Friday, June 20, 2014

W is for Weddings

peonies from my parents' garden
My mother provided most of the flowers (a different year than these) for our wedding.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 1999

We Quakers in unprogrammed Meetings tend to receive more questions about weddings than just about any other subject, with the exception of the peace testimony and the Meeting for Worship itself. Indeed, now that “high season” for nuptials is upon us,  many of us who are or have been married will find ourselves attending weddings outside the Religious Society and fielding questions from a fellow guest who comments, in all innocence, “That was a lovely ceremony. It reminded me of ours. What was yours like?” If we were married under what we Friends call “the care of the Meeting” or otherwise had a ceremony with Quaker elements, then we say “Not exactly,” and hope that the best man is about to make a speech. We don’t care what kind of speech it will be. As much as Friends enjoy talking about Quaker traditions (and, especially, giving our own spin on them), that isn’t the time. (I am going to a colleague’s wedding tomorrow, and I wonder if this question will come up.)

If marriage reflects most of the fundamental elements of a culture, then Quaker marriage is a microcosm of our own lives as a Religious Society. For this reason, Friends view the wedding as only one day (albeit the one without which others do not exist) in what we hope will be a life-long relationship. It is also not surprising that the Quaker wedding ceremony is a form of the same Meeting for Worship that forms the focus of our spiritual lives.

So, Friends and friends, here is my “take” on Quaker marriage procedures. Bearing in mind that unprogrammed Friends in different places have different procedures (here are links to those in Britain Yearly Meeting , Canadian Yearly Meeting, the most recent revisions from New England Yearly Meeting, as well as the generic Wikipedia article on Quaker weddings), I speak as an amateur photographer who takes candid shots at weddings of all types:  we need to have lots of “takes,” and we know that not all of them will come out....

The practicalities of Quaker marriage procedure:

The aspect of the traditional unprogrammed Quaker wedding that most confuses the general public is the fact that we do not have a designated official such as a minister or priest to marry us. So, just how do unprogrammed Quakers go about getting married, and what are the traditional beliefs about the procedure?  First, for someone to get married under the care of a Quaker Meeting, one or both parties must be either a member or an attender well known to the group. There is no need for both parties to be Quakers: episodes in the movie The Friendly Persuasion, when Friends were forced out of Meeting for marrying non-members, were an emblem of a dying tradition; demographic and humanitarian considerations entailed an about-face by approximately 1860. If neither party has a personal connection to a Quaker Meeting, the couple is almost invariably advised to go elsewhere, perhaps using Quaker elements in their wedding if they so desire.

Secondly, the couple involved need a reasonable amount of lead time. Two months is the absolute minimum in North America, but three or four months is the lower bound in practical terms. (Friends in the various parts of the United Kingdom have their own legal timetable.) The couple writes a letter (“We, A. and B., with thus-and-such a connection with Monthly Meeting X, desire to be married under its care on approximately Month/Day/Year” is all that is needed) and sends or delivers it to the Meeting, usually to the clerk. The letter is then added to the agenda at the Monthly Meeting for Worship for Business.

What happens next depends to some extent on the jurisdiction; I will describe a composite of North American unprogrammed Meetings. Unless there is a spectacularly obvious problem (e.g., the couple is completely unknown to the Meeting), those present appoint a committee to meet with the couple and present a recommendation to the next monthly business session. This committee is called the clearness committee and consists of several people. Some Yearly Meetings specify four Friends, and others are less definite; British Friends do not always use a clearness committee. The purpose of the clearness committee is to ascertain to the extent possible whether there is any impediment to the marriage of the couple and whether the Meeting is the right entity to take the marriage under its care. In other words, the Meeting needs to be clear that it is acting wisely by doing so. (The slang term couples sometimes use for this procedure is “passing Meeting,” in the same way students talk about passing their exams.)

While the proceedings of a clearness committee are confidential, a committee will generally try to ascertain whether one or both of the couple has a reasonable connection to the meeting, if immediate family members are comfortable with the proposed marriage, and whether there are “red flag” issues that might suggest caution or a delay. Each party is also addressed privately on the off chance that there is some issue that could derail the proceedings but which may be problematical to address before the entire group (for instance, if a potential spouse has an alcohol problem). Members of a clearness committee usually do not have any professional expertise in counseling, pastoral or otherwise, and they are aware of this limitation. Clearness committee meetings are not meant to be a judicial cross-examination, although people often fear that this could be the case. Quakerdom is full of couples who phone city hall on the day before their clearness committee meeting out of fear —usually unjustified— they would need to make alternate arrangements.

