Ceremonies of Union
By the time you read this, you will probably have made several decisions. You've decided to share your life with another and to celebrate that publicly. If you've read beyond the opening page, chances are you're contemplating a religious ceremony. If both of these are true, this guide may be for you.
Philosophy and Overview
My approach to ceremonies, consistent with our philosophy, is that the service belongs to the couple. No one can dictate the content of the ceremony. It's your wedding. You are in charge of who is in it, how it goes and to a large extent what is said. As a minister, my role is to make sure you develop the right wedding/ceremony of union. As we work together to craft the ceremony I will make suggestions, based on my expertise, about different ways that the various elements of a ceremony might best flow together. Always the final decision remains with you.
A Ceremony: How It Works
There are actually two aspects to every ceremony: a public dimension -- in which your invited guests witness your pledges to each other, and a private dimension in which you say your vows and join your lives together. These two dimensions--the public and the private--are necessarily interwoven, which makes weddings interesting and enjoyable. Even at small weddings/unions, there are all these people gathered around! Planning is critical, but we are there to guide you in tailoring your own unique ceremony, that the public and private dimensions of the ceremony can flow beautifully together.
There are three movements to a wedding/union ceremony. The ceremony weaves from the public dimension to the private, then back to the public dimension to close.
First Movement: Public Dimension
The ceremony begins with welcoming. We generally remind the guests that while we may come from different backgrounds and from different walks of life, it is our common caring for the couple that brings us together.
Candle Ceremony or Rose Ceremony
In a traditional wedding ceremony this is often followed by the Giving Away: Minister: "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" Father of the Bride: "I do." In contemporary weddings and ceremonies of union, I've evolved other forms for involving the significant people in a couple's life, two primarily: a Candle Ceremony and a Rose Ceremony.
In the Candle Ceremony, the candles sit on an altar table . The couple's mothers /parents light candles. Finally, the couple light a single candle at the center. As candles are lit, words are said about the importance of mothers, fathers, friends, and finally about the centrality of love.
In the Rose Ceremony, the couple takes roses (or another flower of choice) from a bouquet sitting on the altar table. One by one they visit parents, and/or significant family members , presenting them with the gift of a rose, followed by hugs or handshakes. As the couple briefly visits parents and friends, I say some words about their appreciation of the role all their guests have played in their coming to this moment, then these words: "At this time they wish to especially honor those who have been important above all others in their lives with the gift of roses."
Neither of these ceremonies is required. The beauty of both is that they involve family and friends from "both sides of the aisle" -- groom as well as bride; the families of both partners. In general one would choose one ceremony or the other. The Candle Ceremony works well in more formal settings, though I've used it in a ceremony in the woods. The Rose Ceremony is somewhat less formal, works well in a garden wedding, and is fine in a formal sanctuary. Which you choose is a matter of personal preference.
Brief readings are optional. Sometimes a couple have a favorite poem or prose piece they want read. Sometimes they'll have a brother or sister of mutual friend whom they want to include in a performing role. Brief readings typically follow the Candle or Rose Ceremonies.
The largest single part of a wedding is the address. This is part is said by the minister. In it I reflect with the couple on what it means to make a life-time commitment. What is this thing called love? What are our best hopes for success in our relationships? These questions have occupied philosophers (and everyone else!) for ages, I don't propose to answer all questions in a five minute address. However, on such an important occasion, it is worth while to take a few moments to reflect on the meaning that underlies the sacred act of exchanging vows.
My approach is that the address while delivered by me ought to reflect the couple's values. The address is not simply by me to you. It is also to your guests. So it should reflect your ideas and understandings. When we meet to plan a wedding this is one of the elements we discuss. Examples of the address and all the elements of a ceremony are available in a packet of materials I provide to each couple I work with.
Second Movement: Private Dimension
The second movement of the wedding -- the private dimension -- begins with a simple question: Of all the women and men you have come to know, you have found and chosen each other. I ask you now, "Are you ready to be married?" The couple answer: "We are."
This is followed by the exchange of vows. While all the elements of the wedding can be blended together from other sources, couples may write their own vows, and we will be happy to guide you in doing so. This is not a requirement. Couples sometimes use the traditional vows, or know of vows from weddings they especially appreciated that they choose to use.
Traditionally, following the exchange of vows, comes the exchange of rings. This is preceded by a brief blessing of the rings. In traditional ceremonies the couple say to each other, "With this ring, I thee wed." In contemporary ceremonies, you might say, "Accept this ring as a sign of my love and a symbol of our union." Again, there are options and choices. Nothing to memorize!
From time to time couples choose to include an optional Wine Ceremony immediately following the exchange of rings. The particular ceremony is based on a theme from the poet Kahlil Gibran in which he says, "Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup." The general form is reminiscent of Jewish wine ceremonies, though breaking a glass is optional. And the ceremony has the effect of the couple toasting each other within the ceremony itself.
In the ceremony, following a brief reading of Gibran's words, the couple fill each other's glass, then drink from their own. As they do, I remind them that what brought them together was their uniqueness. As they become a couple (which they honor by filling each other's glass), may they cherish their individuality (which they honor by drinking from their own glass). Alternately, the couple drinks from one cup, first the groom who then offers the cup to the bride, who then drinks from it. One final note. It is called a Wine Ceremony, however, the actual contents of the decanter might be water or a non-alcoholic beverage. Occasionally individuals have a sensitivity to alcohol. What's important is the form, not the fluid.
Third Movement: Public Dimension
Since the Wine Ceremony contains aspects of a toast, albeit a silent one since in the Wine Ceremony the couple do not speak, this element when couples choose it, makes a natural transition to the public dimension as the ceremony draws to a close.
This is the moment when the minister declares the couple to be married.
It is often followed by a Wedding Prayer. Again, the form of the prayer is discussed during initial planning.
Benediction (Good Words)
Benediction means, literally, "good words." That's how a ceremony appropriately ends, with good words and best wishes as the couple go their way "as wife and husband" or "as life-partners."
And then the couple KISS
Most weddings include flowers. Flowers depend on the couple's taste and budget. In some instances wild flowers or flowers from a garden can be simply and beautifully arranged. Florists do remarkable things with flowers flowers. Take time to find a florist whose ideas and abilities fit your preferences and budget.
Most weddings include music, though it is not required. Almost any kind of music, instrumental or vocal, can significantly enhance a wedding. Again arrangements should be made well in advance. There is a wide range of musical forms from which to choose. Take your time and find the music that right for you.
Photographs help preserve the occasion in memory. Most couples choose to have a wedding photographer. Contemporary couples may choose to have a videographer as well. Particularly in small chapels or garden weddings where space is at a premium, planning is important, so that the process of recording the ceremony is coordinated and works easily with the flow of the ceremony itself.
After you've read this, I hope two things will be true. First: that you know that your ceremony belongs to you. As an Interfaith Minister, I have two roles: to help you design the ceremony that's right for you; then to lead you and your betrothed through it. I have been a minister for many years. I know my craft. You know your ideas, wishes, dreams and values. Together we can create a truly meaningful wedding or ceremony of union -- one that is right, that fits who you are and the things you truly treasure.
Second, I hope that you continue to be excited by the prospect of creating your ceremony. To create the right ceremony does take time and effort. But it is truly exciting to know that at the end of the process you will have created a ceremony that reflects the two of you. At its best, the process of creating the ceremony will mirror, indeed amplify, the process of your relationship.