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H is for Holy Matrimony by Lucy Stendall
Tom and I got married in our parish church in Nottinghamshire in 2010. Since then we have photographed lots of church weddings of different denominations of the Christian faith. This is a brief introduction to church weddings for couples who might be wondering if it is for them but don’t know where to start.
I want to approach this by blasting out a few potential misconceptions about church weddings. Call it Lucy Logic if you will. Unless otherwise stated, I’ll be referring to the Church of England when I use the word church, simply because that is what I know.
Church weddings are all about the pretty
All photos from here down by the author herself, the multi-talented Lucy Stendall
Yes, church weddings can be very pretty. Roses around the door, surrounded by fields or a quintessential English village, inside there are pews, bells, choirs, hymns, the organ. For lots of people these types of images are one of the first things that pop into their heads when they hear the word wedding. Even if it’s something that they don’t want for their own wedding day. Not all churches are like that though. Some are falling down, covered in scaffolding, with broken boilers and conked out organs. Some are in deprived areas with derelict housing either side. Some have ripped out the pews and replaced them with unsightly modern chairs.
Church weddings are not for me
Let’s step away from the aesthetics and get our Practical Hats on before we run away with ourselves. Of all the hats in my wardrobe, my Practical Hat is the one that is the most well used. It’s sturdy, a little tatty around the edges, but good in all weathers and it goes with everything.
The first question is this. Do you *want* to get married in a church? I can’t answer that one for you. I’m not a purist. I don’t think getting married in a church as a non Christian or non church goer is hypocritical or wrong. I feel uncomfortable when people say it is either of these things and I don’t think that should put you off. What do I know about what you believe or what is important to you on your wedding day? Churches are there to be filled and what better occasion than for a wedding? I think that it’s a personal decision that you and your other half reach with the vicar. If it’s right for you, for your own reasons, nobody can tell you differently. If you just don’t want to get married in a church then the rest of this article is probably irrelevant.
The second question is *can* you get married in a church? This one, I can help you with.
You can have a church wedding even if you’re not a Christian. In fact the website for the Church of England welcomes brides and grooms “whatever your beliefs, whether or not you are christened and whether or not you regularly go to church”. Tell me I’m not the only one to be surprised to read that. I always imagined that non Christians would have to at least half pretend to have a faith to be let through the doors or skirt around the topic when you meet the vicar by distracting them with another custard cream and more tea. If you look into it, you’ll find it’s not like that at all.
All you need to show is one of the following connections with the church of your choice:
That one of you:
1 has at any time lived in the parish for a period of at least 6 months or
2 was baptised in the parish concerned or
3 was prepared for confirmation in the parish or
4 has at any time regularly gone to normal church services in the parish church for a period of at least 6 months or
That one of your parents, at any time after you were born:
1 has lived in the parish for a period of at least 6 months or
2 has regularly gone to normal church services in the parish church for a period of at least 6 months or
That one of your parents or grandparents:
1 was married in the parish
So, that amazingly pretty church overlooking the sea at the other end of the country from where you live that you saw on holiday once when you were 6 is an option. It might send the Practical Hat into spasms of panic, taking into account the regular journeys you’ll have to make there in the 6 months before your wedding, but it is an option.
Church weddings are expensive
Not necessarily. The basic costs of legally getting married in a church are the same nationwide, £322 for 2012 weddings. This is more expensive than a Register Office ceremony, but comparable to a civil wedding at a licensed venue. In fact, when you take into account the additional fee charged by most venues for holding the ceremony there, a church wedding can be cheaper.
The only additional costs to be aware of are for bells, choirs, organs and possibly a contribution towards the heating if you are getting married in the colder months. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the church, the more some of these costs will be. For example, if you marry in a Catherdral where the choir and organist tend to be of a more professional standard, you should expect the music to cost more than at a small village church. You don’t have to have live music though, most churches are open to using CDs or even *gasp* ipods. You might have to show Margaret the verger how to use an ipod though.
