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How weddings look to couples

07 February 2014

Gillean Craig learns how to be an even better officiant

The Church Weddings Handbook: The seven pastoral moments that matter
Gillian Oliver
Church House Publishing £12.99
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OTHER clergy will find this book extremely useful. I started out to read it, full of good will, eager to commend to others, in some such terms as my opening sentence, those points at which, as a guide to the way today's priest should prepare for and conduct weddings, it confirmed my own practice; for do I not hear from every side how frightfully good I am in this area?

Alas, the first couple of pages swiftly disabused me: it was clear that the person who would most greatly benefit from it was I myself - and, in this spirit of humility, I continued to read, and to learn.

The book derives from the Wedding Project set up by the Archbishops' Council in 2008, to discover what opportunities for church growth might lie in this area of pastoral ministry. The project did its work in (for the Church) novel fashion, consulting not theologians, the early Fathers, or even serving clergy, but conducting professional-standard research among those who had recently been married in church. Why had they chosen to do so? Had they felt welcomed? Did it mean very much to them?

Then they took the fruits of this research into two pilot areas - Bradford diocese and Buckingham archdeaconry in Oxford diocese - to share the insights gleaned. This book, and the online resource to which it constantly refers, www.yourchurchwedding.org, distils what was learned.

The overwhelming message is one of affirmation: a massive vote of confidence in the Church of England and her traditional ministry. Couples choose to marry in church not because it looks good on the DVD - today dozens of heritage locations vie for their custom. They choose a church because it is more "proper". Although few of them say so, because it's so uncool, what they really want at this crucial moment in their lives is God.

Even if you don't want the whole package, the process set up by the project and available for you to click into, this handbook is full of splendid insights, all the better for being concise, simple, and direct. Here are a few: nowadays a wedding isn't, as it was for previous generations, the gateway into a committed relationship: it is the crown of the couple's commitment to each other. Never underestimate the courage that it requires most people to summon up even to make the initial enquiry about a church wedding: generally they assume that they won't qualify, that they don't belong, and/or that they haven't the language or the culture required. They feel unworthy to ask, even hypocritical for asking. Focus not on rules, but on grace.

A course of once-a-week wedding preparation classes is largely self-defeating: far better to have one good session, focusing on the meaning of the vows. Although laypeople make magnificent wedding-preparers, what the couple really want is to see "the Vicar" - which can mean an assistant curate or SSM/NSM - the title doesn't matter; but it should be the ordained God-person who will officiate on the day itself. The officiating priest should never forget that he or she is also a guest: it is not his or her wedding. Huge pastoral dividends can be won by maintaining contact with the couple after the wedding - especially in the first 30 days.

I don't agree with all of it. Having only a few weddings a year, I much prefer sitting down with the couple to discuss the choice of readings, hymns, and music in the first place to encouraging them to plan the whole thing themselves online, and then having to disappoint them if some of their choices are impracticable or inappropriate.

I don't think that the book addresses the peculiar situation of those (many) urban churches, in central London and elsewhere, with fully professional choirs and musical establishments. I think that some video photographers are more fatally invasive to the spirit of the sacrament than the handbook allows. The cartoon is awful.

But, all in all, it is terrific, taking seriously our mission as the Established Church (hurrah!) with the consequent legal obligation to agree to marry most of those who seek weddings in our churches. If we all adopted the attitudes and practices recommended here, we might even see significant growth in church membership among the newly married, and their families and friends.

Of course, we now eagerly await the production of a revised edition telling us, in addition, how to achieve the best possible pastoral growth as we explain to same-sex couples that none of this whatsoever applies to them.

The Revd Gillean Craig is Vicar of St Mary Abbots, Kensington, in London.

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