YOUR wedding. Planned to perfection. That’s the goal encouraged by wedding-planning companies. Perfect dress, perfect shoes, cake, flowers, first dance, stationery — everything should be considered in the light of what makes it perfect for guests . . . and, of course, for those who follow via social media.
This year, I had an excursion into this hitherto unexplored corner of the internet when planning my wedding to my husband Tim. I read magazines out of curiosity, to see what we were supposed to be doing. Perhaps naïvely, I found the relentless quest for perfection rather shocking. You & Your Wedding promised “685 gorgeous ideas for the perfect day” — and that’s just one issue of one magazine.
Seeing the process as a bride led me to reflect on how, as a priest, I work with the couples I marry, and ask whether I have properly understood the stresses around a wedding. My experience says that it takes resolve, and a thick skin, to withstand the expectations that even the most well-meaning people can have.
Clergy are, of course, well versed in asking couples to think beyond one-day events to the years of marriage ahead. We neglect our duty to our wedding couples if we don’t. But how can we help people to flourish in the lead-up to a wedding? What have we to offer to counteract the pressure to be perfect? Can we reclaim the term from its association with a cash-intensive event to an encounter with something of God’s perfect love?
THE search for perfection leads in odd directions. I was baffled by the idea of fake cakes: if your budget does not run to a big real cake, you can have a pretend one instead. That felt like a tragic waste of money: faking what you can’t afford seems to me to be starting a marriage with dishonesty.
A wedding supplier told me of someone insisting on a brand-new, perfectly white marquee to replace the waterproof (but weathered) one that had been erected. You can guess what happened when it rained. This feels like something of a metaphor. What looks perfect might not actually do the job that we want it to do.
Our functioning in a relationship — or just as a person in a community — is made easier when we accept those around us for who they are. My best woman, Susanna Winter, offered sage advice in her speech: “Having your own flaws accepted is worth the price of having to accept the other person’s flaws.”
We weather life, just like that waterproof marquee. Our wholeness as a person does not rely on our ignoring our failings and hiding them, but in understanding that, when God sees us, he sees the mess but loves us anyway. The sacrament of marriage encompasses our whole lives, not just the bits on show.
Wedding perfection costs money. The annual survey of Immediate Media’s website hitched.co.uk suggests that the average spend on a wedding is now £31,974.
The consumer-protection website Moneysavingexpert describes that sum as “heartbreaking”. We can reflect on how small a percentage of that overall cost the fees for the church amount to.
I was honestly amazed at the amount of stuff that is sold as “essential” for a bride. Matching personalised pyjamas, bath robes, slippers, and coat hangers seem to be popular items for the bride and her entourage.
Personalisation turns out to be a big thing. It recognises the individuality of the person, says that you’re not just one of many, but a special part of a huge event. It’s a corollary to the slogan “Because you’re worth it.” While this is usually deployed as an inducement to spend, it could be translated into a genuine sense of self-worth.
DAVE WALKERSara Batts-Neale in her £12 wedding dress at her marriage to Tim in St Peter ad Vincula in Coggeshall, Essex, in September
A wedding day is an amazing day. But it is not the only day on which a couple is special. Our worth is in our identity as the loved children of God, and that’s the promise of a lifetime — and beyond.
It is not measured in social-media “likes”; yet the National Wedding Survey found that 42 per cent of couples it asked felt pressured to have a wedding that met the standards of Instagram or Pinterest. A quarter had spent more to make things look better for pictures.
When I joined a Facebook group for local weddings, I found people sharing their weight-loss journey. I’m not bashing social media; it’s part of my life — I’d be lost without the contact with others that it affords me. Yet I am saddened if the approval of strangers drives a couple to spend more, and provides yet another source of stress.
AS CLERGY, it can be tempting to respond negatively to wedding couples. I’m not denying that some have unreasonable demands, or misunderstand the kind of space a church is. Our buildings, while beautiful, are more than a pretty backdrop to a party, but it’s not the fault of a non-churchgoing couple if they don’t understand this at the outset.
When explaining what can and can’t happen in a church wedding, we are more than upholders of rules and regulations. I wonder if a contributing factor to the continuing decline in church weddings — they have dropped by one third in the past decade — is the mistaken belief that we offer only a one-size-fits-all approach. Couples are surprised when they discover that they are not limited to organ music, for example.
We have opportunities to introduce our church as a building that holds hopes and dreams as well grief and despair, and as a place where all are welcome and where God can be found by those who look.
A church can be a place of celebration as well as solemnity — and host the party as well as the vows. Canon Leah Vasey-Saunders, Precentor of Wakefield Cathedral, describes how the team persuaded one couple who wanted to book their reception in the nave to have the whole service in the cathedral. “We could offer a really bespoke wedding, at a reasonable cost. We see so much potential here to adapt to each couple’s budget and context, and really change people’s perspective on what church is for.”
A church in the diocese of Chester has offered an all-inclusive wedding package for £1000 in a attempt to help those who would struggle with the cost elsewhere.
MORE generally, we might be the only place accepting and loving couples for who they really are, helping to heal their hurt from failed relationships (although not all churches welcome the marriage of a divorced person, which is a whole other topic to consider).
We might be the only people who are not actively trying to up-sell or profiteer. We might be the only people to help to broker difficult family dynamics. It is our job to be more concerned about what happens rather than how it looks.
How do we sell this in the crowded weddings marketplace? Attendance at wedding fairs costs money that parishes might not have, and raises issues of qualifying connections and parish boundaries. Publicising the possibility of a church wedding should happen at a wider level than just the individual parish — something that the life-events team at Church House has pioneered (News, 12 April).
The church that I serve marries many couples from outside the parish. Their regular attendance for worship changes us for the better. We are fortunate to have attentive and welcoming people who genuinely make newcomers feel at home. We’re sad, of course, if they disappear after the wedding — but we believe that we have shown something of God’s love in our hospitality, and reshaped their concept of church.
We sometimes know our out-of-parish couples better than those we see only for the readings of the banns. Tim and I had our banns read in three churches, one of which neither of us had ever visited, reinforcing my opinion that the sooner this arcane practice goes the better (News, 24 February 2017).
Sarah, a recent bride, resisted external pressures when it came to planning her Lego-themed wedding. “We decided early on that, as long as we were happy, we didn’t care whether others thought it was perfect or if they thought it was cheesy.” In my own case, I took pride in finding a wedding dress for £12 in a charity shop: I knew it to be beautiful, regardless of cost.
My hope as a priest is that, besides maintaining the legal and pastoral needs of wedding couples, I might also be able to help them to navigate their own path through all these social and financial pressures.
The Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale is Assistant Curate of Coggeshall with Markshall, and of Cressing with Stisted and Bradwell-Juxt-Coggeshall and Pattiswick, in the diocese of Chelmsford.