THE REHEARSAL AND CEREMONY
As pastors we have the best seat in the house; we witness pointblank the tender exchange of a loving couple’s commitment before God, their family, and friends.
Almost everyone has a “wedding story” to tell, and it’s usually slapstick. From the twenty years I have performed weddings, I have my share.
I’ve seen grooms so wobbly-kneed they had to be propped in a chair to finish the ceremony.
On other occasions, despite my traditional caveat to the wedding party not to lock their legs lest circulation be cut off and someone pass out, that warning seems only to function as a “sure word of prophecy.” At one of those times, a garden wedding, the groom’s brother crashed into the ivy during the prayer and did not wake up until after the kiss. The next week I dramatically warned another wedding party, using my fresh illustration. The result? The bride’s brother passed out, also during the prayer, and actually bounced on the slate floor, again missing the nuptial salute! The best-laid plans …
Another time the groomsmen and ushers were shorted a couple of bow ties by their tuxedo service, which created a comical Laurel-and-Hardy foyer as they frantically exchanged ties as their duties came up.
Weddings, because they are idealized and romanticized, provide ample occasion for such “disasters,” which invariably become fond memories as the years pass. “Remember when Uncle Joe hit the ivy?” “Yeah, it was great!”
Yet for the most part, weddings are wonderfully uneventful, and the pastor’s participation a pleasant remembrance. As pastors we have the best seat in the house; we witness pointblank the tender exchange of a loving couple’s commitment before God, their family, and friends. We see the flushed cheeks, moist eyes, trembling hands, and the nuanced gestures of this most sacred time. It is an immense privilege.
What are the important principles in planning and carrying out this privilege? How do we minimize the follies and maximize the sacredness? The key is to remember — throughout the planning, rehearsal, and the ceremony itself — that the Christian wedding is a worship celebration. As we will see, this has several practical implications.
The Planning Session
Early in the preparation stage, usually about four months before the wedding, I invite the couple to my office to plan the ceremony, urging that both attend, if possible. I normally schedule thirty and no more than forty-five minutes for this time.
With coffee in hand and after we have visited a few minutes and prayed, I briefly outline the theology of Christian marriage. I emphasize that a wedding ceremony is a time of worship, of reverence, because in Christian marriage the man and woman commit themselves to God as well as to each other (Rom. 12:1). I point out that while their human relationship will be showcased in the ceremony, it is not to be a show, for worship cannot be so.
Personally, I’m glad we seem to have passed the period when each wedding had to be a self-conscious production, with colored tuxes, bride and groom singing to each other, and lots of pressure on everyone to perform for the crowd. Lance Morrow, in a 1983 Time essay titled “The Hazards of Homemade Vows,” warns against making the ceremony a display case for unbridled creativity:
“Some couples remain tempted by the opportunity a wedding offers for self-expression. It is a temptation that should be resisted. … If the bride and groom have intimacies to whisper, there are private places for that. A wedding is public business. That is the point of it. The couple are not merely marrying one another. They are, at least in part, submitting themselves to the larger logics of life, to the survival of the community, to life itself.…At the moment of their binding, they should subsume their egos into that larger business within which their small lyricisms become tinny and exhibitionistic.”
Also, while it is nice to have the vows memorized, generally I discourage couples who want to recite them from memory during the ceremony. The stress of the wedding day is enough without this added pressure. I want the couple to relax, to enjoy the event, to worship as effectively as possible.
So I make sure the couple understands these implications of planning the ceremony as a worship service.
But at the same time, I emphasize that worship does not mean the ceremony has to be somber. We’re celebrating a wedding, not a funeral. I remind them that Christ saw weddings as occasions of great joy. In fact he performed his first miracle at a tiny wedding in Cana, changing the water to wine, a symbol of joy. Thus the wedding is worshipful and joyful celebration — and that is what I hope to help them achieve. Here, I always stress how honored I am to participate in such an event.
Next I give them a Wedding Ceremony Planning Sheet (see end of chapter), which outlines a typical ceremony. I explain this is simply a suggested outline — the order is negotiable, as are the contents. If there are other elements they prefer, they will probably be okay, if appropriate for worship.
