“I’VE grieved for my wedding,” Ruth Lumbers, a 37-year-old nurse living in Bradford, says. “I know it was only a day, but I actually had to grieve for it.”
This sense of loss — for dresses unworn and speeches unread — has been widespread in a summer overshadowed by Covid-19. Even as restrictions slowly ease, this pandemic is certain to change how weddings are celebrated for years to come. But, long before a downsized wedding was even possible, many betrothed couples were stuck in limbo at the start of the pandemic.
Ruth and her fiancé, Bazz Deacon, 41, had planned to marry in April, and invite more than 200 guests, but everything had to be cancelled when the lockdown came into force, four weeks before. The Office for National Statistics estimates that, in England alone, 73,600 marriages and civil partnerships were postponed between the beginning of lockdown and 4 July: a time when weddings were banned in almost every circumstance.
“The Government’s advice of ‘Stay apart or move in together’ is not very helpful as a Christian couple, when living together is not an option,” Ruth says. She had to spend most of the lockdown apart from Bazz. “Normally, we would spend every available minute of the week we could together.”
Time apart was especially taxing for Ruth, who was on antidepressants until last year. “We both found it incredibly tough, especially when the wedding was sort-of-cancelled,” she says. “It’s the first thing that I’ve had to cope with without medication.”
Louis BryantSt Paul’s, Shadwell, arranged for Abie Everett and Michael Hepworth’s socially distanced wedding
This stress is not uncommon. A survey of 34,000 brides by the financial app Dreams found that one in ten couples considered calling off their engagement owing to the emotional and mental strain of planning a wedding during a pandemic.
It was Ruth’s faith that kept her looking forward. “When, initially, everything was cancelled, it was a case of, ‘Why, God? Why us?’” Ruth says. “But both I and my other half have turned round and said, ‘We’ve got a strong relationship; we’ve both got strong churches; we’re both strong in faith; so why shouldn’t it happen to us?’”
New wedding plans became possible as new guidelines were announced in the UK in June and July. In England, this meant having up to 30 guests with strict rules in place.
“We’re having cake cut for a photo, but we’re not allowed to consume the cake,” Ruth says. “We can’t have a photographer because, if we had one, that would count as one of our guests, and we’re going to have a few socially distanced photos, which will be weird.”
Despite the restrictions, Ruth is relieved. “For us, it is more important that we love each other, and we want to start our marital life serving God. We want the wedding to be a testimony to our faith, and how actually we’ve coped through this. Until I get to the church, I don’t think it will feel real.”
OTHER couples are asking whether a church is even necessary for a wedding. Abie Everett, 25, a children’s pastor at All Saints’, Peckham, in London, had planned to get married in church in June to Michael Hepworth, 23, a youth and communities worker for St Paul’s, Shadwell.
“It caused us to think a lot about what counts as marriage,” Abie, who was living apart from Michael before their wedding, says. “We were like, ‘Can we just have a ceremony of some sort on Zoom?’”
The teleconferencing software has certainly been popular around the world: brides and grooms have opted to make their vows over Zoom. In April, an executive order allowed New Yorkers to obtain marriage licences remotely, and gave state clerks permission to conduct ceremonies through video conferencing — a huge relief for New Yorkers with families who were unable to travel.
Home weddings, however, are a trickier proposal in the UK. While laws are more relaxed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, weddings in England and Wales must be held in places of worship, or other fixed structures with a licence. This makes open-air weddings especially difficult, something that the couple had considered seriously.
“We’re happy to consider ourselves married in the eyes of God, and it’s not like we just can’t wait to get our leg over,” Abie says. “For reasons completely out of our control, we’re not legally able to do that; but why is it that God can’t see our covenant with us? Does God only accept that covenant if we’re in a church building?”
There has not been a wide-scale reform of matrimonial law since the Marriage Act of 1836, but this could all change. In 2019, a two-year review of how weddings take place in England and Wales was announced by the Law Commission. Any recommendations from the consultation paper are likely to affect weddings from 2022.
Until then, the appeal of breathing fresh air during a global pandemic means that there is a growing demand for open-air weddings. Emma Hla, the founder of Coco Wedding Venues, says that her website has had a 9000-per-cent increase in searches for a “garden” wedding.
Is this trend to the detriment of more traditional services? No, Ms Hla says. “Church weddings have been on the decline for a few years, with couples now opting for either a civil ceremony or a [secular] celebrant-led ceremony. However, since lockdown began, we’ve noticed a significant increase in searches for venues with a ‘Church Onsite’ — up by 49.6 per cent versus last year,” Ms Hla says.
“During this intense period in our lives, the importance of family has been brought into sharp focus. The idea of a traditional church ceremony, or perhaps a post-ceremony blessing, could be a family-focused decision.”
Ultimately, Abie and Michael decided that marrying outdoors was not possible. “There would have been people out there that would look at us and say, ‘You’re an unmarried couple, and you’re living together,’ and they wouldn’t have been OK with that,” Abie explains.
