On Saturday I watched two dear friends tie the knot. I know your favourite part of a wedding is meant to be watching the groom watch the bride come down the aisle. And, yeah, that’s sweet and all. But for me, it’s usually the vows that get me a bit teary.
I know I’ve heard them countless times, at actual weddings but also in a thousand cultural echoes. I know the bride and groom are so overwhelmed at this point that it’s probably difficult for them to take in the significance of what they’re saying (though these friends, impressively, had their vows memorised and, cueless, got them word perfect). But there’s just something about those classic cadences – to have and to hold; for better for worse; in sickness and in health – and the fact that these particular two people, out of all others, are repeating to one another these same words so many have said before them.
In 1973, more than 80% of marriages were conducted by religious celebrants. By 1999, it was just under half; now only about a quarter of couples opt for a church wedding. This makes sense. The marriage service that’s come down to us from the Book of Common Prayer may be “traditional”, but it’s also deeply Christian. It’s carried out “in the sight of God”; it’s saturated in prayer; it traces marriage in general – and this marriage in particular – back to God’s purposes for creation.
But opting for a civil ceremony surely doesn’t oblige you to ditch all pre-existing vows and craft your own from scratch. There’s something obviously appealing about the idea of personalising your wedding vows – more broadly, of tailoring this age-old, unwieldy institution of marriage to fit the form and tempo of our lives and our relationship – just yours and mine. But it strikes me as a little … foolhardy perhaps? How do we know what promises we need to make at the outset of married life? How do we know what will be required to get us through? It has a bit of a reinventing-the-wheel vibe to it. Only without having a very clear idea yet of whether you’re building a wheelbarrow or a tank.
I think part of the reason I like hearing those same old vows over and over again, the same words in the mouths of a different couple each time, is because it signals the fact that marriage is something bigger than just these two people. Getting married is one of the most public, collectively human things we can do in our lives. It’s profoundly personal and at the same time gloriously social.
Following in the well-worn groove of those old words acknowledges that. There are centuries of deeply-felt marriage experience etched into the traditional wedding service. I’m no expert on this; I don’t really know of what I speak. But because I know I don’t know, when standing at the altar, I would be sure to use someone else’s vows.