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The tyranny of the perfect wedding

08 November 2019

Sara Batts-Neale’s ministry to her wedding couples extends to their bank balance


YOUR wedding. Planned to per­fection. That’s the goal encour­aged by wedding-planning com­panies. Per­fect dress, perfect shoes, cake, flowers, first dance, stationery — everything should be considered in the light of what makes it perfect for guests . . . and, of course, for those who follow via social media.

This year, I had an excursion into this hitherto unexplored corner of the internet when planning my wed­ding to my husband Tim. I read ma­­ga­­­zines out of curiosity, to see what we were supposed to be doing. Per­haps naïvely, I found the relent­less quest for perfection rather shock­ing. You & Your Wedding promised “685 gorgeous ideas for the perfect day” — and that’s just one issue of one magazine.

Seeing the process as a bride led me to reflect on how, as a priest, I work with the couples I marry, and ask whether I have properly under­stood the stresses around a wedding. My experience says that it takes resolve, and a thick skin, to with­stand the expectations that even the most well-meaning people can have.

Clergy are, of course, well versed in asking couples to think beyond one-day events to the years of mar­riage ahead. We neglect our duty to our wedding couples if we don’t. But how can we help people to flourish in the lead-up to a wedding? What have we to offer to counteract the pres­­sure to be perfect? Can we re­­claim the term from its association with a cash-intensive event to an en­­counter with something of God’s perfect love?

THE search for perfection leads in odd directions. I was baffled by the idea of fake cakes: if your budget does not run to a big real cake, you can have a pretend one instead. That felt like a tragic waste of money: faking what you can’t afford seems to me to be starting a marriage with dishonesty.

A wedding supplier told me of someone insisting on a brand-new, perfectly white marquee to replace the waterproof (but weathered) one that had been erec­ted. You can guess what happened when it rained. This feels like some­thing of a metaphor. What looks perfect might not actu­ally do the job that we want it to do.

Our functioning in a relationship — or just as a person in a com­munity — is made easier when we accept those around us for who they are. My best woman, Susanna Winter, offered sage advice in her speech: “Having your own flaws accepted is worth the price of having to accept the other person’s flaws.”

We weather life, just like that waterproof marquee. Our wholeness as a person does not rely on our ignoring our failings and hiding them, but in understanding that, when God sees us, he sees the mess but loves us anyway. The sacrament of marriage encompasses our whole lives, not just the bits on show.

Wedding perfection costs money. The annual survey of Immediate Media’s website hitched.co.uk sug­gests that the average spend on a wedding is now £31,974.

The consumer-protection website Moneysaving­expert describes that sum as “heart­breaking”. We can reflect on how small a percentage of that overall cost the fees for the church amount to.

I was honestly amazed at the amount of stuff that is sold as “es­­sential” for a bride. Matching per­sonalised pyjamas, bath robes, slip­pers, and coat hangers seem to be popular items for the bride and her entourage.

Personalisation turns out to be a big thing. It recognises the indivi­duality of the person, says that you’re not just one of many, but a special part of a huge event. It’s a corollary to the slogan “Because you’re worth it.” While this is usu­ally deployed as an inducement to s­­pend, it could be translated into a genuine sense of self-worth.

DAVE WALKERSara Batts-Neale in her £12 wedding dress at her marriage to Tim in St Peter ad Vincula in Coggeshall, Essex, in September

A wedding day is an amazing day. But it is not the only day on which a couple is special. Our worth is in our identity as the loved children of God, and that’s the promise of a lifetime — and beyond.

It is not measured in social-media “likes”; yet the National Wedding Survey found that 42 per cent of couples it asked felt pressured to have a wedding that met the stand­ards of Instagram or Pinterest. A quarter had spent more to make things look better for pictures.

When I joined a Facebook group for local weddings, I found people sharing their weight-loss journey. I’m not bashing social media; it’s part of my life — I’d be lost without the contact with others that it affords me. Yet I am saddened if the ap­­proval of strangers drives a couple to spend more, and provides yet an­­other source of stress.

AS CLERGY, it can be tempting to respond negatively to wedding couples. I’m not denying that some have unreasonable demands, or mis­understand the kind of space a church is. Our buildings, while beaut­i­ful, are more than a pretty backdrop to a party, but it’s not the fault of a non-churchgoing couple if they don’t understand this at the out­set.

When explaining what can and can’t happen in a church wedding, we are more than upholders of rules and regulations. I wonder if a con­trib­­uting factor to the continuing decline in church weddings — they have dropped by one third in the past decade — is the mistaken belief that we offer only a one-size-fits-all approach. Couples are surprised when they discover that they are not limited to organ music, for example.

We have opportunities to intro­duce our church as a building that holds hopes and dreams as well grief and despair, and as a place where all are welcome and where God can be found by those who look.

A church can be a place of celeb­ration as well as solemnity — and host the party as well as the vows. Canon Leah Vasey-Saunders, Pre­centor of Wakefield Cathedral, de­­scribes how the team persuaded one couple who wanted to book their reception in the nave to have the whole service in the cathedral. “We could offer a really bespoke wedding, at a reasonable cost. We see so much potential here to adapt to each couple’s budget and context, and really change people’s perspective on what church is for.”

A church in the diocese of Chester has offered an all-inclusive wedding package for £1000 in a attempt to help those who would struggle with the cost elsewhere.

MORE generally, we might be the only place accepting and loving couples for who they really are, helping to heal their hurt from failed relationships (although not all churches welcome the marriage of a divorced per­son, which is a whole other topic to consider).

We might be the only people who are not actively trying to up-sell or profiteer. We might be the only people to help to broker difficult family dynamics. It is our job to be more concerned about what hap­pens rather than how it looks.

How do we sell this in the crowded weddings marketplace? At­­tend­ance at wedding fairs costs money that parishes might not have, and raises issues of qualifying con­nections and parish boundaries. Pub­­licising the possibility of a church wedding should happen at a wider level than just the individual parish — something that the life-events team at Church House has pioneered (News, 12 April).

The church that I serve marries many couples from outside the parish. Their regular attendance for worship changes us for the better. We are fortunate to have attentive and wel­coming people who genuinely make newcomers feel at home. We’re sad, of course, if they disappear after the wedding — but we believe that we have shown something of God’s love in our hos­pitality, and reshaped their concept of church.

We sometimes know our out-of-parish couples better than those we see only for the readings of the banns. Tim and I had our banns read in three churches, one of which neither of us had ever visited, rein­forcing my opinion that the sooner this arcane practice goes the better (News, 24 February 2017).

Sarah, a recent bride, resisted external pressures when it came to planning her Lego-themed wedding. “We decided early on that, as long as we were happy, we didn’t care whether others thought it was per­fect or if they thought it was cheesy.” In my own case, I took pride in finding a wedding dress for £12 in a charity shop: I knew it to be beautiful, regardless of cost.

My hope as a priest is that, besides maintaining the legal and pastoral needs of wedding couples, I might also be able to help them to navigate their own path through all these social and financial pressures.

The Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale is Assistant Curate of Coggeshall with Markshall, and of Cressing with Stisted and Bradwell-Juxt-Coggeshall and Pattis­wick, in the diocese of Chelms­ford.

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