“GOD, I hate weddings.” I have prayed this on numerous occasions in vestries across the country, often just before conducting a service of holy matrimony. Lest my misanthropy seem heartless, I do usually follow it up with “So give me strength to bring joy in the midst of this one.”
At my curacy church, there were something between 40 and 50 marriages a year, which — though a boon for mission — occasionally took the magic out of the moment.
The August bank-holiday weekend could sometimes contain five weddings; I remember rushing from solemnising one to catch the Trans-Pennine Express, only to arrive at Headingley just after Ben Stokes had saved the Ashes. “God, I hate weddings,” joined the general cacophony of prayer and praise in Leeds that day.
THIS is the final wedding season at which I’ll officiate for the foreseeable future, and so I’ve looked at them from a slightly different angle. As I stood in the vestry at the wonderful St Andrew’s, Burton-upon-Stather, looked down on by copies of the ASB and a chart issued by the Flag Institute for the Church of England, I gave thanks for this rare privilege.
The good people of St Andrew’s are without an incumbent, and so didn’t mind my intrusion. In truth, as help from the diocese looks increasingly unlikely, they have taken matters into their own hands and placed “Andy Bear” in the Rector’s stall. Andy is the largest of the church’s teddy-bear collection, and has his own collection of chasubles, coloured according to the season.
I elected for a simple surplice/stole combo during this particular service, but the clearly more ritualistic Andy was kind enough not to pass comment on my state of undress.
Rhythm and blues
ONE thing I shall have to get used to is being a guest at weddings again rather than part of the working team. I found that a sense of solidarity — an acknowledgement that you were also there in a professional capacity — was always helpful when it came to ensuring a decent share of the canapés or glasses of fizz at the party afterwards. The handing out of things is no mean calling, as anyone on a church rota knows.
There were plenty of moments with other wedding workers, as well. I recall one marriage at which, during the party afterwards, I took up my usual position on the edge of the dance floor. I caught the eye of the photographer — who was in a similar spot — just as our mouthing along revealed that we both knew all the words to Estelle’s “American Boy”.
Music, is, of course, central to any wedding, from the right hymns to the party afterwards; in the latter case, there is a particular thrill to a live band. Purely anecdotally, from the hitchings that I’ve attended this summer, it seems as if the cursed era of the “wedding DJ” is now over, and live music is back in. People dance and sing along in a totally different way when the music is being made right in front of them.
It caused me to reflect on how revelatory it can be in worship, too, and how often it can be taken for granted, or even sidelined. It’s an all too common trope in the Church, from Mr Slope’s sermon against music in Barchester Towers to those cynical attempts by some of the clergy to sideline church music, using Covid as an excuse. For shame — after all, as St Augustine didn’t say, “He who sings prays twice.”
NOT sure that the great Hippo had much to say about dancing, either, but that’s also a key feature of the wedding-day smorgasbord. And smorgasbord it undoubtedly is, as people invest time and space in their own signature moves.
At a recent wedding in Oxford, I was in awe of one guest who valiantly deployed the same moves, regardless of the music. From Tom Jones to OutKast to Billie Eilish — all were given the same treatment of side-step and double hand-wave. Of course, by the end of the evening, the whole dance floor had grouped round her and were imitating that which she had stolidly done from the very start.
There is, perhaps, a lesson in that for the Church.
Surprised by joy
I MUST confess that my instinct — bastion of uncharity that I am — was always to raise an eyebrow at wedding dancing. That was until it occurred to me, at one wedding that I recently attended, as I watched a group of elderly and distinguished guests throw themselves on to a dance floor with joyous abandon, that there might be a theological lesson in it all.
We are often told that the Kingdom of heaven will be like a wedding banquet. I saw something of the truth of that then, as people, stripped of all pride and pretence, simply rejoiced in the fact that they were there, and there in the midst of love. That, to me, seems very much like the sort of thing that the good promises of God will have prepared for us in the hereafter.
On the edge of the dance floor, I prayed a prayer of irritated realisation: “God, perhaps I do love weddings after all.”
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and writer.