Church weddings are peculiar social occasions, aren’t they? Politics and religion are the two things that you should never mention down the pub or at a party, yet when Catholics get married Christianity is quite rightly at the heart of it all and it shouldn’t have to stop as soon as you leave the church. Brides and grooms may choose to refer to their faith in their speeches, for example, and it is standard for the priest celebrating Mass to say grace before the wedding breakfast.
But even during church time, maintaining your Christian integrity while being sensitive to a diverse congregation is a challenge. Identity politics is strangling social and political discourse so much that even parts of the Nuptial Mass might cause offence these days.
Some biblical passages commonly read at weddings may still be palatable to the majority of guests. Ephesians 5 tells married couples: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
The Book of Ecclesiasticus reminds husbands that “a good wife is a great blessing” and a wife that her charm “delights her husband”.
But there are also more challenging readings. For example: “A silent wife is the gift of the Lord” (Ecclesiasticus 26:14). Harassed husbands reading this from the refuge of the downstairs loo may well be whispering to themselves “Amen!” But I bet they wouldn’t dare repeat this adage at breakfast time.
Frazzled wives might, in turn, remind their husbands about another piece of Scripture, 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, live considerately with your wives …” But husbands should probably shield themselves before completing the quotation: “… bestowing honour on the woman as the weaker sex.”
All these potentially explosive verses feature in the list of marriage readings available for couples planning their Nuptial Mass in England and Wales. I have several weeks to go before the big day and choosing the right texts is proving a minefield.
The latest guidelines from the bishops of England and Wales say that at least one reading must explicitly mention marriage, so there’s no running away for scaredy cats like me who feel that someone is bound to be offended whatever I choose.
To be fair, Ephesians 5:22 – “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour” – would have annoyed some people decades ago. I imagine that couples seldom opt for it these days.
But in the past five years alone, sentiments once deemed socially acceptable could now provoke severe offence. For example, in Matthew 19:3-6 we hear that Christ told the Pharisees: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are longer two but one.”
Will this part of the Gospel one day carry a “trigger warning”? Would Catholic weddings qualify as “safe spaces” by liberal secular standards?
You may think I’m exaggerating. But we live in age when reading from the Bible in public risks accusations of hate speech, and the idea that society should accommodate reasonably expressed religious belief holds increasingly less sway.
On top of all this, we have lurched from feeling “offended” to feeling “unsafe” when someone expresses an opinion or belief contrary to our own. If we look at the state of student groups at our universities – containing the next generation of politicians and lawyers – I imagine this trend will only get worse.
Consider that aside from denying platforms to men who are pro-life, the National Union of Students recently resorted to a ban on clapping during a debate, insisting on “jazz hands” instead because the noise was causing some delegates distress. How are future generations going to be able to cope with hearing Revelation 21:8, with its blood-curdling warning to “the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol worshippers and deceivers of every sort”?
Back to the drawing board then. The safest pick might be the Wedding at Cana, when Christ turns water into bottomless supplies of sumptuous wine after the hosts run out. What a lovely image: who could object? But at the risk of sounding superstitious, failing to provide enough booze is every bride’s worst nightmare. Would this choice of Gospel be tempting fate?
When I’ve finalised the Order of Service it will be time to turn my attention to practicalities such as decorations, marquees and bathroom provision. I pity brides and grooms of years to come when gender-neutral norms are firmly entrenched and toilet allocation is yet another wedding minefield. When boozy-eyed Uncle Bill mistakenly stumbles into the ladies loo, returning in bewilderment to guests congratulating him on his “bravery”, the poor newlyweds will be stripped of the limelight.
Madeleine Teahan is associate editor of the Catholic Herald