On Avoiding “Fantastical” Weddings

Neff wedding

A couple of days ago, Rowan Williams addressed the matter of weddings becoming ever more extravagant events:

Speaking at a debate entitled “Marriage: Love or Law” in London, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said that the “marketisation of marriage” must be curtailed.

He labelled the idea of “the perfect relationship crystallised in the perfect wedding day” as a farce, suggesting that it was nothing more than the product of “immense economic advertising investment in this massively fantastical experience … after which, of course, nothing is ever quite so good again”…

According to Lord Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, the way in which weddings have become hugely aspirational “experiences” as opposed to a simple public declaration of commitment is having a detrimental effect on the stability and longevity of marriages.

Reading this made me think of some similar remarks made a while ago by Duke Divinity School ethicist Amy Laura Hall:

The way that young Protestant couples plan their weddings bodes very ill for the kind of family they are hoping to become. You watch what a wedding is often about these days—it is about displaying one’s wealth to those one is eager to impress. If you think instead about the scriptural wedding itself, about being the open banquet that one hopes one’s marriage will be, I think weddings would look a lot different than they do. I think they would be on a Sunday morning service where everyone is invited. I think they would look more like a potluck than the kind of catered extravagances toward which even the middle class is climbing. I think the image of the banquet where the blind and the lame are invited, and those who cannot repay us, that image would be one in which to start a marriage.

As we’ve discussed at SF before, in a few recent posts and comment threads, heaping up expectations for weddings and marriages not only prevents us from thinking well about marriage; it also does single people no favors insofar as it paints an unrealistic picture of what they’re missing. Far better—or far more Christian—to think of marriage as an ascetic pursuit, and plan weddings accordingly.

But, of course, “ascetic” doesn’t mean “joyless.” When I read Williams yesterday, and then went back to the Hall interview, I was reminded of a wedding I attended in Portland several years ago. The reception was held in a converted barn. In lieu of a cake, the bride’s grandmother had made an assortment of fruit pies. Guests had been encouraged to bring their favorite board games, and we sat at round tables eating the pies and playing the games. The bride and groom made their way to each table, sitting with us and catching up with those they hadn’t seen in a while. Leaving the reception that night, the picture I had in mind of what they wanted their marriage to be was one that spoke of hospitality, of the fun that could be had with homemade food (rather than, as Hall has it, “catered extravagances”) and with the games that were already stacked in their home closet, rather than, necessarily, a night out. It’s a picture I wish more of us were attracted to.

13 thoughts on “On Avoiding “Fantastical” Weddings

  1. Pingback: On Avoiding “Fantastical” Weddings » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. I am not being original when I say this, but I think big modern weddings are in large part about the fact that something has to signify a change. If the couples have been living together already, then there is essentially no real change between pre-marriage and marriage. And I am not just talking about sex. There is of course the ceremony, but I have heard from many friends that what they are looking for is a party.
    Maybe it is just the introvert in me. But I always look forward to the ceremony. Rarely forward to the party. That does not mean I don’t enjoy receptions, but it is the ceremony that is important and remains to me important in reconfirming my own vows. I never go to a wedding reception and think, ‘this just makes me love my wife all the more.’ But I have never been to a ceremony where I have not felt that.

  3. First off, thank you for posting this. I have been thinking of replying to certain comments with something similar. You said it much better.

    If romantic love and all it’s trappings is the epitome of life and joy, far too many of my friends will have to live without it. These are single women who would love to be married, but there aren’t men available. (My sister is rapidly approaching 30 and has yet to be asked on a date.) If it’s all about a wedding, then they are condemned to a sad sort of excuse for a life.

    Instead, marriage and family are one path to holiness. (Perhaps the one needed by some of us, who are harder cases.)

  4. Oh boy, this post smacks of maiden aunts lecturing their married nieces and nephews about the right way to bring up children.

    What next? Will you be dispensing reams of valuable advice about the right way to give birth?

    I make it a golden rule not to interfere in things that don’t concern me. Hence I rarely if ever comment on threads about abortion or women’s issues, for example. I have my opinions on these subjects, but as my life is not directly affected by abortion or women’s issues, it’s not up to me to lead or even actively participate in those debates. Those arguments and decisions belong to other people. Trying to annex them as my own when they don’t touch my life in any direct way seems to me to the height of arrogance.

    But here we have a gay man who’ll never have a wedding, but who nevertheless believes he has something of value to teach those of us who will marry about the kind of weddings we should aspire to. Why’s that, I wonder? Is it because when he gets invited to a wedding, he doesn’t want to witness a vulgar display? Or is there something else going on? Could it be something along the lines of “here’s my vision, now go and apply it to your life and I don’t care how little I know about your problems and issues, I still know better than you…”

    • I don’t know if he should or shouldn’t discuss marriage, given that he’s celibate. (I noticed that he drew from those who hand more personal knowledge.) However, as a married woman, I can say his observations and suggestions ring very true. It is very much in line with what I said to myself and say to young brides: a successful wedding is one where you are married at the end, everything else is extra.