Instead, the couple have arranged a small service at Michael’s church, and they have planned a bigger celebration for their wedding anniversary next year. “If anything, it’s taken a lot of pressure off our wedding day,” Abie says.
IT IS not just couples who are asking whether the future of a wedding lives in church. The Revd Mark Hewerdine is Rector of St Chad’s, Ladybarn, in Manchester, and for the Withington deanery an enabler of Fresh Expressions: a form of church that “engages primarily with those who ‘don’t go to church’”.
Canon Sandra Millar marries a couple, before the pandemic
“We are kind of used to almost thinking through everything from scratch most of the time,” Mr Hewerdine says. “And so, when someone says ‘marriage in church and coronavirus’, my immediate way of thinking about that is: what makes a marriage service? And how creative can you be? I fear that often, within the Church of England, the starting point for thinking about marriage, couples, and the pandemic is a building.”
For Mr Hewerdine, flexibility is crucial. “I’m sure there will be other situations where we, as a church, will have to get used to being guests in other people’s spaces, because we simply can’t invite them to be guests in our space in a safe way. Being with them in their garden, perhaps.”
While each church faces different challenges, Mr Hewerdine sees real potential in learning from one another. “Suddenly, the boundary between what people tend to call ‘inherited church’ and fresh expressions has suddenly dissolved, because almost everything’s up for grabs. What the eucharist looks like now is going to be different for absolutely everybody, whether they see themselves as traditional or contemporary; whether they’re fresh expressions or not.”
Like many clergy in lockdown, Mr Hewerdine launched a YouTube channel for prayers and worship. When he saw people tuning in who would not usually walk through his doors, he considered how open churches were to engaged couples.
“If a couple want to get married in their parish church, the usual requirement is that you should be a regular worshipper,” he says. “And people have raised the question: ‘Well, what does regular worship mean within the context of lockdown and a pandemic?’
“What if we have a couple who have been engaging with our online worship on a regular basis? For me, it has raised the bigger question of how do we gauge what someone’s engagement with church is? And to what extent our old measures are actually not fit for purpose.
“Sometimes, couples come to church so that they can get married in church, but we have no idea whether they’re really engaging with what we’re doing. And I think, if somebody is making the effort to go and find a YouTube service, that shows a really high level of engagement and motivation.”
Sparking that connection between clergy and couples — despite a pandemic — is one area of work for the Archbishops’ Council’s Head of Welcome and Life Events, Canon Sandra Millar. “It’s a much more open door than sometimes people realise, to get married in church,” Canon Millar says. “You don’t have to be a regular person. You don’t have to get baptised.”
Getting that message across digitally is one way around the Covid-19 restrictions. Canon Millar notes how the website Your Church Wedding is there for couples, while free online resources at Church Support Hub include a Covid-19 response pack.
“We have a card that we’ve produced that clergy can send to couples who may have had to postpone a wedding, saying, ‘Just come and talk to me now about what’s possible.’”
The possibilities for any big day are still tempered by practical restrictions, but clergy are rising to the challenge. As a former soldier, the Revd Graham Bowkett is no stranger to strict rules, but wearing a face mask to administer the sacrament, and cleaning wedding rings, has still been a culture shock at St Mary’s, Charlton Kings, in Cheltenham. “You’ve got to be careful you don’t err into rules and regulations, and make it very sanitised and anodyne,” he says.
To keep things merry, Mr Bowkett uses recorded music, which complies with the Government’s rules against singing, chanting, and even raised voices at weddings.
“When you’re signing registers, there are wonderful pieces you can have,” Mr Bowkett says. “If I’m honest, you don’t want ‘Bat Out Of Hell’, but we can’t just hold on to what we think was normal any more. We have to make this personal to them so they can look back and go, ‘That was a great wedding.’”
WHAT makes a great wedding could be very lucrative in the future: experts are expecting a “wedding every day of the week” in 2021. Marketing a pandemic wedding is not easy, but the industry is keen to predict and even brand the “new normal”. The wedding website Hitched has dubbed a small ceremony “minimony”, and forecasts that we will be waving goodbye to heaving dance-floors and shared buffets.
Instead, Hitched imagines a future filled with cashless parties and calligraphy signs reminding guests to distance from one another. “Include personalised bottles of sanitiser in welcome bags,” one suggestion reads, alongside photos of brides in white lace masks. Other novelties on offer include a brightly coloured card of Bruce Forsyth saying, “Nice to metre, two metre, nice.”
For now, the wedding industry’s main concern is survival. Restrictions in England were expected to ease from 1 August, but this was pushed back, prompting #WhatAboutWeddings to trend on social media. It is a hashtag encouraged by the Love My Dress blog, which campaigns for clearer guidance and asks why pubs can reopen when a wedding reception is not allowed.
There are questions facing the long-term future of church weddings, too, such as who is entitled to one anyway
“I think it will lead into further thinking, with the Living in Love and Faith report coming out,” says the Rector of Winslow with Great Horwood and Addington, in Buckinghamshire, the Revd Andrew Lightbown. He is referring to the Church of England’s project on how relationships, marriage, and sexuality.
