Every wedding is exciting: a high point in the life of the couple getting married and a chance for their family and friends to celebrate the beginning of a new stage of their relationship. A Quaker wedding doesn't differ from other ceremonies in this respect, although first-time guests at a Quaker wedding can expect some variations. I'll share a few of those here.
The wedding ceremony
It all starts at the Quaker meeting house, where guests will arrive and take a seat in a circle. The meeting for worship will begin as people settle in to the stillness and quiet. In time, the couple will arrive. There is no best man, no bridal party, and the couple arrive, walk in and sit down together.
The couple, when they are ready will stand, and say their vows in turn, asking for divine assistance in promising to be a loving and faithful spouse. For Quakers, marriage is a commitment made between two people and God, and the vows reflect this aspect of our faith.
After that, a Quaker appointed as the registering officer for the meeting will read the Quaker marriage certificate aloud. The couple and a witness will sign it then, and the meeting for worship will continue.
From this point, any person present, whether a Quaker or not, may speak to share words of support or encouragement for the couple. Speaking in a meeting for worship is known as ministry, and each contribution is given space for others to reflect upon what is said, so people don't all speak at once.
When the meeting for worship comes to a close, everyone present signs the big Quaker marriage certificate – even little children who can hardly write can make their own mark. Many people say that this simple signing ceremony is one of their favourite parts of Quaker weddings.
Why the big certificate?
The first Quaker marriages were not legal, but we didn't want to marry secretly. To be as public as possible, everyone who witnessed the Quaker wedding was asked to sign a certificate saying that the couple was married. This helped prove to the civil authorities that the marriage should be recognised. Now Quaker marriages are legal, the tradition of the certificate has continued. For many couples it is more than just a pleasant memento of the day, but reminds them of the spiritual commitment they have made to each other in front of witnesses.
My colleague Suki Ferguson has yet to attend a Quaker wedding but is impressed by the way it all works. "A friend explained Quaker weddings to me and they sound so refreshing. I love that there is no expectation around who gets to speaks and who doesn't - whoever feels moved to speak during the meeting for worship may do so.
“I struggle with wedding traditions where the speeches come from the father of the bride and the best man, and the ceremony is conducted by a (usually male) religious official. I've been to weddings where the women of the family do not speak, and the loving perspectives of friends and family members go unheard. The Quaker approach sounds wonderfully open and equal, and much more personal somehow."
How to have a Quaker marriage
Quakers don't restrict marriage on the basis of divorce or gender. The couple getting married must show that they have a connection with the Quaker faith community. If that is in place, they then follow the usual civil marriage procedures, and complete an application to marry in a Quaker meeting. The meeting then considers this application, and if approved, the next step is to set the date.
Quakers have always seen marriage as a union of equals, as a spiritual union as well as a physical and legal one. It is something that we think should be made in public, and witnessed by others, as well as being recognised by law. What is special, is that we consider a marriage to be a commitment of two people in the eyes of God: whether they be two women, two men or a man and a woman.
I find that attending a Quaker wedding is very joyful. The couple are at the centre of much prayer, upholding and excitement. Seeing the big Quaker certificate sitting on the table in front of the couple reminds me of the struggle that Friends had for our marriages to be recognised. When I sign the certificate, I do so with love, knowing that I am offering my support for the couple as they continue on their journey.