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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ask the Matriarch: new occasions teach new duties...

Questioner in California sends in this question for our Matriarchs. The weddings were in August and now it is October but hopefully our answers will help others facing this “new occasion” and we can hear how the August weddings came out.
Dear Matriarchs,

Since the California Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal there has been a mad dash to the altar. Because my church is Open and Affirming we are delighted to have the opportunity to join couples who have been denied this right for so long. I have 3 same-gender weddings coming up between now and the end of August. One of these couples just celebrated their 25th anniversary together and is overjoyed at the prospect of being legally married.

I've adapted the church's wedding application and contract to be gay and lesbian friendly, but when it comes to the actual service I need some advice from anyone who has experience with same-sex weddings. How do 2 brides process in? Or two grooms? And then "I now pronounce you wife and wife" seems a bit awkward...

Please, can the Matriarchs help me? Or direct me to someone who might be able to give me advice?

Matriarch Jacque offers her experience and wisdom:
Having performed many same-gender covenant services, I would use the same process I've always used -- which is to create the service and the language with the couple. Just as every heterosexual couple does not use the same language to describe their covenant; so it is that gay and lesbian couples differ. I've found that most do not usually speak of each other as husbands or as wives. (For that matter, my spouse and I don't use the husband/wife language very much -- too much negative baggage attached to it.)

So ... There are wonderful resources -- for help in creating services. One that has been around for number of years -- therefore you may have it -- is Shaping Sanctuary: Proclaiming God's Grace in an Inclusive Church, ed. Kelly Turney, published by The Reconciling Congregation Program, 2000. The concluding prayer and declaration in this source is lovely.

Or I have spoken declarations such as:

Sarah and Emily, you have entered into the covenant of marriage in the presence of God of this community. As sign and symbol of your covenant, you have spoken vows, given and received rings, and lit the candle of Hope. It is with joy, that I declare that the love that binds you now make you one in marriage! {Or if the couple prefers, I might just say ... "now makes you one!"}

As to how folks enter the space -- I've found that some like to come in together (just as some heterosexual couples choose to come in together). And some prefer for both of them to process -- one before the other. Some like to enter so that each has a family member or friend who is "presenting" them. The ways are varied. I just explore with each couple what they envision. It is a joy to create it. Sometimes it looks very traditional and sometimes it is something completely new in form and content.

Matriarch Karen writes:
As a fellow Californian, I would suggest … using [our] common energies to defeat measure 8. For suggestions on how you can be involved check here

Rector in Newark writes:
More and more same sex and heterosexual couples are choosing to walk in together, skipping the ancient "presentation of the virginal bride as transfer of property from her father to her husband" stuff for a more egalitarian entrance.

Another way to think about it is to have each person "presented" for the sacramental rite, just as we do for confirmation or in the sacrament of baptism. Their "presenter," (a member of the congregation) escorts each partner up the aisle while the "best people" wait for them at the altar.

In terms of language, the policy in the Diocese of Newark is that the couple and the cleric mutually decide on language. Some options are spouse, partner, Partner in life, Wedded Partner, or Beloved.

Wise layperson offers a place to begin with the couple:
I would start by asking the couple how they would like to customize the marriage service. What have they seen done in other services/ceremonies that they liked? What did they think really didn't work?

From a person who thought about this question during the planning for her own wedding:
My experience with the wedding service and same-gender weddings: it's an opportunity to take those things we have "just always done" and look at the symbolism of them. Why were they done that way to begin with? Do we want to keep it that way or make a different sort of statement through changing them?

With the bride processing and the groom waiting, we have the symbolism of the transfer of goods. The veiled chattel is presented by the patriarch to the new owner. Obviously that's not the message we want to present anymore, in either gay or straight weddings. Changing households, changing status, creating a new social unit -- all those things work. So having both people process individually and meet at the altar to join hands and turn to face the congregation would symbolically indicate this. Where the people have already been a social unit for a while and want to have the relationship affirmed, processing together, arm on arm or hand in hand, makes sense. My partner and I walked up hand in hand with our grandson, who was supposed to be the ring bearer, but who we needed to rescue from a major distraction he'd found just before the procession. It still symbolically worked quite well.

With the pronouncement, again we're looking for the symbolic connection. You have just joined these people in a union affirmed and uplifted by their communities. They've become "legal". You want to pronounce that. "I now pronounce you partners in a union blessed by God and affirmed by the people here gathered" might work. Something more like that.

All the elements of the ceremony have a symbolic meaning that can be made conscious and decided upon. The cake: a symbol of the relationship and what it has to offer the community, cut by the couple together and offered to all gathered. The rings: historic symbol of the ownership of property, which can be transformed, if the community gathered blesses the rings, to a symbol of that community blessing accompanying the couple always.

The above ceremony is one in which I was the presiding priest, in the Episcopal tradition the couple officiate at their wedding. The experience of planning it opened my eyes to what we do in all weddings. How will it best express the commitments of the couple to each other and the community’s commitment to support the couple in their life together? It has improved the quality of my pre-marital counseling and planning with all couples. Here is another web site for resources.

What other elements would you consider?


  1. I just wanted to add that, at our house, we only use the term "wife" when we're kidding: "Wife, fetch me my coffee!";-) of those marriage rituals "we've always done" -- and actually, it's a ritual innovation anyway -- is the candlelighting, where two partners take two candles, light a common candle and then extinguish their own candles. It's supposed to be a visual affirmation of the two becoming one. But, as I was taught back in the day, the image of partners snuffing out their individuality because they're now married is not a healthy/helpful one. But that I think can be a difficult observation for couples who have their hearts set on doing this.

    Just a thought...probably not a very coherent one, either, since I haven't finished my first cup of coffee this morning.

  2. Fascinating conversation and ideas... and I predict that my lovely daughters will approach their wedding days much differently than I did...


  3. The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont had a task force on the blessing of same sex unions and has developed trial rites. Go here to check them out--you might find them useful.

  4. I don't love the unity candle thing, and I definitely don't want people to snuff out their own candles!! Eek!
    The UCC has an inclusive order for a wedding; you can find it here.

  5. i agree on the Down-With-Unity-Candles, especially the snuffing.
    A couple here did something where they poured colored liquids together in a vase--you know, like yellow and blue and it made green, or something. It sounded better than a unity candle, though still with lots of cheese potential.

  6. The last wedding I did had the sand pouring together ritual -- I try to urge these extra rituals on to the reception -- Unity candles are forbidden by our Altar Guild - wax on linens - and you know the power of the Altar Guild is above all earthly powers!!

  7. I sometimes have a couple whose hearts are set on the Unity candle--but do NOT extinguish the "individual" candles. I explain that there are three entities in the marriage--Sarah, Emily, and their relationship.

    I would echo what others have said--witht he couple, explore what the various parts of the ceremony mean to them and what they meant historically. I've not had much luck changing minds on clothing (some women simply have their hearts set on wearing a white dress), but on processing, most couples want to come in together or separately--i.e.not one of them "waiting at the altar" for the other to be delivered to them...

    Flexibility within limits, as I tell our wedding coordinator...

  8. seconding the distaste for the unity candle, and absolutely UN UH on the extinguishing of personal candles (we are also a Wagner-free Zone, here at Most Holy & Undivided); ixnay on sand, coloured liquids, etc. (also non-human ringbearers, BTW)...but the power of what happens is in the words, and they have to be meticulously chosen. Thank you to all for the resources offered her!


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