Only when the both the clearness committee and the Monthly Meeting recommend taking the marriage under its care can invitations go out. At this point the Meeting also appoints an oversight committee. These Friends may or may not be the same people as the clearness committee. The oversight committee is responsible for helping the couple with practical arrangements and keeping, well, oversight, to ensure that ostentation is avoided (although that usually is not a problem, given the costs of weddings) and that Friends’ procedures and customs are followed. Members of oversight committees tend to find pleasure in being useful; they may need to make a dash to the florist or salt the Meeting House driveway, depending on circumstances. The oversight committee also needs a draft of the couple’s intended promises, to ascertain that they are consistent with Quaker practice and any requirements of the specific Yearly Meeting and jurisdiction. These promises are ideally kept short enough that they can be memorized, although people sometimes make longer declarations. Finally, to the extent humanly possible, committee members also encourage the couple to feel comfortable coming to them if they encounter issues in their marriage.

Once the vows have been approved, the couple will need to find a calligrapher to write out the Quaker marriage certificate. The Quaker marriage certificate documents the religious procedure from the Monthly Meeting approval through to the ceremony itself; this in turn provides the legal basis for the Friend who represents the Meeting to sign the government marriage license. The specifics of the document vary according to Yearly Meeting, the wording of the promises, and whether either or both members of the pair have a name change upon marriage. The linked example from New England Yearly Meeting is typical. Couples take care to get the certificate done well, as they may want the certificate framed and displayed in their home.

The couple will also have to make sure the legal requirements are met. Because their are no ordained clergy involved with unprogrammed Friends, these requirements vary according to jurisdiction and are in addition to those needed for ordinary marriage licenses. In some places, the clerk of the Monthly Meeting signs on behalf of the Meeting; in others, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, each Meeting has a registering officer.

For a religion with simplicity as a core testimony, Quaker marriage procedures and the theology behind them may seem complex. Fortunately, Quaker weddings themselves are reasonably straightforward. Depending on the jurisdiction, the needs of the people involved, and whether the Meeting owns its own premises, the ceremony may or may not be held in a Meeting House. (Meeting Houses are not consecrated, so these requirements are legal and practical and not theological.) In addition to space for the guests, the venue is typically set up with two or three benches or six or eight chairs at the back of the room. This special seating is for for the couple, the oversight committee, and any attendants. (In traditional Meeting Houses, these seats called the “facing benches,” as they face the rest of the worshippers.) There will be a small table in front of the couple, which will hold the certificate during the ceremony.

The guests assemble. They rise when the couple walk in together holding hands. Soon all are seated. Since music has long been a part of Quaker weddings, very often there is music until the couple sit down and the ceremony “officially” begins. Once people are seated, an experienced Friend (often a member of the clearness and/or oversight committee) explains how Quaker weddings work for the benefit of guests who may be unfamiliar with them. Those present then sit in expectant silence until the couple rise and say their promises. The traditional promises are in simple language. Britain has a fixed set of choices for the declaration, as described in Section 16.42 of Quaker Faith and Practice. The traditional New England version, “In the presence of God and before these friends, I, A., take thee, B., to be my spouse/wife/husband, promising to be a loving and faithful spouse/husband/wife unto thee as long as we both shall live” is similar to both the British and other North American declarations. If rings are used, they are exchanged then.

At this point a Friend appointed for the task reads the Quaker certificate, which the couple sign. Depending on the jurisdiction and the couple’s preferences, the legal documents may be signed now or after the ceremony.

Once the couple has signed the certificate, the marriage ceremony becomes more like an “ordinary” Meeting for Worship, with opportunity for those to speak who are so moved. There are a couple of exceptions to the “ordinary:” sometimes the couple will make prior arrangements for a short reading or a musical offering (which can be useful if they are afraid guests will be reluctant to provide vocal ministry), and the couple end the Meeting by kissing. The guests then shake hands, and the couple leave, often to more music. As soon as possible, everyone present signs the Quaker marriage certificate.

Religious considerations behind Quaker marriage procedures:

Friends believe that we are married by God when we stand and make our marriage declarations to each other. Theoretically, since Quakers’ words are supposed to be their deeds, some Friends do not believe that the marriage guests are needed as witnesses. (As of June 1, 2014, this is the stance of the author of the relevant Wikipedia article; check also the Oxford book.) Before someone says that the human race cannot function with so little bureaucracy, it is worth remembering that the ancient Romans required neither witnesses nor paperwork for their marriages, and for some of the same reasons.

