This Saturday I am getting married at my tiny Episcopal church. With my fiancée being Australian, we have been comparing notes on differences in wedding tradition between our cultures. But as we’ve sat through our-premarital counseling with the priest that will officiate our ceremony, I’ve learned about the ceremony, its symbolism, and both is secular and sacred components. Even in a church wedding, both are present.
The beginning of the service primarily consists of secular logistics. For example, the tradition of a father walking the bride down the aisle to hand her off to the groom, is a remnant from days when women were property. It was an exchange of goods. Then comes the ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ bit. The key component here is that the objector must have ‘just cause’ as to why the couple cannot be ‘legally married’. (For example one is already married to someone else). Here secular law weighs in. Further confirming the legality of the marriage is the declaration of consent. This bit exists primarily to ensure the bride and groom are there of their own free will, and are not being coerced in any way that would make the marriage null and void. Only after all these secular proceedings does the marriage officially start as far as the church is concerned. There are nearly four pages in the prayer book before the actual marriage. In our service, there is no place to sign the marriage license. This legal component is completed at another time. Rather than the legal binding of signing, it is the binding of the couple before God when they say their vows that is the climax of the service.
Though the priest leads the services, he takes a backseat at the vows, the climax. Rather than prompt and response, we will take our vows on our own. Here there is no intermediary between us and God. Only once the vows are complete does the priest call on God to seal and bless the marriage. The priest is the presider, not the facilitator. In this ceremony we will move through the spectrum of secular to sacred. Making our vows in the presence of God, family and friends. Just like daily life, on this special occasion, we will live in both realms marrying the mundane and the divine.