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Weddings can be acts of dignified worship

09 May 2014

Churches should foster a distinctive sense of reverence, as a contrast to Hollywood-style ceremonies, says Colin Baldy

I KNOW it is spring - not because of the blossom, but because I have a long list of wedding couples to see about the music for their forthcoming nuptials.

Having been at this business for more than 30 years, it has become pretty standard form - until the past few years. Where once brides could be persuaded to consider a trumpet voluntary, instead of the Wagner, for the entrance, and Widor, instead of Mendelssohn, for the exit, they are now asking for the most inappropriate music imaginable. Last year, I was twice asked for theme tunes from Hollywood movies as entrance music.

No problem with that: you can do a pretty good arrangement of Star Wars on the organ (I have done so). Both these choices were, however, on piano, and both were lugubrious in the extreme - hardly processional music.

For the exit, we had to sing "All you need is love" on three separate occasions last summer. At least two of these brides rejected all suggestions for organ (or, indeed, choral) pieces as "too churchy". I wish I had actually said what went through my mind: "Um, have you looked around you?"

NOW, I have no desire to appear condescending, or to say that I have better musical discernment than anyone else. It is to be rejoiced over that we all have different tastes, and I would always accommodate a bride's request as far as I am able.

There is, however, an underlying problem for the Church. It is good that the rules on eligibility for weddings have been relaxed, and more are again choosing to marry in church, but people have become so used to weddings taking place in other types of buildings, and have seen so many films featuring weddings that they are now regarded as the norm. The general public no longer seems to have any concept that a church wedding is not just a legal act, but is also an act of worship.

The piano wedding started with the bridesmaids entering one by one before the bride. This immediately creates the impression that the event is some sort of performance. But this is how they did it in Sex in the City, and this is how they want it.

A priest friend of mine told me recently about receiving a phone call from his bishop, in response to a complaint from a bride, after he had insisted that the bridesmaids followed her in. Knowing him, I am sure he would have handled the issue diplomatically, but the bride's reaction underlines the seeming lack of understanding about church weddings.

Then there are the readings. We have the obligatory one lesson from scripture (usually got over with as quickly as possible), followed by "poetry" that seems to owe more to Toy Story than Love Story ("You've got a friend" is a favourite).

What is more, there are often so many of them. One wedding last year had four readings. The impression of a performance is given further credence by applause after each attempt. And am I the only one who thinks that a reading should be rehearsed properly in the building beforehand?

I MAY be sounding like a grumpy old man, but there is a real issue here. I have yet to experience anything spiritual - or, dare I say it, sacramental - about these weddings. While I am sure that the brides and grooms all love each other and are committed to each other, the ceremonies that we, the Church, are colluding with are nothing more than pale imitations of cinema performances.

It is, of course, difficult to tread the path between advice and simply saying no. I have found a way of encouraging a more appropriate choice of music by arranging to meet the wedding couples after a Sunday-morning service.

Inevitably, the couple will attend the service. I am blessed in having a very good choir, and they nearly always opt to have the choir sing at their wedding. Having heard them sing a mass and motet, they often choose music that is similar.

Even where there is no choir, the experience of an act of worship makes it easier to impress on the couple that, although a wedding is a celebration, it is also an act of worship, and some music is appropriate for that, and some not. They can always have whatever else they want at the reception.

Then there is training the congregation on the day itself. As long as one recognises that the majority will have no experience of public worship, apart from weddings, baptisms, and funerals, it no longer seems condescending to explain a little about the service and how to behave during it.

A minister standing at the front beforehand can easily request no photography or recording during the service. Then, with gentle humour, he or she can rehearse the "We will" response, and add: "Oh, and to maintain an atmosphere of prayer, please applaud just once, when the couple have been married. I will, of course, invite you to do so."

IT IS good that people want to marry in church, but if we let them arrange things so that it is merely like a civil ceremony, then what are we contributing? We need to give some sense of why it matters to get married in church.

We need to show that weddings can be conducted with beauty and quiet dignity; that a church wedding is not only a moment of excitement, but also one of prayer and peace at the start of a new life together.

The clergy and organists should be able to say what is and is not appropriate, without worrying about letters to the bishop. If the ceremony is just like TV or the cinema, why bother coming back?

Colin Baldy is a performer and teacher. He is currently Director of Music at St Mary's, Maldon, in Essex.

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