the organist to the office manager—would also do well to nurture a clear and faithful understanding of what is happening in the course of uniting two people in marriage. We all want and need to
1. See https://rowman.com/Action/Search/RL/alban%20books.
2. Meghan O’Rourke, “Wedded to Consumption,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2007.
3. See http://www.wordspy.com/words/bridezilla.asp.
5. You can calculate your event’s carbon footprint at http://www.drivinggreen.com/event.asp.
6. Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding (New York: Penguin Press, 2007), 142.
7. Mead, 126–130.
8. Mead, 141.
Questions for Reflection
- Honestly talk with your church staff about the basic goal of church weddings for your congregation. Are weddings considered a tool for reaching potential members? A means of enhancing the church budget and staff salaries by charging fees and honoraria? An opportunity to prepare couples for Christian marriage and family life? How is that working? What changes need to be made?
- What is the process for wedding preparation in your church, and does it need to be revised? Are there opportunities to unpack the guidelines your governing bodies have set to explain theological or spiritual reasons for those guidelines?
- How is hospitality evident in the process of preparing for a wedding ceremony and marriage in your congregation? Are church staff members aware of their opportunities for showing hospitality as they work?