1 Corinthians 13:4-13
It is a privilege for me to stand in ‘this’ pulpit, where my elder cousin – Orville Hosie – preached at Trinity, in the years before Franklin Morgan. And to acknowledge my colleagues as former Presidents of Hamilton Conference (now part of Region 8): Barbara Bitzer and Katharine Edmonstone. Katharine and I are also ‘alumni’ of the staff of neighbouring Calvary Memorial United Church. And it was at Calvary several weeks ago that about 60 local church, agency and neighbours gathered to explore partnerships in Social Justice. And I was encouraged by the presence and participation Barb and Lori from Trinity, as you folks discern your future mission and ministry leadership, after the big steps to sell and move from the Trinity site, back to your roots here atop the hill!
Among the privileges of being an ordered Minister in the United Church of Canada is to have a licence issued by the Province of Ontario, with approval from my home Region (formerly called a Conference.) In the 24 years I have been ordained, I have conducted over 100 weddings. And to quote one of my mentors – the late Fr. Bernie – “though I’ve never been married” – which usually gets a laugh, particularly from a Catholic Priest - “I hear it is hard work!” As a single person, I’ve also learned a few things about weddings and marriages along the way, including from our Epistle text this morning in 1st Corinthians, chapter 13.
Written almost 2,000 years ago to a ‘house church’ that the St. Paul was encouraging, it was a socially mixed community - like most modern day congregations, including Trinity, Kitchener – and this letter was part of an ongoing conversation; a bit like a marriage!
The part of the letter we read begins by describing some of the qualities of romantic love associated with a wedding ceremony … like patience and kindness, and how it ‘bears all things, hopes all things , endures all things.’ It goes on to describe the maturing of love, in a marriage relationship.
Mindful of the many families have gathered at Trinity over the years for a wedding, the ceremony that I invite couples to shape ‘as their own’ was created with a couple in one of the first weddings I conducted. The bride’s background was Anglican, and the groom’s was Jewish and they knew they were blending traditions, let alone their families. It included the ‘big four’ things that are required of a wedding in the Province of Ontario. A statement of free intent; as in: “do you freely choose to be joined in marriage?” (Rather than the ‘crazy uncle’ about “does anyone know of a reason why this couple shouldn’t be joined together in marriage?” (for fear that a crazy uncle will think it is funny to say “Yes” … such that we have to stop the ceremony and explore the objection … God knows there was a time when some weddings were done under duress, or as a business transaction. But now we rely on ‘free intent’, and ask the couple to ‘give themselves freely to each other’. The other aspects of the ‘big four’ include: exchanging vows and rings, the signing of a licence (from the Province) and a Register (like the one here at Trinity) and finally, that the person conducting the wedding has a licence to do so, and that the couple and their two witnesses are both over the age of 18, and sober!
As long as the ‘big four’ are covered, the rest of the ceremony can reflect the beliefs and tastes of the couple in terms of readings, music, as well as other symbols and prayers. And when the couple are introduced, the choice of names reflects the new legal names they have chosen, if there is going to be any change.
I have had a groom take the family name of his wife. Several women have kept their family name for professional reasons, but plan to raise a family together with one family name or a hyphenated one.
But before couples exchange vows and rings, and after the ‘statement of free intent’, I encourage them to invite their families and other guests to make a pledge of support to them. Afterall, a wedding is not a ‘spectator sport’, and the guests are there because they will be supportive of the marriage too. And when that chorus of “we do” echoes to answer the question I pose about supporting the couple in their marriage, I think it is one of the best parts of any wedding!
As is often the case, the wording for vows and exchanging of rings can be written by the couple. They are making both a civil and spiritual covenant before God. And not as often as some people assume, a marriage fails - for many different reasons – and when it does, it can be helpful to remember that the wedding established a covenant between a couple and God. And sometimes we mortals can’t keep the covenant, and we have to forgive ourselves for that, because God already has. Remember what Fr. Bernie said about a marriage being hard work! That is worth it!
And part of the reason for that, is a wedding blends not just two lives, but (at least) two families. And the qualities of love that St. Paul describes to the Corinthians reflects this, in more ways than one! Ancient Corinth was a city where mirrors were made – using polished bronze or silver – which made for a rather distorted image. Hence his description of “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but [eventually] we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; [eventually] I will be fully known…” And to paraphrase St. Paul’s intent, until we are, “faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” Until – and after – we are fully known.
Some couples may come down an aisle with a family member, and then stand on either side of the aisle, with their immediate family seated behind them. Then after their documents have been signed and as the couple is about to be introduced, I suggest that they ‘switch sides’ to symbolize that they are also joining each others’ families, as we demonstrated earlier.
That is why when the couple first arrive at the front, I invite them to greet both immediate families. No one is being ‘given away’ at a wedding; a couple is being married, and two families are being blended. That is also reflected in the prayers I offer right after the exchange of rings, including phrases like “may their trust each other, and you O God, and never be afraid”; and “today we recall the example and support of their families, including some who are fondly remembered …” Because weddings are evocative for many people, including the absence of a loved one, for reason of death or estrangement. So common to many families.
