FROM THIS DAY FORWARD: Rethinking the Christian Wedding. By Kimberly Bracken Long. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xi + 185 pages.
Even before the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of same-sex marriage, significant discussions were underway about the role that churches and clergy should play in weddings. Some were arguing that clergy should get out of the wedding business, though some suggested (and continue to suggest) that the State should get of the wedding business. Perhaps it’s time for a conversation about such matters. What we need are some good resources. I’ve tried to offer one with my own Bible study guide—Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide. Kimberly Bracken Long also has written a helpful text on the subject, one that is worth engaging closely, which argues that the church should stay in the wedding/marriage business, but it needs to do some serious rethinking of what it is engaging in.
The author of From This Day Forward, Kimberly Bracken Long, is the Associate Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary. She’s an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, and author/editor of a number of books on worship. As I’ve read her previous works I've been impressed by her deep understanding of worship and how we might express our praise of God in a thoughtful and transformative way. With regard to weddings and marriage, From This Day Forward is in essence a companion volume to the collection of wedding services published in 2015. Long co-edited with David Maxwell, the very helpful Inclusive Marriage Services: A Wedding Sourcebook (my review can be found here).
The book, which is very accessible to both clergy and lay readers, has its roots in a sabbatical that Long took a few years back. She used that sabbatical to research the whole wedding question. She spoke to clergy and owners of wedding chapels, along with students, and shares her discoveries with us in this book. In an aptly titled chapter, Long discusses the “State of the Union.” In this opening chapter she asks the question of how marriage is faring at a time when our society is in flux, and questions are being raised as to the viability of marriage. She notes that with the percentage of Americans who are married dropping, people are asking whether the institution has a future. Part of the answer to the question of the decreasing percentage of Americans who married, is that many younger Americans are delaying marriage. For instance, the average of a first marriage for women has climbed to twenty-seven, and for men it's twenty-nine. My wife and I were twenty-five when we got married and we were among the last to get married! Then there are the growing divorce rates, but even here the statistics could be misleading. Despite the obstacles and odds, people are still getting married. The alarming revelation in all of this is that the marriage is much more fragile (and likely to break apart) among the poor and the less educated. College educated folks do pretty well when it comes to marriage, but not their less educated counterparts. Poverty plays an important role, especially in communities of color.
After revealing the state of the union, Long dives into the question of whether the church should continue its longstanding involvement in offering weddings. After all, growing numbers of people are turning to other venues, from Vegas wedding chapels (her discussion of this is quite illuminating) to courthouses. She notes as well the growing trend of people to get "ordained" through the mail so that they can preside at the weddings of their friends. Then there's the whole issue of wedding costs, though the church/clergy portion is usually a fraction of the cost of most weddings. In the end, she concludes that the church has something to offer the community when it comes to weddings and marriage itself.
I found her chapter on the history of marriage to be the highlight of the book. This is, in my mind, the best brief overview of how weddings (and marriage) has evolved over time. It is good to remember that the idea the one marries for love is a rather recent phenomenon. Marriage in the past had deep economic consequences, and families were deeply involved in deciding on the appropriate marriage partner. This continued to be true from ancient times until the eighteenth century, when the interests of the partners were taken into consideration. As for sex, well that wasn’t really a concern until the twentieth century, after all good women weren’t expected to enjoy sex. Things have changed, of course, in recent years. What we often consider the "ideal" emerged in the late 1940s and was gone by the end of the 1960s, and that model was "a love-based union with a male breadwinner" (p. 47). That vision may have seemed permanent in 1960, but within a decade it was being swept aside. Coupled with the historical overview, is Long's exploration of the way in which Christian theologians understand marriage through the years. Much of what came to be understood as the purpose of marriage, especially the role of procreation comes to us from Augustine and then Aquinas. She explores the development of sacramental visions and Protestant rejection of these visions. We learn that originally marriages were entered into rather informally, and at home. Only later did they begin to be held in churches (in part due to a growing sacramental vision). All of this is rather fascinating and worth pondering, especially as we consider the role of the church (and its building) in the wedding experience. Over time, she notes "marriage has traveled from being a domestic contract to a churchly sacrament to a civil contract that may or may not have religious meaning" (p. 84).
This history lesson gives way to an exploration of the biblical texts that are most often linked to weddings and marriage itself (the focus of my own book). She first looks at the six texts that comprise what she calls the "marriage canon." The texts include Genesis 1:26-31; Genesis 2:18-24; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; Ephesians 5:21-33; Matthew 19:1-19; and John 2:1-11 (the last being the wedding in Cana). She explores each text, showing how it has been used to define marriage. Then she offers a look at other texts, including readings from Song of Songs and Ruth, that speak to the question of weddings and marriage. She writes of these texts that they speak to at least two things—"our inability to live up to God's good intentions for us and the hope we have in Jesus Christ, who even now redeems us and tethers us to the promise of the new creation" (p. 113). Long brings to the conversation a Reformed perspective, which is to be expected of a professor at a Presbyterian seminary.
Having laid a historical and biblical foundation, she turns to the wedding service itself. This is what we've moving toward from the beginning of the book. If the church is to participate in weddings, what should these weddings look like. In her mind the wedding is a service of worship and should be treated as such. She takes us through each part of the service from opening words to the kiss. Again, there's a distinctly Reformed/Presbyterian ethos in this section. She speaks of baptismal vows and the font (as one who is part of a believer's baptism tradition, I found this an interesting component, since we don't have a font in the same way as a Presbyterian might). She also suggests using a confession of sin and absolution, again something my tradition tends to avoid in worship. Other than that most of what she details appears in the services I've officiated at over time. She offers helpful guidance on the use of the Sacrament of Communion in such a service, reminding us that if present all should be served, not just the couple. Since she understands the wedding to be a worship service, she prefers the use of sacred over secular music, and congregational singing over instrumental music. While she's not a "fundamentalist" about it, she would prefer not to include popular (secular) songs. I’m even less a fundamentalist on this, but then again Cheryl and I included Jim Croce’s "Time in the Bottle" in our wedding service thirty-three years ago. Besides the service itself, she covers such logistical questions as photography and rehearsals, and other matters that emerge. She rightfully suggests that churches have strong policies in place so as to avoid confusion and hurt feelings!
Long wrote the book, basing her conclusions on a great deal of research, to answer the question as to whether the church should stay in the wedding business. She concludes that the church should continue marriages in the context of worship services. They don’t have to take place in a church building, but they should express the essence of the Christian faith (she discusses the question of interfaith couples and offers some suggestions as to how to handle such matters, but for the most part she’s assuming that this will be a Christian service). So, it’s fitting that she closes the book with a discussion of how marriage and weddings fit into the church’s mission. While we may not always think in terms, she suggests that there is a missional dimension to this work of the church. Indeed, she connects the wedding offered by the church to the eschatological vision of the marriage supper of the lamb.