However, the weight of Quaker history and theology says something very different about witnesses. This is made clear in Britain Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Faith and Practice: “It was important to early Friends that their marriages should be recognized in law, and they instituted the witnessing of a certificate by all present.” (Sect. 16.04) Likewise, the Quaker marriage certificate typically reads, “and they, as witnesses thereof, did hereby set their hands” (or words to that effect). Those present at a Quaker wedding are the embodiment of the Meeting as a community— “the priesthood of believers,” as it were— who rely on and offer the same Divine assistance that the couple promises to seek in their life together. Witnesses also allow for recognition by the state. While the Meeting does not marry the couple (Quakers emphasize that people are “married under (or in) the care of the Meeting,” which is different from “married by the Meeting”), Friends have always believed in the importance of being able to have our marriages receive legal recognition. The emphasis on legality is in part because of our belief in equality —that our marriages are equal to anyone else’s— but also because of our history of surviving persecution. While this may seem like a historical point to opposite-gender couples in English-speaking jurisdictions where Quaker marriages have long been accepted under the law, when our members and attenders in same-sex relationships were denied the same right, many Friends quickly saw that there was nothing “historical” about the persecution.

Some frequently asked questions (with a note that if twelve Quakers answer these questions, there may be thirteen answers to some of these questions):

1. Are there requirements or restrictions on who is invited to the wedding?

Since the Meeting has a theological and practical role in Quaker marriage, members and attenders of the Meeting(s) involved are invited in addition to friends and family. Babysitting is often arranged for small children. If the Meeting is large, those who do not know the couple well will use discretion if the turnout appears likely to be high. In any case, it is appropriate to set a reasonable deadline to reply to this open invitation.

2. Do Quakers always use the traditional Quaker marriage procedure? For instance, if someone is marrying someone who is not a Quaker, can Quaker marriage traditions be combined with those of other faiths?

Not all Friends use the traditional Quaker marriage procedure, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people want or need a smaller guest list. Not everyone has the time or the inclination to meet with a clearness committee. Some are not living near a Meeting. Others have a relative or friend who is licensed to perform marriages and whom they would like to ask to serve in that capacity. In these cases, people often design a ceremony with some or mostly Quaker elements but arrange an officiant (religious or secular) from elsewhere.

The rate of intermarriage between Friends and those of other faith traditions, or of none, is very high. Therefore, it is very common to see weddings combining elements of Quaker and other faith traditions. A period of silent worship, with guests encouraged to offer vocal ministry, and a Quaker-style marriage certificate tailored to the couple’s needs are common choices. Unless one partner has no religious affiliation, these weddings are typically not under the care of the Meeting, although the couple may still ask for an informal clearness committee.

When Friends get married outside of the Meeting, the Meeting will try to find some way to wish them well. As far as this author knows, there have been no ecclesiastical sanctions for a Quaker from an unprogrammed Meeting marrying someone from outside of Friends, or marrying in a non-Quaker ceremony, for about 150 years. We welcome spouses and partners who are not Friends to participate in the life of the Meeting, or not, as they feel so moved. Friends are delighted when children join the family, whether or not these children are raised as Quakers.

3. What happens if the couple belong to different Meetings?

One or both Meetings may be involved. It depends on circumstances and personal choice. If more than one Meeting is involved, the main considerations are that legal requirements are met and that reasonable efforts are made to ensure that people from both Meetings can attend. My husband and I did this ourselves, with Meetings from two Yearly Meetings in different countries. (That’s not as exotic as it sounds; one Meeting is in Canada and the other in New England, and the driving distance between them is less than between many places in either country.) We asked if one Meeting could handle the clearness and the other the oversight; they were kind enough to oblige. Friends from both attended the wedding. Come to think of it, the person who did our certificate was from a third Meeting.

Sometimes Friends will “borrow” the Meeting House of another Meeting for the ceremony. (This could entail involving a third Meeting in some cases.) In this case, Friends from the host Meeting are also welcome as guests.

4. Are there attendants (bridesmaids and groomsmen)?

The Wikipedia article says that Quaker weddings do not have attendants, and this author knows of many people who did not have any. However, she also knows of Friends who did. For those who do not plan to have attendants, it is worth considering well in advance who will handle the bouquet and rings (if the couple plan to use rings).

