Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism Project, is getting married: congrats! She has written in the Guardian about how to have a feminist wedding. Basically, it is an example of the personal being political. Laura Bates writes about her personal choices, which she has every right to make, but many feminists would lament that she did not go far enough in demonstrating her feminist credentials. A close feminist friend showed me the article and described it as retrogressive and non-radical. I feel somewhat more forgiving, as the article is much more one woman’s very personal choices and wrestling with deeply ingrained sexism of this traditional rite of passage.
I have been celebrating weddings as a priest of the Church of England for the last fifteen years, in Darlington, West Wiltshire, London and Oxford. I’m a man priest and a feminist (not too common a combination, sorry!) and I believe that it is easily possible to have a feminist wedding in church. The Church of England will not be offering same-sex marriages any time soon, but will probably get round to it in time for your gay children to enjoy the grace of this sacramental union.
Here is my how-to guide to feminist weddings in the Church of England.
Know the difference between folk tradition and liturgy
When most people think of church weddings they think of white dresses, bridesmaids, bouquet, giving away and all that kind of stuff. Absolutely none of this is required in a wedding in the Church of England. Even Laura Bates agonized about having to say she would ‘obey’ her husband, only to find her local rector tell her that the requirement to promise obedience was long gone (actually for a few decades longer than her rector told her).
Here is the key thing: there are things that the church legally requires for weddings, and then there is a lot of folk tradition and unrealistic expectations that is heaped on top of it, like burying an expertly baked cake under a gallon of squirty cream!
Liturgy is the words and actions used in church services (and a whole lot deeper than that too). The Church of England’s most recent set of liturgies was published in the year 2000, and is called Common Worship. You can find the wedding liturgy from Common Worship on-line (you can also download a complete PDF with all the marriage texts). Anything that is not specified in that is optional. So no white dresses, bouquet, bridesmaids, obeying or giving away, unless, of course, you want it.
Put down the wedding books — that are just about keeping the charade going — and read the wedding liturgy. The church has designed it to be gender equal by default!
There is also a financial advantage to knowing this: the church’s fees for weddings are set nationally and are not really all that steep. The huge expense of church weddings lies with all the expected but non-mandatory trappings. The central act of joining hands before the altar comes with a price tag of a few hundred pounds paid to your local church.
Cutting back on the folk traditions surrounding and suffocating weddings with patriarchal symbolism is an exercise in managing expectation. If you are a feminist, yet, like Laura Bates, feel that you cannot marry without some of the traditional trappings, then that’s really OK. It is tough to go against the expectations of a society, your family, and even your own emotions. Just make your feminism clear in other ways, and demonstrate that no patriarchal symbolism is intended.
Here comes the bride and giving away
The traditional English wedding begins with the bride entering on the arm of her father. Then, at a later point, the priest ask ‘Who gives this woman to be married to this man?’
The Common Worship marriage service does not specify how anyone gets into the church. To make it clear, at the back of the service, in Note 4, we are told
The bride may enter the church escorted by her father or a representative of the family, or the bride and groom may enter church together.
So, brides, you can come in with your mum, sister or best friend, or escorted by both parents.
Even more interesting, especially for couples who have been together for a few years already, is that they can come in together. No more groom waiting at the altar for his still mysterious bride, but a recognition that the couple have a pre-existing relationship and are coming together — side-by-side, arm-in-arm — to their wedding.
Tradition is hard to break, but feminism is the breaking of patriarchal icons after all.
The ‘Who gives…?’ phrase is not mentioned in the liturgy. Note 6 (at the end) allows an optional text to be used instead, but with an important change of verb, ‘gives’ becomes ‘brings’
Who brings this woman to be married to this man?
I always leave this little tradition out unless a bride demands it, and then I always use ‘bring’, not ‘give’.
Bridesmaids, matrons and bestmen
There is absolutely no requirement for the bride to be accompanied by bridesmaids, or for the groom to have a bestman.
The whole issue of maids and matrons of honour is based on the marital status of women, which is not a terribly feminist way to go about things. Perhaps we should avoid all talk of maids and matrons.
Why not think about having gender-neutral companions of honour? The bride could have male friends and relatives among her companions, and the groom could have female companions (jealousy should play no part in a feminist bride’s reaction to her groom having a female friend supporting him: he’s not marrying her!).
If the couple enter together, there is then no need to have separate companions for the bride and groom at all, but a shared marriage posse.
Declarations, vows and rings
There are three places where the bride and groom have words to say: the declarations, the vows and the giving of rings. By default, these texts are gender neutral: neither bride nor groom are asked to say anything the other is not asked to say. In all three of these, usually the groom goes first, and the bride follows. That is the traditional order, and the order that things are written in the liturgy. However, Note 7 (at the end) allows for the bride to make her vows before the groom, and I take it as tacit permission that the bride may go first in any of these texts. Note 8 allows the couple to say ‘I give you this ring…’ to each other at the same time instead of one after the other.
The declarations come near the beginning of the service. The priest asks a question, to which the response is ‘I will’ (‘I do’ is for Hollywood). These are often mistaken or the vows, but are preliminary declarations that each marries of their own free will.
The vows themselves come later in the service, and are usually repeated line-by-line after the priest. The texts for bride and groom are symmetrical. I have only ever once had a bride ask to use the word ‘obey’. I had a long discussion with her about it, and, as she was dead-set on it, permitted it. I have frequently had grooms joke about making their bride say it. I usually tell them that they are outnumbered by people in room (the bride and me) who do not find sexist jokes funny.
