After the theological drift in the past two American Prayer Books, the service of Holy Matrimony in the 2019 Prayer Book is a breath of fresh air, its content rooted in the traditional material of the classical Anglican tradition. The format of the service is very much in the modern style, but language and doctrine it contains are long-awaited returns to historic orthodoxy.
The opening text on BCP198-199 outline the doctrine of marriage and call for “great care” in the preparation of all candidates for Holy Matrimony. The word “candidate” should be taken seriously: just as in Confirmation and Ordination, those preparing for marriage are merely candidates, and the minister is well within his rights to deny officiating the wedding if the couple is not prepared or ineligible for marriage. The Banns of Marriage are one line of discernment, wherein the congregation is to be given at least three opportunities to offer any “cause, or just impediment” that the wedding should not go through. Furthermore, the minister is expected (and in many dioceses required) to have the couple sign the Declaration of Intention on BCP200. This, and its accompanying liturgy on BCP213, is essentially a formalized betrothal ceremony, and serves as the primary “gateway” to the path to marriage. If the couple is unable to sign the Declaration in good conscience they need further instruction and catechesis concerning Christian marriage before they can receive the Church’s blessing. The minister should take this role with grave solemnity, as many believers have slipped through the cracks in recent decades, entering into marriage with (at best) anemic views of biblical marriage.
What follows is but one way of approaching pre-marital counseling, which the minister can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the couple in question.
“Marriage is two people made one flesh in community bearing fruit for life before God.”
1. “Marriage Is”
- Examine the Declaration of Intent study its four-fold purpose of marriage
- Examine Holy Matrimony as an image of Christ & Church
- Gateway: Sign the Declaration of Intention
2. “Two People”
- Profile the personalities of the man and the woman with appropriate social and religious tools and measures
- Consider their schedules, lifestyles, interests, personal spaces
- Gateway: Make plans for Confirmation if not yet done
3. “Made One Flesh”
- Consider the unity of the couple, especially their disciplines (spiritual and otherwise)
- Examine their conflict resolution past and present, and where peace is found
- Gateway: Have them paraphrase the Wedding Vows for their own understanding
4. “In Community”
- Consider the community, especially the future in-laws, for this couple, and their relationships
- Explore their baggage, expectations, history, and wishes about family and friends
- Gateway: Offer Healing Prayer
5. “Bearing Fruit”
- Explore the subjects of agape love that sacrifices & spreads, especially with regards to sexuality, family planning, and child-rearing
- Examine their sexual desires, history, expectations, and ethics
- Gateway: Offer private Confession & Absolution
6. “For Life”
- Consider ordinary household plans like finances, spending & saving habits, occupations
- Explore the subjects of homemaking and domestic duties and expectations
- Gateway: Have them prepare a budget and list major milestones as a couple for their first year
7. “Before God”
- Explore spiritual habits shared by the couple and pastoral accountability for the future
- Consider the religious life of their family-to-be
- Gateway: Plan the wedding ceremony’sliturgy together
The Entrance Rite
The entrance of the groom and his groomsmen, and the procession of the bride and her bridesmaids, are not fixed in the Prayer Book tradition. The logistics of these entrances may rely on the situation of the worship space as well as general Western marriage tradition. Although the minister is in charge of the liturgy, the couple should be welcome to plan their entrances with appropriate music and procedure, so long as the woman arrives at the minister’s right, and the man at his left.
The text of the minister’s opening exhortation and Declaration of Intent in BCP201-203 is not to be altered, excepting that the language of the 1662 Prayer Book may be used for the Examination instead. The text for this option is provided on BCP211 and should be offered and explained to the couple during the pre-marital counseling.
The minister’s call to the congregation – “speak now; or else for ever hold your peace” – is to be taken seriously. This is the last chance for an objection to made, and the minister must receive any objection (in private) immediately should any arise. The wedding ceremony cannot continue unless the minister is able to resolve or dismiss the objection.
The Presentation of the Bride is traditionally done by her parents or next of kin. It is optional in modern practice, but if the 1662 options are being used for the liturgy, then the Presentation should not be omitted.