5. Why are Quaker brides not “given away?”

Friends have always believed in the equality of wives and husbands, and they have never believed that a daughter was the property of her parents (or a son the property of his, for that matter). In anthropological terms, Quakers are known as pioneers in the “companionate marriage.” In the earlier periods of Quakerism, when the monthly business sessions were divided between men and women, the women’s Meeting for Business handled requests for marriage, thus providing an important power base for Quaker women.

Then in the marriage union, the independence of the husband and wife will be equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.
            —the nineteenth century Quaker feminist leader Lucretia Mott, on the benefits of gender equality for marriage; "Speech of Lucretia Mott, Philadelphia, 1849," History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1: 1848-1861, pp. 375. This passage is an excerpt from a much longer discussion of Quaker weddings and marriage as an institution in the broader culture.

6. Do Quakers make good use of their clearness and oversight committees, or are they bureaucratic hoops?

If clearness and oversight committees are doing their job, they can be helpful in a variety of ways. Sometimes these are unexpected and may even occur after the fact.

Given that the workings of such committees are personal and confidential, I will insert a personal anecdote —admittedly an extreme one— to give some idea as to how clearness and oversight function in general terms in a Quaker context.

After my husband and I had been married about ten years, we decided to sell our first house and buy another. The new house was in a different location; I got the idea for that location based on a comment a member of our clearness committee had made when we met with them.

We lost our initial offer when we refused to participate in a bidding war. (Is a bidding war a violation of Friends’ testimony against gambling, or is it not? Is a “bidding war” violent in definition and practice?) Late on December 23 of the year in question, a day when I was struck by a car while walking across the street and my husband passed several hours watching prisoners from the local penitentiary being brought into the hospital in handcuffs and chains in order to access medical attention as I, too, was checked out (I had only cuts and bruises), our realtor phoned that the house was again available. He could fax the forms to us in the morning; we merely needed to round up two witnesses who were not related us.

Now, where can a Quaker couple get two witnesses on the morning of Christmas Eve? You guessed it. We phoned a member of our oversight committee from a decade prior, a Friend who we knew was at home over Christmas. She and her husband were happy to meet us right away. Her husband, also a Quaker, was by coincidence retired from a bank (not from our bank, just to clarify). I hobbled into their living room. They sat us down and immediately asked why were planning to move, if we both felt clear that it was time to move, if we could afford to buy the house, and why we were drawn to that particular property. Would it meet our needs for at least the medium term? Would we need to renovate? What did it look like? Did we have pictures? We answered the questions. Only then did the pens come out. We moved in on April 1 of the following year. We still own the house. 

"Christmas tree" on Christmas Day, many years later
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2012

7. Do Friends have a particular procedure for divorce, and do they permit divorced couples whose former spouses are still living to marry under the care of the Meeting?

Friends’ Meetings recognize divorces promulgated under civil law. Quakers themselves have no procedure for divorce, although those in the process of a separation or a divorce sometimes request a clearness committee or ask the Meeting to help them in some other way to mark this change in their lives.

Most Yearly Meetings whose local Meetings are entirely or predominantly in the unprogrammed tradition have procedures permitting the remarriage of divorced persons after the manner of Friends, provided that discretion is used by the clearness committee (if any) and the Meeting as a whole. In Britian, area meetings are given discretion whether or not to permit such remarriages (Quaker F & P Sect. 16.27). Friends will be particularly concerned about the well-being of any children involved. They will also need to ascertain that divorce decrees are final, and that any person who has been divorced has all necessary documents in hand before remarrying, especially if the new marriage is in a different jurisdiction from the divorce.

8. Do Friends permit same-sex couples and those who are transgender to be married under the care of the Meeting?

Depending on the Meeting and the jurisdiction, the answer can range from “yes” to “no.” As in civil law, the situation is rapidly changing, and Friends should seek local advice. The comments below are a reflection of the author’s understanding as of June 1, 2014 and are not a substitute for the most recent official information.

Britain Yearly Meeting, the oldest Yearly Meeting among Friends, approved marriage equality in 2009 and requested that Parliament do the same, which would permit them to marry same-gender couples in the care of the Meeting. Legislation to allow this came into effect earlier in 2014. Canadian Yearly Meeting supported marriage equality under civil law when that subject came up in 2003, but at the same time it noted some local differences in its own practice. Still other Yearly Meetings cover more than one jurisdiction and Quaker tradition (programmed or unprogrammed); both factors may result in a range of what is possible. For example, Quaker Meetings in Vermont use identical procedures for same-gender and opposite-gender couples, as is true under civil law, but not all Meetings in other New England states have this policy, despite having civil marriage equality in those jurisdictions. Conversely, most (or perhaps all) Yearly Meetings in the pastoral tradition do not take same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies under their care. (source for information on pastoral Meetings: The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, 2013, pp. 452-5, with references updated to ca. 2011) Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns maintains a list of relevant marriage minutes (decisions).

