To wed or not to wed

Imagine my surprise when I got into college and adulthood and discovered that many of my girlfriends had already planned out much of their weddings even though they hadn’t met the man they were going to marry.

Some of them had gotten the process underway and, encouraged by their mothers, had been putting away in a hope chest not only things and but written plans, a practice that I had thought was extinct.

I’m not saying there was anything wrong with doing it and there’s nothing wrong with doing it today. It just never occurred to me to do it myself.

weddings ringsNo one was more surprised than I when I graduated from college and found myself still single. I fully expected to be married by that time. But even at that, I never had given any thought to planning my wedding.

In fact, I didn’t meet the man I would marry until I was 26. We were married when we were 29. I wanted to marry Terry. I yearned to marry him. But the excitement of a wedding still eluded me. Even now when I look back, I wish we would have saved the money we put into our really meager wedding and reception and put it into the honeymoon or even into a savings account (we’ve never been very good at saving). The idea of a destination wedding growing in popularity today would have been well beyond our means. I don’t know how young people do that today.

The desire for the wedding to end all weddings – that one perfect day – eluded me.

A few years after we were married, I happened into a conversation in progress among three Presbyterian ministers. They were glad to include me and quickly brought me up to the moment’s interchange. In short, they were simply in agreement that unless a wedding took place in a church with a Christian minister officiating, then the marriage was not blessed by God.

I surprised myself at my own calm. “Well, thank you for filling me in,” I said kindly. “I didn’t know that. Terry and I were married in the basement of our new house by a Jewish magistrate judge.”

They looked shocked and said nothing. I just smiled and walked away.

Not blessed by God, my foot. No one could possibly convince me that God was not present and blessing our marriage. No one could possibly convince me now that God has not blessed our marriage for the last 34 years.

Some years later when I became a Presbyterian minister myself, I was prepared for the young women who had planned out their wedding days with every i dotted and every t crossed. More often than not their mothers were intimately involved in that process. In some ways I have to admit that I was envious of a mother-daughter relationship that was so close. On the other hand, I would have been out of my mind if my own mother had put so much as a pinkie finger into the planning of my own.

But what did surprise me was the bride and groom’s attitude toward the pastor as officiant at their wedding. Now there have been exceptions, of course, but by and large (and I can say with some assurance) most of the couples who get married in the church see the pastor as a necessary evil, someone they have to have present in order to accomplish their perfect day. In fact, I was surprised to discover that when some couples reserved the church for their wedding day, they just assumed the pastor came along with the building and never even spoke to me to see if I might be available for that day. More than once I was surprised to find out that I was obligated to do a wedding for which I had no plans at all. And my own requirement to do a wedding, a series of pre-marital counseling sessions, was just something extraneous that the bride and groom had to put up with in order to get to their perfect day.

The church building, the sanctuary itself, has been integral to many a young woman’s dream and preparation for her marriage. Some young brides-to-be go sanctuary shopping to find the most beautiful location they can find. Others have been born into a church setting or have joined a church in their early years which has, for them, been the perfect setting for their perfect day. They have pictured walking down that aisle, where the attendants would stand, how the setting would be backlit by beautiful stained glass windows and shining and slippery pews.

Yes, they’ve pictured it. They have it all planned out. But for the most part, the majority of those brides haven’t set foot into that sanctuary in recent history (except, perhaps, for Christmas or Easter). They figure their names are on the rolls of the church and they are entitled to be married there by whoever happens to be the minister. I have frustrated more than one by suggesting that they attend worship for six months with their fiancés while we go through the pre-marital counseling process.

“I had no idea it was so hard to get married,” one bride told me tearfully. I was ruining her perfect day. And by the time we got to that day, I was met with glares from the couple, the mother, and some of their friends.

I’ve watched young couples strapped for cash put thousands of dollars into their wedding and reception. In pre-marital counseling, I’ve even suggested that they consider eloping if not sizing things down. They look at me like I’ve got three eyes and antennae.

So I’m wondering how it is that God only blesses weddings held in churches and officiated by a Christian minister. Bunk, I say. Bunk.

The recent judgment handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court has increased my thoughts about church weddings. There are those ministers who have always supported gay/transgender marriages in the church and who have refused to sign the marriage licenses of heterosexual couples because they have felt to do so would be discriminating against homosexual couples. With the Court’s decision, there are ministers wringing their hands over whether the government will force them to marry gay couples and are declaring that they will not do it; they will not be party to signing the marriage license.

marriage-licenseObviously, I’ve had to put a lot of thought into all of this and the question for me is not the sexual preference of people getting married. The question for me is how did the church, how did people of the cloth become agents of the state in the first place when it comes to signing marriage licenses.

In my particular Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA), the definition of marriage  recognizes that marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. It makes it clear that it is a covenant in which God and the church community have an active part. But it also notes that marriage is a civil contract between two people. While Presbyterians have long debated whether that wording should be “between two people” or “between a man and a woman,” they seem to have jumped right over that part about marriage being a “civil contract.”

Where is the First Amendment in all of this? Where is the separation of church and state?

Back in Merry Olde England where there was no separation of the two, Anglican priests were part of the state. When a wedding was to occur under their direction, it was announced to the congregation weeks and sometimes months in advance so that if there were anyone with an objection to the marriage, it could be advanced publicly for discussion among the congregants.

But that’s not what happens in the United States. It seems to be nobody’s business except at the time of the wedding itself whether there may be some knowledge among the congregation that there is a good reason why these two should not be wed. Even with my long pauses after asking that question in weddings today, I never ever expect anyone to speak up. That only happens in romantic movies.

So my suggestion would be for all ministers and church leaders to just make a decision that yes, weddings will still be held on church premises, and, yes, ministers will preside. But when it comes to signing the marriage license? The couple will have to head down to the courthouse, find a judge to re-officiate the wedding and sign the license. Signing a marriage license is the work of the government, not the church.

If folks believe that a church wedding is necessary whether it’s to get God’s blessing or just to have a beautiful setting, then they should be giving some thought as to what being part of the church means and where God figures into their lives as a married couple. And church leaders need to be taking marriages more seriously.

If it’s just to have a beautiful church setting, I’m all for inviting the judge to come up to the sanctuary to preside and sign the license. After all, it’s only a building.

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