A Wedding without God. Only with God in it.
Last weekend, I was miraculously free to sing at a wedding for a friend who was short of a bass or two. He is the music director of a school inEdinburgh, and was trying to arrange the music for his deputy, who was getting married.
It’s been a while since I’ve opened the old lungs with gracious intent, and boy, it really was fun to let one’s throat give full vent to “I was Glad” “Beati Quorum Via” and others, including Durufle’s “Ubi caritas et amor” – which I noticed for the first time, sounds suspiciously like “the lion sleeps tonight”.
I am normally minded, I’m afraid, to be critical of weddings. Part of this is just professional assertions. Being a priest, it is easy to be a monstrous egoist, and to find anything that you don’t personally do to be deficient, simply because you’re not doing it.
But mainly, clergy tend to be critical of other people’s weddings, because there is a balance to be struck, and we each strike that balance at a different point. One has to be entertaining – let’s face it, one does, or people get bored. One also has to be kind to the congregation, putting them at their ease and helping them enjoy the love that is celebrated in the two people getting married. And one has to speak of God in some way which will inspire them to think or experience God in some way.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and it is inevitable that when you encounter another priest performing this feat of Anglican Agility, one is tempted to suggest that they got the balance in the wrong place – or as is often more common, simply found them deficient in all three areas – not very entertaining, not very kind towards the congregation, and saying little of interest or worth about God.
This wedding was in one of the many public schools inEdinburgh. They smell like churches, fresh flowers, polish, damp, and a fleeting whiff of incense. The chaplain was someone I knew, although not terribly well. I have always got along with him, but did not share his theological stance on a number of issues. I was expecting that the balance would lie more towards “expounding the word” than being kind to the congregation.
I was wrong.. He was funny, very engaging, everyone loved him. He was kind indeed to the congregation, and to the couple. He spoke well, enjoyed the music, took the service in a way that wasn’t stuffy, not too flippant.
You’re waiting for the But….
But… No God. Not a mention. Not a prayer, not a reading, not a tiny wee hint of anything scriptural, religious, spiritual, Trinitarian. It was an entirely secular wedding, apart from the words of the music.
You may not be waiting for another But…
But… It was brilliant. And it was Godly, a truly Godly event.
How so? Well, even though the Chaplain was dressed in secular garb (a rather natty pair of green tartan trews) everyone knew he was a priest. Everyone who knew him (which was a large number among the congregation) knew his theology, his devotion to his God and commitment to living out God’s word. Everyone also knew that the groom was not a believer to the extent that he didn’t want any mention of God in the service.
The first thing that hit me about this non-godly service was that if only secular wedding ceremonies were like this, then the world would be a better place. I have been to a number of civil weddings, and they have all been, without exception dire. Perhaps I have been unfortunate, but their liturgy, their flow, have been moribund, disinterested and carried out by people who did not seem to care whether they knew the bride and groom or not. This wedding, taken by a priest and without any reference to God, showed what a civil service could be, and it was beautiful, joyful, and had a liturgical movement to it which is normally entirely absent in secular ceremonies.
The second thing I thought was that in doing this, the Chaplain showed a level of kindness which I’m not sure I have been gracious enough to give others. On the few occasions when someone has asked such a thing of me as to perform a wedding without any god in it, I have said I am limited by my license only to do religious services. Of course, that it partly true, and also, a school chaplain has a wider license that I would have as a Rector of a church, but there was a generosity in this wedding which I admired. To a man like the Chaplain of this school, as it would have been to me, to perform a wedding and not talk of God was an act of sacrifice, a generous act of submission to the wishes of a bride and groom who wanted their wedding to be everything it could be to them.
Because of that kindness, and because of the atmosphere of laughter and generosity that was engendered, because everyone knew the Chaplain to be a devout priest, and because perhaps of the glorious music, then although God was not mentioned once, never even alluded to, it was a sacramental time, a time where God was very present, and where everyone, in their own way, knew it.
God being omnipresent, is there whether we mention God or not. In our diocesan liturgy group, people get into knots about whether we are mentioning the Trinity enough, or whether we are being doctrinally correct. But if the purpose of liturgy is to enable people to feel the presence of God, then perhaps we should just worry about words less, and worry about being kind more.