We are in the thick of it: Friday evenings have been
given over to wedding rehearsals and to discreetly bowing out of the
dinners afterwards. Saturdays are dedicated to joining couples in holy
matrimony. This year marks my first season in a big-steeple church.
Thanks to its beautiful stained glass and its air conditioning, there
is a demand for our sanctuary—and for my colleagues and I to serve as
officiants, even for nonmember weddings.
a shift for me. Most weddings I've presided over have been for friends
or congregants I know well, folks who were willing to entertain the
clerical presumption that I had something to share with them and who
trusted me to put together a ceremony that spoke to both the
particularities of their relationship and the richness of the Christian
(sometimes very broadly defined) tradition. It's a different game now. An increasing number of American couples aren't bothering
with a religious or even civil presence at all, preferring to ask
friends or family to "get ordained" on the Internet. I suppose I should
be grateful that unchurched couples come through our congregation's
doors, however briefly.
But I often feel the need to defend our
congregation's premarital counseling requirements for young couples.
Many of them are either sure they've got it all figured out, thank you,
or question what wisdom about relationships could actually come from
good part of this rejection of pastoral insight may simply come with
being deeply besotted. As a colleague's pastoral care professor says:
"Most couples are too blissed out to listen to anything you've got to
say. The best you can do is make a good impression, hand them your card
and hope they'll come back if they need you."
I fear, though,
that the majority of clergy doing premarital counseling and wedding
preparation may be failing even in this basic requirement. Adam
Hamilton, writing wisely
about how pastors ought to consider weddings opportunities for
evangelism, offers instructions that essentially boil down to "don't
mail it in."
real challenge, however, is not attention and care but knowing what to
say. Pastors—single and married alike—may be reticent out of a keen
awareness of the limitations of their experience. Marriage is a complex
thing and will challenge and stretch even those of us who put "Christ
at the center of the relationship." Simple platitudes are woefully
insufficient, while the Christian scriptures and tradition are
ambivalent on the subject. What are we to say?
I've been going over the Prepare/Enrich
inventories of some of the couples who will soon be in my charge, and
I'm surprised at how optimistic many of them are. They want to have
children, and lots of them, and they do not anticipate any arguments
about money or hobbies. And yes, they will always have as much romance
in their relationship as they do now.
I worry that their unmet
expectations and their surprise in encountering the familiarity of a
faithful life together will prove too heavy for them. I read
of the casual way folks use technology to saunter into infidelity, and
I feel responsible for sharing whatever resources I can to help them
build a healthy marriage and see the church's commitment to walking
Last month the church lost a great teacher in Don Browning, who did
much to explicate the complex nature of the institution of marriage,
the impact of modernity on it and its relationship to Christian faith.
Browning's work brought theology and social science into conversation
about the pressing issues of our daily lives, including the way in
which we marry and form families. I pray that his voice will continue
to be heard whenever clergy model practical theological reflection with
the newlyweds in their care.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is the associate for congregational life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. She is coauthor, with Lee Hull Moses, of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People (Alban Institute).