Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tying the knot - why the obstacle course?

Keith Dale's organ recital yesterday was well up to expectation, and he had an audience of a hundred and sixty, which pleased us all no end. Last night we supped together at an Italian restaurant down the Bay which had waiters singing to diners from the typical 'Two Tenors' repertoire, making eating great fun.

One of the waiters recognised me, and I him. It was a Stefan, young Romanian, who worshipped with us at St John's for several months while he settled in and looked for work locally. Now, here he was in fine fettle evidently, hard at work waiting on table, and delighted to welcome to his place, a priest who, together with the local congregation had welcomed him to the city. A lovely moment.

Keith returned to Geneva early this morning. We took him to the station and then drove up to the show-ground in Builth Wells to visit a Rock and Gem Fair, so that Clare could acquire some materials for her new pastime - making jewellery. We made the most of a day which was sunny with occasional showers. The countryside looked especially fresh in a thousand shades of green.

We came home via Llangorse Lake, busy with tourists plus a wedding party taking advantage of permission for a civil wedding ceremony in the (slightly) offshore island hut which reconstructs an ancient lake village site, where a celtic king of old was once based. A wild romantic setting for tying the knot.

While they were about their business, a swan with six big cygnets came ashore for a preening session just outside the ceremonial hut, evidently unaware that the place was reserved for nuptials. I wondered how this would affect the romantic photo opportunity following the nuptials, aware of just how jealous swans can be of their space and aggressive in defence of their brood. We didn't hang around to find out.

Earlier in the week on my trips in to church, I became aware of streams of well dressed people in festive mode heading towards City Hall at different times of day. Ordinarily this only happens when there are graduation ceremonies at St David's Hall. But now, finally the city register office re-location has taken place, to more dignified surroundings than the former office in Park Place. It is, no doubt, a move which clients will welcome.

This week I have had my first and only enquiry about a wedding at St John's for 2010. My response, apart from welcoming the enquirer's interest, had to be an explanation of the complexities of legal entitlement to marry in the city church and how this might be circumvented by the granting of legal licenses to wed, subject to particular conditions.

How hard this makes it to issue an attractive competitive offer that stands up against the consumer freedom provided by the secular state alternative. People want to wed in a way that offers dignity and meaning to their decision. And yes, the church is competing with the world of consumer values to offer a meaningful understanding about marriage to those wanting to tie the knot.

We can, like churches on the continent, offer to bless civil wedding ceremonies with a service in church, but cultural habits die hard. British couples want one ceremony not two. If the church can't or won't help them to make their day meaningful, the state obliges another way. Church rules of eligibility, plus traditional attitudes to social ritual get in the way. Custom itself is changing now that a wedding celebration can be devised and tailored to the ideas of the couple and/or their wedding 'arranger' with a civil ceremony attached to it in all sorts of 'nice' places, which have little if anything to say about the deep meaning and purpose of marriage expressed in Christian teaching.

Licenses to facilitate a church wedding for non-parish residents are an added expense nobody needs or wants. If people believe strongly they must have a church wedding, they make the effort to find a way. But there's little or no incentive for those searching for faith, or open enough to find meaning in the pastoral attentiveness a church wedding involves, if getting there is such an obstacle course. Sadly, this means many missed opportunities for Christian teaching and witness. No wonder the church is losing so much of its support base in ordinary community.

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