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Who Wants A Pretty Venue For A Church Wedding?

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?

The Bishops, The Poor And the TV Presenter

So the bishops in the House of Lords supported an amendment that defeated government plans that would have limited benefits in such a way as to penalise the children of poor families. Predictably, the government didn’t like this. It feels like 1985 again, with ministers briefing that the ‘Faith in the City‘ report is Marxist.

Into this debate weighs journalist, TV presenter and poker player Victoria Coren. In a passionate piece in today’s Observer called ‘Attacking the Church is a Cheap Shot‘ (subtitled ‘Has everyone forgotten these are men of God? It’s actually their job to stand up for the poor), she puts it like this:

It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.

The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.

And later:

Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they’d really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.

And while the Stephen Hesters of this world, already paid 1.2 million loaves a year of arguably public bread, are being given fish factories as bonuses, the church can hardly join in with a move to reduce herring portions for the hungry. It would look ridiculous.

If this were X-Factor for journalists, Louis Walsh would be saying, “You nailed it.” The Bible calls us to be fair, but it calls us to a special concern for the poor. She therefore argues it’s unfair for the bishops to be criticised. They are only doing their job. Quite right, too.

However, it shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. Critique the powers that be and opposition will come. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus – all suffered. While being on the receiving end of criticism isn’t a guarantee of doing a good job, it may be a sign that the bishops scored a bullseye.
More worrying for me was the criticism by my former college principal, George (Lord) Carey. In an article in (of course) the Daily Mail, he seems to stereotype almost all people on benefits as being part of a dependency culture. Yes, some are, but overall – surely not! He knows all about growing up poor in the 1940s, but the pride of poor people he knew then in Dagenham still exists in many quarters, whatever else has changed. And yes, the national debt of £1 trillion is a scandal, but it was a scandal caused by the reckless folly of big business and a culture devoted to consumerism – a consumerism heavily promoted by the government that nominated him to the Queen first for Bath and Wells and then for Canterbury.

So well done the bishops, keep it up, whatever is thrown at you.