You can save money on flowers at a church wedding by having the church ladies (or gentleman, ours was a lovely man) do your church arrangements for you. They normally charge the wholesale cost of the flowers plus a small donation to the church. Some of them will even do your reception flowers and bouquets/buttonholes too, if they are particularly keen. Our church florist charged £30 per arrangement, whatever size you wanted. I know that doesn’t make much sense, but that was the price he quoted. So you could deck out the whole place for the cost of two medium pedestals from a florist. As long as you aren’t too precious about what they use, you can’t expect them to be up on the latest trends or blooms.
Church weddings are inflexible
As long as your vicar is available, you can get married in church on any day of the week at any time between 8am and 6pm. This gives you much more flexibility than at civil weddings where Registrars at most licensed venues can only offer a few set times each day.
The ceremony follows a standard format, which you can personalise with your vicar. There would usually be one or two hymns, a reading (usually from the Bible), an address and prayers as well as the legal ceremony itself. You can have extra hymns, extra readings (including non religious ones) or avoid both all together. Some people worry that the address/sermon might be too long or alienate some of your guests. The best advice I have is to get to know your vicar if you can, then you will not only be able to ask about the sermon but you’ll probably find that the whole ceremony, including the sermon, feels more personal. We attended our church from when we got engaged to when we got married and got to know the vicar and regular congregation a little better in that time. Our vicar was one of those with a confident but quiet faith if that makes sense. She knows as well as anyone that on a wedding day there will be members of the congregation who don’t go to church or who have other beliefs. And what she said and did reflected that as well as honouring our beliefs and her own. As with most things in life, it’s about communication.
You don’t have to include Obey in your vows but you will say serious vows, not promises to make each other banana pancakes and take it in turns to clean the bathroom. A church ceremony respects the traditions and history of an ancient faith so it goes without saying that the vows are solemn and powerful. Some people think that this makes the vows outdated and inflexible. I disagree. These are big promises and I love the fact that they have been made for hundreds of years, by your ancestors and mine. If you break the promises down, they are timeless and they do the job brilliantly. And to stand on a spot that has been used by all those couples before us? To join them in the pursuit of marriage? That’s pretty special.
You’ll be invited to go to marriage preparation classes of some sort in the run up to your wedding. At our church they did this over one day and included a free lunch and all day access to the custard creams and kettle, rather than holding hourly classes over a few weeks. The classes are split up into different sections. Practical (yesss! The HAT!) and emotional. As part of the classes you will discuss what you want to happen in the ceremony and the options you have for your vows as well as more personal things to deal with compatibility. They get you to talk about children, divorce, work, money, family, all of the things that are potential danger points in any relationship. The personal topics are done in privacy with your other half and not shared with the group. One of the exercises we did was to write a letter to each other about what we loved about the other and what we were looking forward to. We eventually exchanged them on our wedding anniversary and it was worth the wait.
Your ceremony is what you make it. I could quite happily write a post from the other side of the coin about how civil weddings can be inflexible and impersonal. Because just like church weddings, they can be. But whichever you choose, if your hearts are in it, either can be quite wonderful.
Holy Matrimony! The Lucy Logic has worked. So, how do I organise a church wedding?
The easiest way to approach a church about holding your wedding ceremony is to go along to a sunday service and to chat to the vicar afterwards. If you can’t do that, most churches have contact details on the board outside and some have this information online.
After we approached our vicar, she invited us along to ‘Vestry Hour’ the following Wednesday evening at the church hall. It sounds like some kind of holy quiz show. I am rubbish at pub quizzes. It was actually a cup of tea and a chat about us and the dates that were available *phew*. The vicar went through the basic costs with us and the optional extras, if that’s what you can call them. The reality was that there was no hard sell. I suppose an organisation like the church doesn’t really need to go for sales talk, it sells itself. The vicar’s approach appealed to my Practical Hat very much. There was talk of the marriage preparation day. This was about having a marriage. We excitedly pencilled in the date, paid a small deposit, signed up to the marriage preparation day and that was that.
In England and Wales a Church of England wedding ceremony is a legal one, ie. you don’t also need to book a Registrar, or give notice to marry. Other denominations of the Christian church such as Catholic, Methodist, Baptist churches will need a Registrar present and to give notice to marry.