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11 April 2014


Waving the banner

"I HOPE you don't mind me asking, and I don't mean to be funny," said the rather tired and nonplussed lady, trailing her daughter, a bride-to-be, in her wake, "but what are you doing here?"

And, indeed, well she might have asked.

I had just spent an agreeable afternoon as an exhibitor at a wedding fair; or, more accurately, bearing in mind that I was dressed in a festal cope embellished with more gold embroidery than a Ruritanian vice-admiral, I think I had been more of an exhibit. We had been involved in a roadshow put on by our intrepid communications officer Lisa Williamson, as part of our diocese's ongoing response to the national "Wedding Project" initiative - and it was a real eye-opener.

It was Sunday, and, having just led my Lenten services in the morning, I trotted off to the neighbouring Brighton and Hove Albion AMEX football stadium complete with alb, stole, and aforementioned cope, packing in addition a big banner and two gilded floor-standing candlesticks (as you do).

Realising that I was going to have to park miles away, I abandoned the candlesticks in the car, and, laden with the banner, staggered over to the venue, located Lisa, and began to tout for trade.

Linked together

I HAD expected the dress and suit stalls, the catering, and the marquees, but I was unprepared for the sheer variety of other things: wedding singers who will compose a marriage song for you; poets who will write the best man's speech in verse; novelty fancy dress for the photos; Italian ice-cream vendors with bacon-flavour ices; bridal massage and aromatherapy; exotic party-favours; and cakes ranging from traditional triple-tiered in royal white icing to novelty studded-bondage theme in glazed chocolate marzipan.

The other stallholders seemed genuinely pleased to see me as I wandered round, and wanted to engage in conversation. One was interested in debating same-sex marriage; another wanted to talk about his own church experiences. Most were intrigued to know why we were there, and were glad that we were participating.

Some of the exhibitors were offering linked packages: for example, marquee plus decor plus catering. They would have been only too happy to link up with local churches, too, and I think we are missing a trick. Admittedly, I do not think that many of my bridal couples in downtown Moulsecoomb would stretch to £25 a head for a marquee in the rectory garden, but it is food for thought.

Winning proposal

ABOVE all, though, it was meeting the couples that was fun. Some were there in an advanced stage of nuptial preparation, looking for final tweaking ideas; others were only just starting, with the potential enormity of the task (and potentially eye-watering cost) just dawning on them.

"Hello! Are you thinking of a church wedding?" was my breezy opening gambit, and it was gratifying how many smiled and said: "Yes, it's all booked, and our vicar's lovely." Those ones got a free chocolate.

There were a quite a few responses along the lines of: "We didn't think we could/We're not that religious/I'm divorced; so I can't, can I?/I was never baptised," all of which we chatted about. Such couples went off happily clutching our rather nifty information packs, looking hopeful.

A really fruitful approach, I found, was directed at those who were getting married abroad. I brightly suggested that they consider a church blessing when they got home, for all those friends and family who could not get to the wedding itself; and generally the bride's eyes lit up when she realised that she could wear her dress twice.

During the whole afternoon, only a couple of times did I get: "Church wedding? Us? No way!", which was gratifying in this increasingly secular age.

Coping with success

WE DULY dismantled our stall at 3 p.m., and I started off home. It was at that point, in the walkway by the door to the West Stand, as I was struggling along in my cope with the dismantled banner in my arms, that the mother and daughter I mentioned before, clearly late and having missed most of the event, challenged me.

I told them that I was a local vicar, but was here representing the wider Church of England, telling people how to go about getting married in church. The bride was reluctant to approach her parish, and I reassured her that she would be welcome, and that a church wedding could be for her. I gave her the pack, and she went off looking happy, saying: "Do you know? I think I will."

The next fair is in the autumn; so count me in. The only thing is, next time it won't just be with a banner and a couple of candlesticks - I'll be going for a whole pop-up church. Anyone got a free-standing stained-glass window?

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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