A little over two years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) made it possible for gay and lesbian people to be married in the church. The denomination was well into the process of revising its service book, the Book of Common Worship, and so had the opportunity to create a fully inclusive marriage rite. As co-editor of the revision process, and as one who had published two books related to marriage, I was delighted and grateful for the chance to share in this work.
The result is a marriage service that can be used for any couple. Since the liturgy in the BCW is recommended but not required, a number of options for vows and prayers are offered. In one sense, the revised service is utterly new; in another sense, it sounds like the marriage service people already know and love.
One of the most significant changes is the opening of the rite. The current marriage service (from the 1993 Book of Common Worship) begins with a Statement on the Gift of Marriage. For its time, it was groundbreaking, emphasizing equality between women and men and upholding mutuality as a characteristic of marriage between Christians. Twenty-five years later, however, the doctrine behind the statement sounds a bit worn, and the biblical assertions are no longer taken for granted.
The new rite begins not with a statement, but with a greeting that frames the occasion. This greeting describes the community’s role: to witness vows, to pledge support, and to pray for God’s blessing upon the couple. The work of the trinity is made clear: God creates all people for relationship and keeps covenant with humanity. Jesus gives himself in love and teaches us to forgive. The Holy Spirit, given in baptism, renews grace within us day by day and enables us to grow in faith, hope, and love. The greeting affirms that those who marry are called to a way of life “marked by grace, fidelity, and mutual respect” and calls on the gathered community to give thanks “for all the ways that God’s love is made manifest in our lives.”
As in the current rite, there is no giving away of the bride, but rather an affirmation of families and/or the gathered congregation. The community has a speaking part in this nuptial drama, as those gathered give their blessing, promising to uphold the couple in their marriage and support them in their life together.
The vows of this inclusive marriage service are surprisingly similar to the current vows. There is simply no naming of husband or wife, but rather a direct address; instead of “I, Harry, take you, Sally to be my wife” each person says to the other “N., you are my beloved,” then continues with the familiar vow: “…and I promise, before God and these witnesses, to be loving and faithful to you, in plenty and want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” If the listeners are not paying close attention, they may not even notice the subtle changes in the wording!
The marriage section of the 2018 BCW also includes a service for the reaffirmation of marriage vows. This brief rite may be used during Lord’s Day worship or as a separate service. It can be used by couples celebrating a significant wedding anniversary as well as by couples who have been together for a long time but have only recently been able to wed.
A third service related to marriage is also included in the 2018 book. Titled “Prayer at the End of Marriage” the brief rite provides a time of scripture and prayer for a couple whose marriage covenant cannot be sustained. Not all divorcing couples will choose to use such a rite, of course, but it will be helpful, we hope, for those who seek some sort of prayerful ending to their marriage. The service includes a time of confession and pardon (done communally in the Presbyterian tradition). Rings may be returned, accompanied by expressions of gratitude for the blessings of the marriage even in the face of brokenness. The presider then offers a prayer for the couple that includes these words: “Where hearts are broken, grant your healing. Where trust is eroded, restore good faith. Where bitterness has taken root, plant seeds of forgiveness. Do not let anger destroy us, but teach us to love as you have loved us, even after marriage ends.” The prayer ends by asking for the Spirit’s strengthening power to renew their hope in Christ’s new creation, “where peace will reign and all people will be reconciled to you and to one another.” This rite is more akin to a service of healing than one of marriage, and it emphasizes the eschatological nature of God’s love for us all.
The entire marriage section, in fact, is grounded in an eschatological understanding of who God is and what God intends; of who we are and the impossibility of fully keeping promises; of our utter dependence on grace to sustain a marriage and, indeed, to live a life; and of the unfailing steadfastness of the God who made us for love.