“The Church has an invitation to think about relationships, and what relationships mean both before God and in community,” Mr Lightbown says. “We can’t hermetically seal off different groups of people and say, ‘It’s all right for them to focus on it — but not them. My sense is that there will be a movement that says ‘Where relationships are life-giving, life-enhancing, and potentially lifelong, those should be celebrated in some way, shape, or form.”
Mr Lightbown himself has plenty to celebrate. “I have two daughters,” he says. “One is getting married in September, in church, and the other is in a same-sex relationship. I see no qualitative difference between the two and the stability that both relationships bring to their lives and the lives of their partner.”
The pandemic has certainly changed his plans for his daughter’s wedding day. “I was just going to be ‘Dad’. But now I’ll be marrying them as well, if I can hold it together. That’s partly numbers-driven, to keep it down to 30. I think it’s going to be an honour to be with them.”
WHATEVER the future holds for any wedding, it cannot come soon enough for a couple who have not seen each other since March. “I’ve joked many times that it’s like God is sanctifying and purifying our marriage by fire before we’re even married,” Sarah Campbell, a 25-year-old postgraduate student living in Ontario, Canada, says. “Most couples, in the first five years of their marriage, don’t have to face what we’ve faced in the past four months.”
Jacob Taylor and Sarah Campbell, who are engaged but unable to marry owing to pandemic border restrictions
It was June of last year when Ms Campbell began talking to a student, Jacob Taylor, 21, over social media. “Within 24 hours, we were sharing our entire testimonies with each other,” she recalls. She explains that their families have been friends for years.
The only problem was that Mr Taylor lives in the UK; but, after months of video calls, Sarah visited Jacob last September. “He was waiting for me at the train station,” she says. “He had a big bouquet of sunflowers in one hand, and a coffee in the other. I mean, we just knew. It sounds so cheesy, but when you know that God has brought you together, there’s absolutely no denying it.”
Four months later, Jacob proposed, with the intention of flying to Canada for a June wedding; but all those plans fell away as the pandemic spread, and, one by one, countries closed their borders, including Canada. As the UK was still open to non-essential travellers, Sarah prepared to organise an English wedding instead, but she was dealt a devastating blow before she could book a flight.
“I found a lump on my neck,” she says, and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer this summer. She will have to stay in Canada for surgery and treatment well into November, while Jacob is forbidden from crossing the Canadian border to be at her side.
“Right now, they’re letting ‘immediate family’ members into the country only,” she says. “But that definition only includes spouses, parents of dependent children, or common-law partners. And, because of our faith, Jacob and I are not common-law.”
It is no wonder that their story has struck a chord with other Christians around the world, who have offered prayers and solidarity. Separation is an ongoing issue around the world for unmarried couples, for whom a piece of paper would make all the difference.
In March, the European Union Commission imposed an EU-wide entry ban on non-essential entry for third-country nationals: something that no one foresaw continuing for months on end. Unmarried couples who have been apart are calling for an exception, using the hashtags #LiftTheTravelBan and #LoveIsNotTourism. So far, a few countries have reopened to them, including the Netherlands, Czechia, Austria, Switzerland, and most of Scandinavia.
For Sarah and Jacob, everything is on pause until the Canadian government responds to a petition started by the group Advocacy for Family Reunification at the Canadian Border. It asks Ottawa to relax the ban against unwed couples, arguing that special exemptions have already been made for hockey players.
“People ask, ‘What can I do for you?’” Sarah says. “But the petition closed, and my answer has always been: pray. It makes a difference. We believe in that. Last night, even Jacob’s church met in the church parking lot to hold a prayer meeting for us, which is so meaningful. Just to know that there’s such a group of people in Canada, the United States, and England — we’re talking international prayer here — it’s just so encouraging.”
A “superhero” moment at the wedding of key workers Bazz Deacon and Ruth Lumbers
As Sarah and Jacob wait to be reunited, they continue to video call and share what they call “Bible thoughts” with each other. “Basically, it’s our daily devotionals,” she says. “When one of us is down, the other one picks them up. And when both of us are down, we just pray, and the Lord picks us up.”
A few days after speaking to Sarah, I caught up with Ruth and Abie. Both are now delighted to be married, after weddings that were both joyful and strange. “I do think we’re a part of history,” Abie says.
“It was a unique wedding,” Ruth says, “but totally befitting us as a couple.” She tells me that Bazz, a comic fan, wore a superhero shirt under his suit, which is certainly befitting for a couple who have worked throughout the pandemic as key workers.
Speaking to couples who have overcome a historic summer is a reminder that no engaged couple can be certain how their wedding may unfold in the future, but one thing is clear. For Sarah, it was summed up perfectly in a message that she received from her sister: “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, but it makes us cling to the things that we are certain of: our love for each other.”
Sarah Woolley is a freelance writer.