      • Be that as it may, it’s hardly his area of expertise.

        The world is awash with armchair experts. Read a few articles and blog posts and suddenly you know it all.

        Celibates should perhaps think about leaving the discussion of marriage and weddings to those who have a stake in the them.

        I have a stake because I hope to marry. No wedding plans just yet, but when I do marry, my wedding will be just as elaborate as my partner and I wish it to be. No archbishop or pope or other social commentator will influence our choices.

        Archbishop Welby can pontificate as much as he likes, but quite frankly, calls for restraint and economy from a man who lives in a palace and wears robes that put the Queen of England’s drawing room curtains to shame are hypocritical to say the least.

        If he wants us to concentrate on the meaning of marriage rather than its trappings, why doesn’t he dispense with a few trappings himself? The last photo I saw of him he was dressed in something silken and swishy that probably cost more than than 10 weddings put together. So should we criticize him for his “fantastical” worship style? Why does he feel the need to display the wealth of the Church to those he’s eager to impress, and then criticize anyone who follows his example?

        Could it be yet another case of “do as I say but not as I do”?

      • Stephen I am with you. It is up to the couple and as a gay celibate I find it odd Wesley commenting on it. My husband and I just got married in April. For us we did a small affair of 46 because we had already been together 25 years and we didn’t want the big thing. But we had a great little party made up of mostly Christians there to celebrate our marriage.

  5. Maybe it’s different in the US but in the UK it is usually the poorer members of society who want “hugely aspirational experiences” or “catered extravagances”. Only a middle-class couple would opt for grandmas fruit pies and board games.

    • “Maybe it’s different in the US but in the UK it is usually the poorer members of society who want “hugely aspirational experiences” or “catered extravagances”. Only a middle-class couple would opt for grandmas fruit pies and board games…”

      …while the Royals and what’s left of the aristocracy splash out on abbeys and cathedrals and big white tents in the garden (sorry, “grounds” – or should that be “grinds”?)

      I’ve been to a few weddings in my time and I can tell you, no matter what the class, no matter what the income level, “aspirational” is what it’s all about.

      The big royal circus wedding of a couple of years ago was just as “aspirational” as any cheap and tawdry TOWIE nuptial extravaganza. William and Kate have aspirations. They have a crown coming their way one day, once Granny decides to slither away to retirement back on the alien lizard homeworld :-s. They couldn’t make do with mince pies in a marquee and half their hooray friends wellies up in the herbaceous border. It had to be classy and it had to be decorous. They have a position to maintain and an image (and a clutch of leathery eggs) to carefully nurture. What could be more aspirational than that?

      Any duke or earl or dodgy baronet is in the same position. Anyone with a hyphenated name and eyes just that teeny bit too far apart (or close together) has aspirations to live up to. OK, they may be negative aspirations, the kind that see you endlessly toiling to hang on to a position that you inherited but can’t possibly hope to maintain. But they’re aspirations nonetheless.

      The same, bar the inheritance, applies to any Essex man. Is there any essential difference between “loadzamoney” and “darling we simply MUST find a way to hang on to the hice and grinds…”?

      The middle classes have their aspirations too. They also express these aspirations in the way they marry. Everyone does, because that’s what the modern wedding is, whether it takes place in a palace, or a Trusthouse Forte, or a yurt in the back garden of a suburban semi in Pinner. It’s a public statement of intent about how the couple plans to live. It’s a metaphor for values.

      Like it or not, Lord Archbishop, the statement wedding is here to stay because it’s part of our culture. Some of those statements will be extravagant, others will be subtle. But they’re all saying the same thing: this is how we want to lead our lives together. These are our values.

  6. “I quite like blinged out vulgar weddings!”

    I take it then that you were at Westminster Abbey on that notorious day when tiaras and WAGS and slinky sisters were all conspiring to prove that Archbishop Welby is so laughably out of touch with the people he’s trying to minister to that he might as well be preaching to us from the pages of an E. F. Benson novel.

    There’s an idea there, I think. Maybe we could just do away with Anglican divines altogether and set up video screens in church where people could come and watch episodes of “All Gas and Gaiters” on demand. I’m sure such a move would command more attention and lead to more sincere conversions than the unedifying spectacle of a whippet of a man drowning in spectacles and brocade trying to tell us why the way his people do things is just right, whereas everyone else is just being “aspirational”…

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