Try focusing on the marriage vows

27 August 2008

As the law is changed, a new approach to preparation is being pioneered, says Sue Burridge

Prepared: Steve Bell and Zoë Rawcliffe, married at St Andrew’s, Rugby MULLIS/OBSERVER STANDARD NEWSPAPERS

Prepared: Steve Bell and Zoë Rawcliffe, married at St Andrew’s, Rugby MULLIS/OBSERVER STANDARD NEWSPAPERS

“We’re taking our vows in front of God, and that’s not something you’d want to do without taking a certain amount of thought,” said newly-weds Steve Bell and Zoë Rawcliffe, whose wedding, which took place earlier this month, is being broadcast on Radio 4’s Sunday Wor­ship this weekend.

The programme focuses on mar­riage, as part of the build-up to the legal changes that the Marriage Meas­ure will bring on 1 October (News, 15 August). The Measure will mean that couples can get married in any church where they have a particular con­nection, as defined by the Measure.

Mr Bell and Ms Rawcliffe were not churchgoers until they invest­igated the possibility of getting mar­ried in church. They visited St Andrew’s, Rugby, and Mr Bell de­clared he had “never felt so welcome anywhere in all my life”. Their faith developed, and they are now regular attenders. Their wedding was “more of a spiritual thing than just giving each other a ring — we could do that anywhere,” said Mr Bell.

The Church is in a unique posi­tion. In its marriage preparation, it offers something couples cannot get in a hotel or stately home, and tries to demonstrate its care about not just the big day, but all the days after­wards.

Many have questioned, though, whether marriage preparation still works. The Weddings Project is an initiative of the Archbishops’ Coun­cil, designed to make the most of the opportunities offered by the Mar­riage Measure. Its team has surveyed 411 engaged and newly-married couples, 176 clerics, and 1800 brides-to-be at the National Wedding Shows, as well as polling the wider public.

The good news is that it seems Church of England clergy do weddings well. When engaged and newly-weds — the majority of them not churchgoers — were asked to assess their experience of church for a wedding, for 90 per cent of them, it was good, very good, or excellent.

When asked about the content, style, and delivery of marriage pre­paration, many respondents appre-ciated the fact that the Church still offers it. Among the poll of the general population, 44 per cent said the Church should support marriage before the wedding day, although there seems to be a clear distinction between approving of preparation generally, and approving of taking part in it oneself.

The researchers report that “people strongly believe that any sup­port offered is clearly optional. Marriage also has different meanings within a relationship, so different couples will also have different sup­port requirements.”

The team also found some uncer­tainty among the clergy about the quality of preparatory events. Al­though one cleric was sure that offering the same content for 44 years was right, most were anxious that their preparation should be relevant.

The new law will add another challenge: to serve couples well when more of them marry far away from where they live — as we know a third of them do already.

When the researchers asked newly-weds about their church’s preparatory sessions, they discovered a clear mismatch between what couples wanted, and what was on offer. Many had already lived through the life lessons that the Church was eager to teach them, especially if, like most, they had lived together before marriage.

One said: “There was much dis­cussion around the future. However, having been together seven years prior to marriage, perhaps this wasn’t necessary.” Another described the preparation as “all the things we already knew — very obvious advice”.

Many clerics are already respond­ing to this. One said: “The retired bank manager we lined up to teach couples about finances . . . that doesn’t happen any more.”

Among the clergy, the team found that “marriage preparation” was a term heavily used, but widely dis­liked. One parish found interest in­creased when it described prepara­tion in a more functional way: as a “wedding workshop”.

Many were using the marriage service as a way-in. One cleric found the preface a “highly adaptable” tool to explain the theological under­girding for marriage. There was a strong sense that the vows work ex­tremely well as a teaching vehicle; that the couples’ attention is very much on their wedding day; and that “prep works best when you focus them on what they are promising”.

This ties in with what many engaged couples want. In the survey of newly-weds, the most popular options among several choices of preparation was “an opportunity to think about our wedding service and the vows we would make” (43 per cent), followed by “a single-session course about marriage” (30 per cent). These went down better than the more general “opportunity to con­sider marriage” which 21 per cent chose, or a longer course, which only 11 per cent of those questioned wanted.

As a result of the research, the Wed­dings Project is planning to commend a single-session module for a year’s trial in pilot areas. This will be focused on the marriage ser­vice, particularly the vows. In the module, the Revd Andrew Body, drawing on ideas from his book, Growing Together (Church House Publishing, 2007), sets out the service, in a session designed to last 90 min­utes.

The couples are encouraged to imagine the effect these promises could have. What helps heal rifts? How far have they travelled the road of “all that I have . . .”? As well as giving couples space to think, this helps to make the service special for them.

The invitation card for pilot churches does not mention “marriage preparation”, but invites couples “to think about your vows and the difference they will make”. The intention is to test these resources, before adapting them for the wider Church. They could help couples to deepen their relationship with each other and with the Church.

Sue Burridge is policy adviser on Marriage and Family to the Arch­bishops’ Council.

For more on the Marriage Measure and the bishops’ guidance, see:

For more on the Marriage Measure and the bishops’ guidance, see:

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