The 1662 Prayer Book has no Lesson of Scripture in its Solemnization of Matrimony, but it does contain an exhortation at the end that may pass for a Sermon, which addresses to husbands Ephesians 5:25-33a, Colossians 3:19, and 1 Peter 3:7, and to wives Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, and 1 Peter 3:1-6. This precedent gives pride of place to Ephesians 5:1-2,21-33 and Colossians 3:12-17 in the list of options for the 2019 Prayer Book’s wedding service.
Although the reading of Scripture lessons and preaching of a sermon in the Marriage liturgy as if it were a Communion service is a modern innovation, it provides much-needed instruction for the congregation concerning biblical marriage. The minister and couple do not need to commit to the pattern of lessons found in the Communion service (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, Gospel), but should feel free to pick any of the Scripture Lessons provided on BCP204. As the rubrics indicate, a Psalm or other song should separate the Lessons if there is more than one. General liturgical experience suggests that three is a reasonable maximum number of readings for one service.
If the couple has chosen the Lesson(s) with care during the marriage counseling, the minister’s sermon will already carry some familiarity to them. The preacher, therefore, should take care not to focus too closely on the couple, but consider the entirely of the assembled congregation; the couple has been taught and prepared for marriage but much of the congregation has not received such instruction, and likely need it.
The words of the Vows may not be edited; marriage is defined by the Church, not by the individual couple.
The manual actions are significant: the man takes the right hand of the woman, they loose hands, and the woman takes the man’s right hand in hers. These are assertive actions. Earlier, in the Declaration “I will” they offered themselves to one another, and here they take one another. Thus both reach and take up the hand of the other.
The language at the exchange of rings may be substituted for the 1662 language provided on BCP212. This option should be considered during the counseling ahead of time, and is best adopted in tandem with the 1662 text of the Examination earlier in the service.
The minister’s statement “let no one put asunder” is as much a warning to the world as it is to the couple themselves, and should be said with gravity.
The Lord’s Prayer is followed by a litany similar to the Prayers of the People. The rubric indicates that other suitable prayers may be used. Although permissible, this should not be treated as license for the couple (or anyone else) to write their own prayers. Rather, this should be taken as an opportunity to draw from the rich prayers of previous Prayer Books, which are numerous and beautiful.
The Blessing of the Marriage
The rubrics direct that the husband and wife should kneel; therefore appropriate measures (regarding kneelers, assistance with the bridal gown, etc.) should be taken to enable this with relative ease.
The first prayer is prayed by the minister. The second is a formal blessing, which therefore should only be conferred by a Priest or Bishop.
This exchange is optional; the minister may immediately present the husband and wife to the congregation.
Historically, the marriage ceremony has been a stand-alone liturgy, and this option should be kept in mind. In many cases today, couple come from families of mixed religious backgrounds where the celebration of Holy Communion would be a lengthy mark of division in the congregation. Christians with differing views of the Sacrament, and especially non-Christians who are not even baptized, will likely feel confusion and rejection; in most cases this is best avoided altogether.
The Confession ought to be said at every celebration of Holy Communion. The only option to include this without violating the rubrics is to place it after the Offertory as per the traditional order of Holy Communion provided on BCP142.
The celebrant should take care to use the Preface for Holy Matrimony on BCP156, and the Post-Communion Prayer is replaced by the one provided at the end of the marriage liturgy.
Like the procession at the beginning, the Prayer Book does not direct the order of departure. This should be managed by local custom in accordance with the limitations of the worship space.
A Brief Liturgy for the Signing of the Declaration of Intention
This is the 2019 Prayer Book’s most significant feature that is truly new. It serves a formal betrothal rite which invites the congregation to pray for a couple considering marriage and provides a milestone in the spiritual life of a couple that spurs them on to further growth and preparation. It should be offered and encouraged to every couple seeking pre-marital counseling.
While every couple ought to sign this declaration, and they should be encouraged to do so publicly, it should not be required that it occur publicly. Those who are shy to appear before the congregation should be encouraged to consider it, however, as they hope to do so in the wedding ceremony itself. They should be reminded that they do not have to speak to the congregation, simply answer “It is” to the minister’s question, sign the statement, and receive prayer.
In a Communion service, this should take place after the Peace, or before the Offertory if a traditional order of service is being used. If used during the Daily Office, this rite is best used after the three collects, and after the anthem and sermon if either is included.