The planning sheet, I’ve found, has a calming effect on the couple. The typical bride and groom are intimidated by the ceremony. It seems so arcane, so mysterious. The planning sheet immediately puts them at ease and acquaints them with their options as to special music, hymns, and personal innovations. Most couples become visibly relaxed and enthused.
From the pastor’s perspective, it provides a quick, clear explanation. Normally, it takes no more than ten minutes to walk the couple through the planning sheet. I figure this approach has saved me hundreds of hours over the years.
After we discuss the content, I reconfirm the times for the wedding and the rehearsal, double-checking my own calendar and having my secretary do likewise with the church’s master calendar. I then lay out the schedule of events. My rule of thumb is that the sanctuary should be clear forty-five minutes before the ceremony. For example, if a wedding is scheduled for 1 p.m., the schedule would be:
10:45–11:15 a.m.: Party arrives and dresses.
11:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m.: Photographs.
1 p.m.: Ceremony begins.
The rehearsal is normally best held the night before, for the convenience of out-of-town participants. My recommendation is to set it early, about 6 p.m. Because people are notoriously late to rehearsals, I ask them to be there fifteen minutes before we plan to begin. This means the rehearsal dinner can begin at a reasonable time. It also means a busy pastor can get to bed at a reasonable hour — maybe!
I also advise the couple on who should attend the rehearsal: the wedding party (groomsmen, bridesmaids, flower girl, ring bearer, and ushers), both sets of parents, the organist, other musicians, and the vocalists.
When the schedule is agreed upon, I ask the couple to repeat it back to me.
The next item I arrange is the appointment of a wedding coordinator. A wedding coordinator is by no means a big-church luxury; this person is essential if the pastor is to be a good steward of time. Many smaller churches I know have a volunteer wedding coordinator. But if such a position is not possible, it will still be to your advantage to appoint someone to help coordinate the rehearsal and wedding — traditionally an aunt, relative, or some friend experienced with weddings.
This person performs three important functions. First, she advises the bride as to the church’s policies regarding music, the use of candles, photography, the sound system, dressing rooms, and even the cleanup expected. She can be of help in suggesting florists, caterers, dinner sites, and the myriad other details involved in a wedding. Second, she presides at the wedding rehearsal along with the pastor. Third, she coordinates the wedding plans, and thus takes much of the pressure off the bride and wedding party.
Finally, I suggest to the couple that a nice way to spiritually prepare for their wedding is to read the Psalms in reverse order as a countdown to their wedding day. For example, if there are ninety days until the big day, read Psalm 90, then the next day Psalm 89, and so on. My wife and I did this before our wedding, and we enjoyed these poetic expressions of praise. Couples have told me, “It was great to know we were both reading the same things each day.”
The session is concluded with a time of prayer — and a reminder to bring the wedding license to the rehearsal.
Here’s the typical agenda:
Greeting. I invite everyone to the front rows of the church. I introduce myself and briefly share my perspective that weddings are times of reverential worship and joy and that both are my goals for the ceremony. I also give a quick overview of the rehearsal agenda.
Prayer. I lead the wedding party in asking God’s blessing on the service, reaffirming the purpose of the ceremony.
Introductions. I then introduce the wedding coordinator, expressing appreciation for her work and competence. She presides over the remaining introductions.
Instructions. The coordinator reviews several important items. She restates the time of the wedding and the time everyone must be there, and she asks the group to repeat it back to her. She offers reminders for dressing, telling the men, for instance, that when they pick up their tuxedos, they should try on the suit and the shirt to check the fit and should also make sure the tie, cuff links, suspenders, and shoes are included. Groomsmen and bridesmaids are shown their respective dressing rooms after the rehearsal. She gives advice about posture, including the warning about locking the legs and instructions to the men to keep their hands at their sides and smile.
Lastly, the coordinator displays her “Emergency Kit” (a carry-all bag). It contains “everything experience has shown us people forget,” she says with a smile. “What do you think is in here?”