9. Do Quakers ever use pre-nuptial agreements?

This is not a topic typically discussed in Faith and Practice. That said, because Quakers are concerned that the legal and social rights of all family members be upheld, it would be surprising if some Quakers did not have “pre-nups” to protect the rights of children from a previous relationship, or to separate family and business finances. As a general principle, Friends might be concerned about possible abuse as well as appropriate use of such arrangements for either children or spouses, whether it is a first or subsequent marriage for one or both partners.

Friends Meetings that support marriage equality in jurisdictions where same-gender marriage is not a part of civil law often make obtaining a suitable legal package a precondition for taking a same-gender partnership under the care of the Meeting. (See Oxford Introduction to Quaker Studies for citation on the latter.)

10. What are the rules for photography and videos?

Guests are not usually permitted to take pictures of any sort during the ceremony itself. People will be told if there is an exception. With permission of the oversight committee, some couples hire a photographer to unobtrusively photograph key parts of the ceremony, and/or to make a video for family members who cannot attend. (The key word here is “unobtrusively.”)

11. Given that potluck dinners are an integral part of Quaker culture, who provides the food at the reception?

This depends on logistics and preference. Information will go out in the invitation if a potluck is involved.

12. Can a couple who has been married under other auspices have their marriage be taken under the care of the Meeting at a later stage?

Yes. The procedure is similar to that of a wedding, although there are no legalities, and there is not always a ceremony involved. Having an existing marriage brought under the care of the Meeting is a matter of choice, however. Quakers recognize marriages solemnized elsewhere and thus do not require members to get married again according to Friends’ usage.

13. Is alcohol allowed at the reception?

This varies. Much depends on the jurisdiction, the specific venue, the Meeting, and the beliefs of those involved. Many Meeting Houses do not permit alcohol on their premises, and some Meetings do not allow alcohol at any Meeting-related event. There may be questions of insurance liability as well as principle or legal constraints.

14. Is dancing permitted at the reception?

This author has not heard of a problem approving dancing at a reception for a marriage held in the care of an unprogrammed Meeting, but the overall parameters for the reception need to be sorted out with the oversight committee before invitations are sent out.

15. Can a couple have a destination wedding under the care of a Quaker Meeting?

Since the Meeting needs to know one or both of the parties involved,  the answer is probably “no,” unless that destination is one where the couple have substantial long-term connections. The cost of travel for participants may also be an impediment. Finally, there no Quaker Meetings in some of the places people consider for a destination wedding.

However, the comments under #2 above provide several options for incorporating Quaker elements into a destination wedding whose legal requirements are handled outside of the Meeting.

16. What are the traditions for gift giving?

Like everyone else, Friends differ enormously in their needs. People will usually say what their preference is, either in the invitation itself or informally by word of mouth. If someone says “no gifts” and a guest wishes to give one, it may be possible to make a donation in the couple’s name.

I will give another personal anecdote as a cautionary tale about the sentiments that may be involved in wedding gifts. Although we were married a generation ago, we still have most of our wedding presents and think of the givers when we use them. The first breakage occurred several years after we got married. I was out of town, and my husband came home to find out that the cat had stepped into a cut glass fruit bowl we had received, and smashed it. I was so upset that only several hours later did I realize that she could have bled to death before anyone discovered the accident. (As it happened, I found a near clone for the bowl in a shop the next day. The cat lived to be nineteen.)

Acknowledgements: in addition to the members of our own clearness and oversight committees and their spouses, I would like to thank my step-mother, who coincidentally asked a number of questions about Quaker marriage procedure while I was writing this post and no doubt got more than she bargained for.

"wedding gift:" see discussion above
The flowers were from a birthday gift.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014


  1. Thanks Kristin. I'm very fond of that Lucretia Mott quote.

  2. Thanks Kristin. I knew a great deal of this, but enjoyed reading it from a different perspective.

  3. Thanks Kristin, interesting to read this from a different perspective. As a registering officer in BYM I'm becoming very familiar with QF&P, and very willing to answer questions about how and why Quakers do weddings differently.