Most vicars much prefer funerals to weddings. At a funeral, the meaning-of-life question is front and centre. Here, religion is important, even to the uncommitted. But a great many weddings have long been an “experience”, often only homoeopathically religious in character even when conducted in church.
It used to be the case that couples were not allowed to marry during the hours of darkness. This was to ensure that members of the local community could see who was marrying who, and could publicly acknowledge the new status that the couple had within the community. A wedding was a civic and public event, held in the parish church right in the heart of the community. Notice of a forthcoming wedding was published by banns in the church on three Sundays so that everyone knew. There wasn’t an invitation list for the ceremony because everyone was invited. It was in the church, after all.
The secular world has no such equivalent to this open space. Community has morphed into a byword for your WhatsApp group, for those gathered around a common interest or identity — the Colombian Community, the Lesbian Community, the Star Wars Community — rather than a shared and inclusive local space where all are welcome.
This week, the Law Commission proposed a set of reforms to Marriage Law that would enable couples to marry where they like — not just in licensed venues such as churches, registry offices or licensed premises. Soon you will be able to marry on the beach or in your garden, at a theme park or in McDonald’s — provided the presiding official thinks that the venue is safe and dignified. And yes, don’t be so snobby, of course there will be people who think McDonald’s is sufficiently dignified. The pool of people who can conduct a wedding is also being expanded. The Elvis impersonator wedding is not that far away, so long as it accords with your own deeply held beliefs.
All this is just another step along the road to the privatisation of marriage. Marriage used to be a community event; it is now a private ceremony. The Law Commission has also recommended abolishing the requirement for “open doors” at a marriage ceremony. “In fact, only some religious weddings and civil weddings are required to be open to the public, and that rule was a legacy from 17th century restrictions on Protestant dissenters meeting for worship,” says the report. As a legal requirement, that may be strictly speaking true, but the idea that a wedding was a public event goes back much further than that. But where there were once banns, now you will be able to fill in a form online. And the vows themselves can be made up to reflect whatever it is you think you are doing.
One advantage to these new proposals is that they will break the monopoly that the register office has had on secular weddings. Hitherto the register office heavily policed their ceremonies, refusing to allow the introduction of anything even faintly religious. I was once asked by a secular friend to say a few words at his register office ceremony. Having learnt what I do for a living, the panicked registrar demanded a copy of my address so that he could put a red line through anything that may allude to the divine. I explained that I extemporise. This too was refused.
New proposals also include the possibility that the ceremony can be conducted by an interfaith minister, allowing those of different faiths to incorporate elements of their own traditions into the same ceremony. As someone in a mixed marriage myself, I appreciate the inclusive intention behind this proposal, but I do worry that it creates a pick-and-mix approach to religion where no one faith is allowed to speak for itself and in its own way. All this creates a kind of spiritualised Esperanto, with different religious traditions existing to add a little bit of local flavour to an otherwise homogenised spiritual gloop.
But we still have a problem with modern wedding ceremonies, even in church. The best of weddings are so joyous and life-giving in character that the following is going to seem churlish; but still, the reason most vicars prefer funerals is that they speak to the end of the self, while weddings are a display of self-promotion — captured and relayed by the ever-present videographer. All this is especially problematic given that the essence of love is that it’s not all about you, which is why the “all about me” wedding feels like a threat to marriage itself. But such considerations are now pushed aside: the church is a venue to be hired, one more thing for the ghastly “wedding planners” to book alongside the florist and the videographer.
Having spent the last ten years in a church that had been substantially redesigned by Nazi bombers, and thus was no great looker, a move to a beautiful 18th-century church in the leafy suburbs of Kew has reacquainted me with the deep world weariness that attends the modern wedding-as-stage-set. The other week, mid-service, I was firmly encouraging the wedding photographer not to stand immediately in front of the bride and groom as they said their vows. He told me that as they had booked this venue, they could do exactly what they liked.
The problem with all of this is not just that the vicar has lost control of his or her own church, but rather that the wedding ceremony becomes something so much smaller, suffocating under the centripetal gravity of the me, me, me. The liturgy of the traditional wedding is supposed to articulate the idea that when two people give themselves to each other in love the world becomes a more expansive space, not least expansive enough for the nurture of children — a job that requires more training in selflessness than anything else known to humankind. None of this is prefigured in the kind of vanity project that is often justified by — and demanded by — references to “my special day”.
There is nothing all that surprising about the Law Commission’s suggestions about marriage reform. They track the spirit of the age, which is, I suppose, their job. And they give couples more control and more choice over what they do — which is slightly ironic given that choice is one of the things that people give up a lot of when they get married. A simple wedding is one of the most beautiful things in the world. A wedding where everyone concerned, even the bride and groom, are turned into props in some overwrought and self-absorbed drama is one of the most nauseating.