Y’all, I love weddings. I always have. I laugh, I cry, I become girlier than I thought possible for a (kind of) recovering tomboy. I have loved going to dress fittings with girlfriends, and I love seeing what choices brides make about what they wear, what flowers they choose, and so on—not because I’m eager to judge their decisions, but because I love seeing how those things reflect a bride’s personality.
But one of the most moving weddings I have attended had no bride at all. It was the wedding of John Romano and Jim Wilborne, one that made headlines (appearing on the front page of BuzzFeed shortly after the ceremony ended). I didn’t know John or Jim, but I did know the officiating minister, a former field education supervisor and mentor of mine. I went, along with a number of other clergy, to support her, as well as to protest our denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“Protest” feels like the wrong word for a wedding. It was that, and it wasn’t. John and Jim didn’t get married as a middle finger to the church; they got married because they wanted to commit their lives to one another in a holy covenant.
What struck me about the ceremony was how normal it was. It was almost boring at points. All the usual components of a wedding were there, and it was more undeniably a Christian worship service than a lot of weddings I’ve attended. What was so moving to me was not anything unique about this being a gay wedding; it was the pure ordinariness of it, and the pain I felt knowing that the church I’ve committed my career and my life to denies that to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
I’m not here to make a case for same-sex marriage. There have been and will continue to be other times and places for that. What I’m here for is to talk a little about how same-sex marriage smashes the patriarchy, and how heterosexual couples can craft an inclusive wedding ceremony. What follows rests on the assumption that those are positive values; if you are coming from a different perspective, I am more than happy to have that conversation, but that’s not what this is about.
When I wrote my first blog in this series, my friend Kate commented that she found that although some people assumed planning a gay wedding would be harder than planning a heterosexual wedding, in a lot of ways, it was actually easier. As Kate put it, she and her partner (also Kate) were already subverting expectations simply by being two brides, so doing things differently was just kind of what was happening.
I loved that. It reminded me of Jim and John’s wedding. For all the hand-wringing I’ve done about how to have my dad walk me down the aisle without making it seem like he’s giving me away, that little piece of patriarchy wasn’t even a factor in their wedding. The church where they were married has 2 aisles; Jim walked down one while John walked down the other, and they met in the middle. Colin and I are thinking about doing this, since the church we’re marrying in also lacks a center aisle.
Jim and John’s wedding was normal, and in a lot of ways, so was Kate and Kate’s. But in the places where they weren’t, it wasn’t a big deal. Jim and John both wore suits; one Kate wore a white dress while the other donned slacks and a vest. Gender norms, so implicitly enforced in heterosexual weddings, just don’t matter as much (or at least not in the same way) in a same-sex wedding.
I’m trying to take inspiration from gay and lesbian friends’ ceremonies and examine the basic assumptions about what has to happen in a wedding and why. But I’m also staying conscious of the privilege I have as a woman marrying a man.
Colin and I don’t have the obstacles that many same-sex couples do, especially in the church. We had a little more awareness than most because the church we would have preferred to be married in is not allowing any weddings in their sanctuary until gay marriage is accepted in our denomination. We had conversations about what it meant for us to exercise this privilege that’s denied to many others.
So, as has been the case in many weddings I’ve performed, we’re seeking ways to make the language of our ceremony as inclusive as possible. Here are a few practical resources and tips for that (aimed mainly at hetero couples):
- Look for resources written specifically to be inclusive. The United Church of Christ has an inclusive wedding ceremony that we’ve adapted parts of for ours. There are other similar resources out there.
- Adapt a traditional ceremony to be more inclusive. A few small tweaks can make the United Methodist ceremony less heteronormative. The greeting says, “The covenant of marriage was established by God, who created us male and female for each other.” I almost always change that to “who created us to be in relationship with one another.” Then there’s this: “With his presence and power Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee, and in his sacrificial love gave us the example for the love of husband and wife.” In a wedding I’m officiating next month, the couple requested the first change but decided to leave this part the way it is, because, well, they are becoming husband and wife. The difference is that demarcating “male and female” as being how God created us can feel exclusive, while two people becoming husband and wife does not necessarily preclude any other couple from becoming husband and husband or wife and wife. Make a change there or not—Colin and I are probably skipping that part entirely and using mostly UCC language in the greeting.
- Consider where you’re getting married and who can and can’t get married there. A friend of mine who’s Baptist and strongly identifies with their heritage of separation of church and state chose to have her civil ceremony apart from her church wedding for that reason. For reasons of inclusivity, she and her husband also decided to be legally married only where same-sex marriage was legal. Initially, during the days of Amendment One in North Carolina, their plan was to travel to Washington, DC for the civil ceremony; but the amendment was struck down before the day arrived, and they decided to wed in NC. As I mentioned, the church that would have been Colin’s and my first choice for a wedding venue is not allowing any weddings until everyone can get married there. Some churches break church law by officiating same-sex weddings; others skirt it by pressing pause on all weddings. You might decide that although you’re willing to get married legally, you won’t be married in or by a church that excludes certain people from that covenant. That would be a painful decision to make, but it’s an option.
- Reflect on gendered language and signals throughout the day that might be heteronormative. There’s no reason to pretend you aren’t becoming husband and wife as a heterosexual couple, but are there ways in which the words and actions in the ceremony and reception might be reinforcing the idea that your wedding is “normal” and same-sex weddings aren’t?
- Think about inclusivity more broadly. Gender and sexuality are important, but how else might your service be unintentionally exclusive? We are having a church wedding complete with the sacrament of communion. We have friends of different faiths or no faith, but that didn’t mean we had to strip away everything particular to Christianity; it just meant we had to be intentional about how we were inviting people to participate. We will be emphasizing that we practice an open table (i.e. anyone can receive communion in the Methodist church) and that those who do not wish to take communion may come forward for a blessing or remain in their seats. We’ll also have a reading from a non-Abrahamic faith tradition. Being inclusive doesn’t mean watering things down; it means taking others into consideration and offering explanation and invitation as explicitly as possible.
What kinds of things have you seen or done in weddings to make them more inclusive and welcoming?
Want to read more? Check out Part 3 of this series, about the dreaded question, “Are you taking his name?”, and stay tuned for Part 5!