When it was announced that Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles were to be married, one of the first questions that then twentysomething Princes William and Harry were asked by one of the Paparazzi (rather maliciously I would say): “And what would your mother think of this engagement?” To which the older brother answered fondly: “We’re happy our father is happy.” Would that every wedding – let alone every marriage – was so blessed!
My heart sang with the recent election of Bishop Linda Nicholls as the new Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada; the current Bishop of Huron (which includes this region, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ontario) she was asked after her election as the first woman bishop how all the men who served under her authority handled her leadership. And she replied with a trademark twinkle in her eye: “Oh some of them have difficulty with it … but I don’t!”
My heart sank when the ‘House of 40 Bishops’ of the Anglican Church of Canada so narrowly defeated the revisions to the Church Canon on Marriage which would have allowed for Same-Sex Marriage, though ‘left the door open’ for a ‘local option’ among Dioceses to bless civil unions. As the newly elected Primate commented, when the decision came down, “the only sound in the room was the sobbing of LGBTQ+ Youth delegation, and that sound … was a moment not only of personal mourning but of the mourning of a church that was unable to find a way to live with differences despite the best efforts of many people.” As the new Primate Linda Nicholls also said: “Huron Diocese will continue to bless “civil same-sex marriage, recognizing the intention to live in fidelity, mutual love and comfort in a life-long union.” (Canadian Press, July 16/19) As congregations let alone denominations often struggle: “unable to find a way to live with differences despite the best efforts of many people … “ But inspired by the qualities of love described by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, they keep hoping and trying.
And so this morning, I also want to pay homage to the inclusive wedding policy of Southampton United Church and it has become widely known – and copied! – as the ‘Southampton solution”. After the decision in 1988 by General Council of the United Church of Canada to ordain and commission gay and lesbian ministers, the next challenge was same-sex weddings, which eventually became legal in Canada. At that time, it was wisely decided that Councils/Board of individual Congregations would have a ‘local option’ to decide if they would welcome same-sex couples to be married. And as I recall, the gist of the Southampton ‘solution’ to this divisive issue: “The majority of us understands marriage to be between a man and a woman, but we know there are pastoral needs in our families, congregation and wider community, and so we empower our Minister to meet those needs. And if they are not comfortable doing so, we expect them to refer the couple to a colleague who is.”
The first same sex wedding I conducted was for two women from the States, fifteen years ago, who contacted us at Westminster United in Waterloo, because it was an Affirming Congregation, and near Stratford where they wanted to spend their honeymoon, going to the Festival! Their own Minister (in the States) was very supportive but in a denomination that - at the time – wouldn’t allow their Ministers to attend let alone conduct a same-sex wedding! Part of our planning included finding them a hotel room in Waterloo for the rehearsal and wedding nights, before travelling here to Stratford for the honeymoon. I figured it would be hospitable to drop off some maps and other tourist information before they arrived in town. And I went early in the morning, and was greeted by the overnight staff member who was getting ready to go home. She was a delightful Older Order Mennonite, who also offered to check the hotel reservation … and then looked very concerned: “Oh there must be some mistake. There is only one Queen size bed in a room for two women!” “Oh there is no mistake” I said gently. “ They are getting married!” The couple later told me that when they arrived that evening, they were warmly greeted by the same overnight staff member who said “So you must be the happy couple!” Though a bit of a stretch for the staff member to say so, it was a much warmer reception than the couple’s home denomination could provide at that time!
When that Anglican/Jewish couple were ready to be introduced by their married names, they wanted to weave in the Jewish tradition of smashing a glass wrapped in linen and cheering “Mazal Tof!”. In what was a very intimate wedding of only their immediate families, they asked me smash the glass, lead the cheer, and announce their names. What they didn’t tell me that more recent Jewish practice is to put a large theatrical lightbulb in the linen, because it makes a louder sound! So, when I smashed it, I was so startled, I introduced them as Mark and Anne Mazal Tov! (Which technically is now their legal name!) A sense of humour is another quality of love that St. Paul didn’t expressly mention, but I’m sure intended to include!
God knows, with too many contemporary King Herods in our world today … it is always timely to recall the qualities of love in a wedding, a marriage, and a congregation, that St. Paul described in his Letter to the Corinthians. With echoes of the Epiphany Story at Christmas time, to recall how the Magi were transformed by their encounter with the Christ Child, and ‘went home by another way’ rather than back to Herod. Weddings, marriages, and congregations can be transformative, in their persistent loving. Recalling the wisdom of Minnie Haskins from her poem “God Knows” (alt.), that was invoked by King George the Sixth, in his Christmas Message in 1939 amidst the outbreak of World War 2:
I said to the [One] who stood at the Gate …
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."
And [they] replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way."
And as the King concluded: “May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all”.
(Rev.) John Lougheed