With some good-natured joking, she describes the contents: thread (selection of colors), needles, pins, shirt buttons, thimble, pin cushion, scissors, nail file and emery board, nail polish, hair spray, bobby and hair pins, comb, mirror, talcum powder, tissues, breath mints, aspirin, antacid, small first-aid kit, capsules of ammonia, static cling spray, lint clothes brush, cleaning fluid, pen, pencil, plain envelopes, name tags (“in case you forget who you are!”), all-purpose glue, cellophane tape, masking tape, matches, and tape measure.
Perhaps the real purpose of the Emergency Kit, however, is to assure the nervous couple they are indeed in good hands, and they can relax and enjoy the occasion.
We then walk through the entire ceremony. Afterwards, the bride and groom, the maid of honor, and best man meet with me to sign most of the wedding certificate, leaving only a couple of signatures for the next day.
As pastor, I have always made it my business to be present during those forty-five minutes before the wedding to soothe frazzled nerves and complete the signing of the marriage documents. My role is to be calm and unflappable, to care for the couple, reassuring them everything will go well, and remind them their role is to enjoy this moment.
But even more, I am there to pray separately with the groomsmen and bridesmaids, inviting God’s blessing on the moments to follow, asking that he will preserve in their hearts and minds the sacred ambience of the candlelit sanctuary, the radiant faces of well-wishing family and friends, and the joy of love exchanged in holy commitment.
During the ceremony, my role is to remind the people, by word and bearing, that this is a worship service. I try to guard against talking too fast or saying the familiar words in a perfunctory manner. Wanting this to be a personal experience, I speak directly yet conversationally to the two people in front of me, not to the crowd behind them.
I also make creative use of silence, which we so rarely enjoy these days. For instance, I prefer no music at all when the bride ascends the platform, so everyone can hear the rustle of the dress.
Then the couple repeats solemn vows very similar to those said by their parents and ancestors, thus affirming their solidarity with the past and their fidelity to the high call of God.
I’m sometimes surprised but always delighted by how my attention to a few details during the preparation, rehearsal, and ceremony can release the couple from nervous tension. When I am able to move a couple’s thinking from anxious performance to tender worship, I feel I’ve accomplished my pastoral role.
WEDDING CEREMONY PLANNING SHEET
Time prelude begins: Time candles lighted:
SOLO/SPECIAL MUSIC (optional)
AISLE RUNNER (optional)
PRESENTATION OF BRIDE
WELCOME/CALL TO WORSHIP
Example: We are gathered here to worship God and to witness the marriage vows of ____ and ____ (full names). Let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Let us worship God.
Example: ____ and ____, marriage is an honorable estate whose bond and covenant was instituted by God in creation. Our Lord Jesus Christ adorned and beautified this holy estate by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his church. And the Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people. Therefore, no one should enter this state of life unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.
DECLARATION OF INTENT
Example: “____, will you take ____ to be your wife, and will you be faithful to her, love her, honor her, live with her, and cherish her, according to the commandments of God in holy marriage?”
“____, will you take ____ to be your husband, and will you be faithful to him, love him, honor him, live with him, and cherish him, according to the commandments of God in holy marriage?”
HYMN or SPECIAL MUSIC (may go before ascending platform)
Examples: Gen. 2:18–24; Eccles. 4:19–21; Matt. 5:13–16; John 2:1; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:12–17; I John 4:7–12; Song of Songs 8:6, 7.
HOMIL Y (7–10 minutes)
Example: “I, ____, take you ____, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and according to God’s holy plan, I give you my love.”
“I, ____, take you, ____, to my wedded husband …” (as above)
“____/____, what token do you give of your love?”
“____, with this ring I thee wed, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Example: Bless, O Lord, these rings to be a symbol of the solemn vows by which this man and this woman have bound themselves to each other in holy matrimony, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.
Example: Forasmuch as ____ and ____ have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this congregation, and in so doing have given and pledged their vows to each other, and have declared the same by the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce them man and wife together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
LIGHTING OF CHRIST OR UNITY CANDLE (optional)
VOWS OF THE CHRISTIAN HOME (optional):
Depending upon God for strength and wisdom, we pledge ourselves to the establishment of a Christian home. Together we will constantly seek God’s will and honor Christ in our marriage.
SOLO OR SPECIAL MUSIC (optional)