The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton next month will be a matter of great excitement and pleasure for many people.
But why have a wedding? What is the point of this public display? Why do people continue with this often elaborate, exorbitantly expensive and reputedly outmoded ceremony?
Some people make light of the ceremony. “Surely our relationship is held together by more than a slip of paper and the dim memory of a dress-up party in front of cameras?” is the tired argument of the 20th century. Who needs a gathering of the cousins and the sisters and the aunts who only appear at weddings and funerals and then disappear again into the mist of grandmothers’ ailing memories? After all how many times do people watch their wedding videos?
Others see wedding commitments as too demanding. “My parent’s marriage foundered and I would not want to inflict on my children the terrible experience I had when they split up.” “Men bestowing all their worldly goods upon the bride seems so excessive – a pre-nuptial agreement seems to be less sexist and a much wiser course of action.” “Committing yourself ‘to submit’ to your husband feels like a chattel or a doormat writing a blank cheque to an abuser.” “It seems an unnatural restriction of modern sexual liberation – what if I have feelings for other people as well – why commit ourselves to only one person for the rest of our lives?”
Though married people have more family stability in which to express their love, submission and faithfulness to each other and to raise their children in security and prosperity, a wedding does not assure a couple of such happy outcomes. In 1999 a Federal Government report gathered the world-wide research on relational failure. It recorded the overwhelming evidence of the greater stability and better outcomes of those who married compared to those who lived together. Since then nothing much has changed – de facto relationships are shorter, have greater instability, and their children suffer more harm than those in de jure marriages. Couples who live together before marrying have a higher divorce rate than those who remain single until marriage. But these facts are not reasons to have a wedding, as if the wedding alone will secure a happy and long marriage. Statistical generalities do not predict individual outcomes. Relationships fail for many complex reasons and a correlation between weddings and outcomes does not prove causation between the two.
Having a party is not the reason for a wedding anymore than not being able to afford the party is a good reason for not having a wedding. The reception is not the essence of the wedding. There is nothing wrong in having a party, its fun to share the joy of your new life together with your friends. But it is not necessary. There is no need to bankrupt the family with a wedding breakfast that proceeds into lunch, dinner and the weekend – as is becoming the fashion of some. To dress up for the occasion may be great fun and express the lifetime uniqueness of the event and the great gift of one person to another but again it is not the reason for the wedding.
So, why have a wedding?
The reason for a wedding is its connection to marriage. In a wedding a man and a woman publically commit themselves to a lifetime of sexual union. The wedding service articulates for them the meaning of these commitments. Weddings also educate the community about the nature of marriage and the appropriate ways for people to live faithfully together. It is an encouragement for those not yet married and a reminder to the married of what they have promised each other.
The heart of a wedding is the publically contracted agreement delineating the relationship between husband and wife. The basis of marriage is the sexual union of a man and a woman that creates a new family in the society and is sustained in faithfulness. That is why adultery is such a violent attack at the very heart of a marriage. It is the supreme example of unfaithfulness.
In the wedding the groom and bride express, for all to hear, the nature of their voluntary commitment that they are making to each other. Both are accepting a level of personal and physical intimacy, which flourishes and is protected best in a context of men giving themselves in sacrificial love. Such a marriage is the security that allows freedom rather than the insecurity that requires performance. It is the reason why the man alone in the Book of Common Prayer promises his bride to worship her with his body and bestow upon her all his worldly goods. She is not his chattel that he has bought but his bride for whom he has to lay down his life. Here is the context in which children, who take so many years to raise into maturity, can safely be brought into the world.
The public nature of this relationship is important – for families are the building blocks of society. The wedding engages both families in accepting the new reality, especially the father of the bride whose protective relationship with his daughter is so significantly altered. It declares the unity of the couple and warns the community not to come between them – for to this day the home-wrecker has rightly very little sympathy within the community. People who commit adultery may be viewed with sympathy as foolish, feeble and unfaithful; but people who steal another’s spouse are knaves and thieves, untrustworthy and selfish who deserve no sympathy and gain much condemnation.
Today our society is back to front. Through the pornographic soaked media, we make what is private (sexual intimacy) public; while we make what should be public (the establishment of a new family) private.