Victoria Coren has written a piece in today’s Observer marking the publication by the Church of England of their new Church Weddings Handbook. Coren praises this book, which calls on Anglican clergy to welcome those non-church couples who seek a church wedding, even if some of their requests for the ceremony are a little unconventional. Trained owls bringing you the wedding rings? Can’t say I’ve ever had that one.
Coren is delighted that the handbook emphasises the idea that when such couples ask for a church wedding there is probably buried somewhere in their inarticulate language a desire for God to bless their marriage. The strange and elaborate ideas they bring are more likely to come from wedding magazines trying to justify their circulation. Hence vacuous discussions about ‘What’s hot in wedding biscuits right now?’
Behind this is, I’m sure, the thought that those who used simply to seek a church wedding solely because they wanted a pretty venue no longer approach the church. They now have an ample choice of stately homes and castles. And theme parks too, of course. So I’m inclined to agree with Coren and the handbook that there is more likely to be some kind of nascent spiritual desire behind the request, one that needs a sympathetic and gracious response in the name of the Gospel, even if it isn’t all that committed Christians would want it to be.
But there still are couples who want a pretty (read ‘Gothic’ or ‘medieval’) church building for their nuptials. Who are they?
Here’s the shock. In my experience, they tend to be Christian couples. The very people for whom the substance of the service rather than the outward style should matter the most are often those who most desire a beautiful church building.
This isn’t based on widespread research, only on my own experience, and so I’ll be interested to know what other ministers have encountered. For example, in my last appointment I didn’t conduct a single wedding in five years. Two of my three churches were modern buildings (that is, late twentieth century). The one chapel with a traditional appearance was small. Two Christian couples approached me during my time there. Neither couple, it must be said, came from any of my churches: there were certain reasons in each case why they needed to look outside their own usual churches for a wedding venue. However, in both cases, it was the buildings that made them decide not to proceed with me but to find a ‘typical’ Anglican church instead. I’ve noticed this phenomenon elsewhere, too.
So what’s going on? I’d like to think it’s a postmodern desire to recover the sense of the numinous after the utilitarian worship of modernity, invoked by an appeal to the notion of holy place. Yet what I often hear is that “It’s about the photos.” At best that might be about being part of a visual culture, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that this devotion to image ranks style above substance.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love photography. I enjoy it as a hobby. I am glad we have the albums of our wedding. (Although the pictures I liked the most were those taken by my brother-in-law and by an amateur photographer friend who now rests in peace.) But we could never have made a photogenic location a key question in where we got married. It was far more important for us to marry in a worshipping community of which we were part.
I hope I have misunderstood and that there are better explanations. What do you think?