In my fifteen years of weddings in different parts of England, I have only had three grooms who have not received a wedding ring on the day. One of these was when the jeweller had royally messed up, and only the bride’s ring was ready on the wedding day. After an emergency conference, we settled jangled nerves by deciding that we would have a post-honeymoon service of blessing the groom’s ring. All wedding guests living close by were welcomed to come back to church after the couple returned from honeymoon, and it was a lovely, light-hearted little celebration. The other two ring-less grooms made less-than-satisfactory excuses. Two generations ago, it was normal only for women to wear wedding rings (which must have been very convenient for philandering men). It is now rare. Chalk this one up as a feminist victory!
Who brings the rings to the wedding is a political statement. Traditionally, the bestman produces the rings at the required moment. Long ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, the groom placed the bride’s ring and money on the priest’s book — provision of rings is about wealth, power and being able to provide for the bride. It is much better for a companion of the bride to produce the groom’s ring for her to give to him, and for a companion of the groom to bring out the bride’s ring — keeping everything reciprocal.
You may now kiss the bride
I hate, hate, hate the line ‘You may now kiss the bride’, because I believe in consent, and it is not mine to give it. The line does not appear in the marriage liturgy, so you should ask that it be omitted. Yet kissing is a Good Thing.
At the point in the service when the kiss traditionally happens, I say instead ‘Let us congratulate the bride and groom’. We all then start applauding them, and I leave it up to the couple whether they wish to kiss each other while we applaud. It works well, and everyone is happy, especially those engaging in consensual kissing in God’s house.
Marriage registers and certificates
The layout and content of marriage registers and certificates is determined by the General Register Office and not by the Church of England, and are replete with patriarchal pitfalls (the legal details for church registers can be read in the GRO guide PDF). The marriage registers (there are two of them) and the marriage certificate contain identical information. Seeing as the couple keep the marriage certificate as legal proof of their marriage, you can request that they be filled in a certain way (within the rules).
Whether or not you or your partner wish to change your names at marriage, the marriage registers and certificates record names before marriage.
Usually, the groom’s information is written in the first row, with the bride’s below. It is completely within the rules for the bride’s details to go in the top row instead, and no alterations need to be made to the form to achieve this (see §4.15 of the GRO guide).
Some churches still fill in the ‘condition’ column of the form with ‘spinster’ for an unmarried woman, and ‘bachelor’ for an unmarried man. They should simply write in ‘single’ for unmarried persons, and you should insist on it if you are previously unmarried (see §4.20 of the GRO guide).
Age-old practice is to distinguish between persons by reference to the father’s name of each. These forms thus ask for the father’s name and occupation for each of the bride and groom. The total omission of the mothers from the form is a feminist issue. Some couples get around this by asking their mothers to sign as witnesses, and thus ensure that both fathers and mothers are on the certificate. In many circumstances it is possible to insist that a step-father, adoptive father or sole adoptive mother be written instead (see §4.26 of the GRO guide). There are a number of reasons why you may not want to have either or both fathers on the form, and you have a right to refuse this information, and have a horizontal line drawn through the relevant cell or cells (see §4.27 of the GRO guide).
How to talk to a priest
Most priests are great at helping you to put together a traditional church wedding. Many will be so used to the traditional expectations that they can easily get thrown off balance by the stuff that I have outlined above. At worst, they might tell you that it is impossible to do these things.
Be nice to your priest, and break the news of your feminist designs to them gently. Tell them that equality between you and your partner is very important to you, and that it means that you would like to request a few things. Say that you have had a look at the the Common Worship marriage service, and say that you would like certain options. I imagine most priests would be so impressed that you have read this, that they will just go along with it.
Priests are not used to being told what to do (except by bishops and archdeacons), so it is usually not helpful to cite guidelines and rules at them. After all, it is good to keep the person conducting your wedding happy with you (priests should be professional however much you wind them up, but we are also human!).
A short sermon is a normal part of the marriage service, and some priests do a bit of ad-libbing through the service too. To avoid the unfortunate occurrence of the priest saying something that grates on your feminist sensibilities, be clear about who you are and what you need from the service; e.g. no saying ‘Mr and Mrs [husband's name]‘ if you have decided that you do not want that name, and make it clear that priest should not talk about traditional gender roles.
If you do not want to have children, or do not want your marriage service to mention having children, tell your priest that. There is a part of the marriage preface (read at the beginning of the service) that mentions having children, and it may be omitted. There is also a prayer for the gift of children at the end of the service. Seeing as that prayer is optional, and not part of the default service, you can ask for it not to be used.
If you are fortunate enough to have one of the Church of England’s many fantastic women priests conduct your wedding, it will undoubtedly add to your feminist wedding credentials. Large churches may have a number of priests, and you might be able to request a woman. The church is only under an obligation to provide a priest for the wedding, without reference to the sex of the priest, and it is the parish priest’s discretion who should take the service.
Once you are out of the church, you, and you alone, make the rules!
Update — I have been pointed to an on-line petition organised by Ailsa Burkimsher Sadler for the inclusion of mothers’ names on the marriage registers and certificate. This would be far better than any of the possibilities now available. Please sign!