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To Love and To Cherish Until Death Do Us Part: Preparing for the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage

To Love and To Cherish Until Death Do Us Part: Preparing for the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage

by John H. Westerhoff III

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An informative guidebook for couples preparing to receive the sacrament of marriage in the Episcopal Church. Includes a helpful, step-by-step walk through the marriage rite. An excellent resource for engaged couples and for clergy who counsel them.


An informative guidebook for couples preparing to receive the sacrament of marriage in the Episcopal Church. Includes a helpful, step-by-step walk through the marriage rite. An excellent resource for engaged couples and for clergy who counsel them.

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Church Publishing Inc.
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To Love and to Cherish Till Death Do Us Part


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 1990John H. Westerhoff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2571-9



First Thoughts

The Canons of the Episcopal Church require that before a priest can solemnize a marriage he or she must be sure that the couple to be married has been "instructed as to the nature, meaning and purpose of Holy Matrimony." This small book was written with this intent.

Marriage is both an event, the celebration and the blessing of a marriage, and a process, a couple's lifelong journey together. Marriage is an event that establishes a relationship and a relationship into which you will need to live. This small book intends to prepare you for the event and lay a foundation for the journey. At the event you will promise to travel together on a lifelong, sometimes difficult journey. There is much you will need to learn as you travel along, but before you make this life-transforming decision, it will be important for you to reflect upon and discuss the nature, meaning, and purpose of marriage.

I hope this book will provide a resource for and stimulant to these conversations between you and your priest.


Marriage Through the Ages

In primitive times a young man would capture a young woman from a neighboring clan or tribe and claim her as his wife. He was usually accompanied by another young man whose job it was to distract the woman's relatives or help fight them off during the abduction. In later times this person became known as the "best man." As time went on, fathers purchased wives for their sons, but the old ritual of abduction was now symbolized by the husband's picking up his bride and carrying her over the threshold of his home.

In the Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was born, marriage was a family affair. Women and children were considered property, and fathers therefore arranged marriages. Typically, the father of the groom gave a dowry to the father of the bride to compensate for a "property loss."

The marriage event was composed of two parts. The first was the betrothal, which took place at a family meal in the groom's home. At this time a promise of marriage at a future date was made, the girl was given a ring as a sign of possession by the man, and the dowry was exchanged.

Sometime after the betrothal, the second part, the marriage took place in the bride's home. The bride was dressed in a yellow dress with veil and a crown of myrtle, and she wore a cincture as a sign of virginity. She was delivered to the groom by a married woman, the pronuba, who acted both as a maid of honor and a representative of Juno, the god of home, family, and children. The contract was read and signed, and then the couple joined hands to finalize the relationship. Following a sacrifice to the family gods, the wedding feast was celebrated.

After the feast there was a procession to the husband's home. The pronuba would light the family fire, make a sacrifice at the family altar, prepare the marriage bed, and take off the bride's cincture and exits.

Jewish marriage rites were similar but without the pagan elements. In both Judaism and Roman society, marriage was a legal, contractual arrangement. When Jewish Christians married they used the same rite as Jews but made reference to Christ. When pagan Christians married, they followed the pagan rite but eliminated the pronuba and sacrifices.

Interestingly, for Christians singleness was as holy as marriage; some, in fact, would have said more holy. Marriage was for those who could not live a celibate life. The Christian community was to survive and grow through the conversion of adults rather than through the procreation of children. Therefore, for the first four centuries marriage remained a family affair and the church played no part in marriage.

Marriage customs began to change after the Christian church became the imperial state church. After two Christians had been married in a family ceremony, they would present themselves to a bishop or priest in order to receive a blessing. So it was that as long as the Roman Empire continued, the Church relied on the civil government to regulate marriages. In fact, this custom of the state marrying and the church blessing continues throughout much of the Christian world. The oddity is that in the United States, where we have an established separation of church and state, the church acts both on behalf of the state in performing marriages and on behalf of the church blessing them.

This blessing took different forms in the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East. In the West, where only one ring was exchanged at the wedding, it was known as the veiling of the bride and nuptial blessing. In the East, where two rings were exchanged, there was a crowning of both the bride and the groom.


New Understandings and Ways

The first major change in marriage customs took place in the tenth and eleventh centuries. With the collapse of the Roman Empire the church assumed a greater role in marriages. Now the priest was present at the groom's home for the ceremony. He witnessed the couple's mutual consent and the signing of a legal contract, the bride's pledge of obedience and submission to her husband, and his giving to her a ring. The priest would then bless the marriage and the marriage chamber where their union would be consummated and thereby made legal in the eyes of the church.

By the thirteenth century the marriage service as we now have it began to emerge. The betrothal and the marriage rite were united, and the first part was held on the outside porch of the church. The priest would first explain the church's understanding of marriage. Then the bride and groom were asked for their consent, and since there were few records, both those present and the couple were asked if they knew of any reason why they lawfully should not be married. Impediments were relation by blood or marriage, insufficient age, prior commitment to someone else (while they had to consent, some marriages were still arranged, especially for young children of noble families), incapacity to give consent, and undue influence.

Then insofar as the woman was still considered property, she had to be given away by her father. (One other change was that the bride's father now gave the groom's father the dowry, for he was assuming a financial burden.)

Once this part of the service was complete, the wedding party would go into the church and process to the altar where they entered into the marriage contract; the priest tied his stole over their joined hands (from which we get the expression "tying the knot") and pronounced them husband and wife; the bride's ring was blessed and placed on her finger; the priest blessed their marriage; and the couple exchanged the liturgical symbol of reconciliation, unity, the kiss of peace.

By the fourteenth century the whole liturgy took place in the church in the context of the Eucharist. During the reformation of the sixteenth century the Church in England became the Church of England and the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) was published. It contained a marriage rite that was a combination of Roman Catholic and Lutheran rites. There were a few other important and significant changes as well. Marriage was no longer a contract; it was now a covenant. Marriages were held during the parish Eucharist on Sunday. The dowry now took the form of alms for the poor. And the purposes of marriage were stated, namely to bear children, to provide a remedy against sin (the misuse of sex), and for the couple to care for each other.

Now in the twentieth century, while some of the theological understandings of marriage have changed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the marriage rite is fundamentally the same as that

Excerpted from To Love and to Cherish Till Death Do Us Part by JOHN H. WESTERHOFF. Copyright © 1990 by John H. Westerhoff. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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