Wedding Ceremonies

This is not the chicken or the egg situation.

What comes first is the marriage ceremony. Whether it’s in a church, city hall, or the backyard, the wedding ceremony, which makes the marriage official in the eyes of the state, is the starting point. The party comes afterwards.

As you plan your wedding, you will doubtless become absorbed in the details surrounding the reception but remember the purpose of the wedding day. You will awake single and go to sleep married. It’s a big day.

It is not difficult to get married but there are steps to follow. In the United States, you will need a marriage license. States have different requirements but basically, you both need to show up at the appropriate office, provide identification, pay a fee, and make the application. If you have been divorced, you will need to show proof that the divorce is finalized. Sometimes there is a required waiting period between the issuing of the license and the marriage ceremony. Once the ceremony is performed, the couple and the officiant both sign the license and a copy is filed with the state.

The above is a very bare bones description. You will need to find out for yourselves what the requirements are in your area.

From the officiant’s point of view, my rabbi friend adds this,

Every state has a different licensing process, and every time you prepare to officiate at a wedding in a new state you have to make sure that you’ve done your homework.

There are several ways to get legally married, both religious and secular. Here’s an overview:      

  • Civil marriage takes place before a public official. This can be performed at a city or town hall or a specifically designated office.
  • Certain institutions such as the Ethical Society perform secular marriage ceremonies at either their community building or a location selected by the bridal couple.
  • A religious ceremony performed at the church, synagogue, temple, or other place of worship. Some religions permit the officiant to marry a couple in an alternative location (such as your home, hotel, public park, etc.) If the couple are of different religions, it is possible to have more than one officiant, representing each faith, conduct the ceremony.
  • A friend or relative can marry you by becoming ordained on the internet in the Universal Life Church.
  • A ‘self-uniting’ marriage is a term used notably for Quaker marriage but includes other religions in which an officiant is not present. Pennsylvania, not surprisingly, recognizes this form of marriage as does Colorado. But check the regulations carefully, In Pennsylvania, some counties do not recognize self-uniting marriage.

Premarital Counseling

Premarital education or counseling is actively encouraged in many states which will waive all or part of the licensing fee. Some states offer free classes.

What is premarital counseling? Generally speaking, it’s a series of classes or meetings designed to address issues relating to communication and conflict management within a marriage.

I asked my rabbi friend about premarital education and what the counseling entailed.

Some of it is getting to know each other, which I feel is important to creating a meaningful ceremony. Some of it focuses on discussion with the couple about their relationship, their dreams, and their expectations of marriage and of each other. It’s important to have them speak to each other about children, finances, and marital roles. In my case, I ask about how they hope to create a Jewish home. I also use this time to go over the logistics and choreography of the ceremony; we work together to decide which traditional elements they want to include, re-interpret, or do without.

I asked how important she felt the counseling was.

  I think it’s very important. If a couple is not able to do pre-marital counseling with the officiant, I recommend working with a couples’ therapist.

Jason Kuttner, a counselor in Portland, Oregon, who has officiated at about twenty weddings (including my daughter’s) as a Universal Life Church minister had this to say,

I wouldn’t consider marrying a couple without meeting with them first and having some counseling. My wife and I got a lot out of our own premarital counseling sessions. I think the ways a couple resolve conflict is one of the most important issues.

One young couple told me that the officiant had asked them to think about their parents’ marriages. What would they like to emulate and what would they try to avoid in their own marriage? Other topics included were how do we best support each other? What do we do when we are angry? What is our biggest challenge as a couple?

Onto the Ceremony

To state the obvious: the wording of the vows and the order of the service depends on the marriage ceremony you have chosen. But secular or religious, couples benefit from devoting attention to their vows.

My friend David, an Episcopalian verger, had this to say about the wedding ceremony in his church,

It is important to note that the priest doesn’t marry the couple. They marry each other with help from the officiant. It is also important that people witness the event because all of us married folk need help from not just God but our friends and supporters.

David spoke of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer with its well-known phrases (and warnings) urging that “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately… ” which includes “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…” His conclusion?

Marriage is not easy and we all need the support of each other to make it work. There is a part where the officiant turns to the people and asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The people answer: “We will.

Sometimes the preparation for the ceremony triggers some serious reflection. Jason spoke to this:

By the time a couple decides to get married, often the last thing they want to think or talk about are the challenges they deal with in their relationship. But when I work on a ceremony, it is important for me to get a sense of their interpersonal dynamics so I can try to add something specific about them in the script. Also, perhaps presumptuously, I feel like it is my role as the minister to get the couple to talk about the reasons they want to get married. People can get so caught up in the celebration planning that they forget what makes them feel like getting married in the first place. Unless they are working with a therapist or a religious counselor, there may be no one else in their lives who is not invested (i.e. family, friends) in their relationship who will get them to talk to each other honestly about their reasons for wanting to be together.

It’s hard to top the traditional vows for sheer beauty but writing your own vows is an exercise in togetherness that compels a couple to put into words and state publicly their promises. My friend Emily found the process joyous.

“We wrote our own ceremony culling/cribbing from ones we found online, drawing also from things we liked at weddings we attended. We wanted to reference each of our grandparents, so we had something Celtic, something Scandinavian, something Episcopalian and something Jewish.”

The joyous part is especially important to remember. Why do we marry in the first place? My friend David believes people get married for a whole variety of reasons but suspects most people feel that two people supporting one another can cope with life better than one person living a solitary life. Not to mention children.

So bring on the bells and flowers, dancing and feasting, but remember that the reason  for all the festivities is to celebrate your vows.

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