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March 24, 2005

Spring Weddings and Modern Vows

Posted by Peter Mullen

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen looks forward to the post-Easter wedding season. His Church, St Michael's Cornhill, is very popular for weddings. However, the vows some couples wish to exchange have become increasingly bizarre.

Springtime is the most popular time to get married. St Michael's is a magnificent Wren church in the heart of the City and well-placed among the livery halls for smart receptions, so we have quite a few weddings booked. I hope I don't have to endure a repeat of last year's shenanigans. A couple came in off the street and asked if they might be allowed to make "alternative vows". You wonder what's coming next: do they want to replace

Till death us do part
with ...
until a week on Tuesday?
Not quite. He, with the David Beckham haircut and clothing hanging about him in like manner, wanted to stand at the chancel steps and begin his lifelong vows with the immortal words,
Ever since we met last year in the disco…
This is the sort of degraded demotic that ought to qualify this bloke for a place on the Liturgical Commission. We didn't get as far as her reply. They took kindly enough to my advice -
Sorry dears, this is the Church of England. Have you tried Blind Date?
- and shoved off.

For the lesson the favourite always used to be the miraculous chapter from St Paul ending with,

....and the greatest of these is love.
Or else something luscious and sensual from the Old Testament's Song of Songs:

Thou hast ravished my heart. Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is thy love! How much better is thy love than wine, and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!

But recent trends bear out G.K. Chesterton's warning that,

When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing – they believe in anything.
Couples increasingly ask if they might read the bum-clenchingly awful Invitation by someone with the preposterous name of Oriah Mountain Dreamer. This starts by hoping that the bride has not been
shrivelled and closed.
No doubt the bridegroom hopes not too! It goes on to wonder whether the couple have
touched the centre of their own sorrow.
This is at a wedding, mind you, not a wake!

And then,

I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me.
But won't her dress melt? And
I want to know what sustains you from the inside
- to which the only possible response is
Tripe and onions, love.
But the best line must be,
I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone.
Good grief - it's going to be a rough honeymoon!

We use The Book of Common Prayer at St Michael's, so we don't go in for any of that crooning sentimental guff you find in the new Common Worship - hideously mawkish phrases such as,

All that I am I give to you.
What, does he give her his indigestion and bad temper? Then incredibly the priest prays:
Let them be tender with each other's dreams.
It sounds like a schmaltzy song title by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I think there should here be a rubric printed at this point in bold type in the margin of that godforsaken new worship book: The congregation shall here throw up – bride's family's side first. The numbskull liturgical revisers never tire of telling the clergy that we have to modernise because the BCP wedding service is not relevant to our generation. That's patronising rubbish. How dare they tell today's young couples that this lovely, heartfelt traditional language is beyond them? It's not even true. In the last three years we have held eighteen weddings, all from the 1662 book, and every couple has stayed to become regular members of the congregation.

But there's no limit to the banality and paucity of imagination of those who devise new marriage services. I mean, consider this. For hundreds of years the bridegroom said,

With this ring I thee wed.
Those words go back to the time of Chaucer when they were spoken at the church door. I have heard them at weddings for thirty years and I can't think of a more moving utterance: six words of one syllable which exactly fit the movement of the placing of the ring on the bride's finger. This is lucid, numinous poetry of great beauty. So what have the revisers done? Replaced those six enchanted words with eleven in the tedious, tin-eared phrase,
I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage.
The revision is an act of cultural vandalism and sacrilege. Besides, it's a piece of sheer nonsense. I mean, you don't have to be Wittgenstein to see that, if he has to tell her that the ring is a sign, it means the sign isn't working.

The marvellous thing about the BCP Solemnisation of Matrimony is that it gives the lie to the accusation that the Christian faith is puritanical and anti-sex. In an ecstatic phrase the bridegroom says to his bride,

With my body I thee worship.
And, whereas the supposedly relevant modern version is just one long catalogue of sentimental effusions and disembodied evasions of sex, the BCP is not afraid to confront the reality:
carnal lusts and appetites…as a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication.

Somewhere among the corny jokes about letting them have any hymns they like apart from Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow and Fight the Good Fight, there is the irresistible temptation to get the giggles. I remember, for instance, standing in my place on the chancel step and hearing - and watching - the biggest bridesmaid since the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal boom out that line in Praise My Soul,

Well my feeble frame He knows.
Well, I'm sure He does.

I try to send them off with some sound advice

Don't go too far on the first night.
At this the choir titters and the knicker elastic of the maiden aunts snaps. You have to pause for just the right number of seconds and then add very solemnly,
My wife and I went as far as Llandudno - and it was far too far…

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.


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"Let them be tender with each other's dreams." The phrase is actually optional in the new service book, which is itself optional. A remarkable number of people, seeing the choice of the old service, which requires the bride to "obey", and the new service, which treats both as grown-ups, come to the obvious conclusion.

And Mr Mullen is perfectly entitled not to permit the "Invitation" item to be used in his church. It is certainly nothing to do with the Church of England.

Posted by: Alan Marsh at September 11, 2005 06:51 PM
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