Many wedding sermons are not based on biblical texts, and for a number of reasons.
Should they be? This essay addresses the role of biblical texts in wedding sermons, which must additionally contend with a host of sociological and civil realities. One source of significant input for this essay, and the following three articles in the series, stems from the excellent work of students at Gettysburg Seminary in the yearly wedding proclamation course.
The history of public discourse at weddings has roots in the ancient Greek speech form of epithelium, or wedding speeches. Classical rhetoricians have done research in this area of what are homiletically termed “occasional sermons,” sermons for special events. There were several speeches spoken at ancient weddings; those at different geographical locations such as the groom’s or bride’s home; speeches given in the presence of both families and discourse which emphasized the families’ roles, legal rights and privileges after the wedding.
In other words, the nature of wedding speeches developed early on in such a way that wedding discourses have become skewed between addressing specific and numerous social functions and the intentions of those desiring to bring a textual, religious commentary into the occasion.
Preachers today face the same dual agendas in preparing a wedding sermon. This split is obvious in the sermons I hear students offer in the wedding proclamation course. Whatever the courses requirements, students have heard or been addressed with wedding proclamation which models a number of different approaches that reference both the spiritual (textual) and the civil functions of a wedding. Some are successful in kitting the two together while others are not. Following are some examples.
One type of wedding sermon can be preached as a form of pastoral counseling by a married preacher. The preacher treats the sermon (with or without a biblical text) as an opportunity to offer several themes for what makes for a good marriage. It is one of the most impersonal (and possibly arrogant) forms of wedding proclamation since the preacher is assuming the proclaimer’s marriage is the appropriate model for the couple’s marriage.
One major problem, with this type of sermon was raised by single students in the class. They asked: “What if I am not married? How can I preach well about something with which I have no experience?” Obviously preachers speak of many things which they do not have direct experience. It is at this point that ordination vows become important. One is called — regardless of marital status — to preach the Gospel, that is, a sermon based on Scriptural texts, not one’s personal experiences.
Another form of wedding proclamation has sadly emerged in parishes where ministers preach many wedding sermons. The joke (through actually not very funny) is heard that Pastor X preaches the same sermon at every wedding. This course of homiletical direction sadly disdains the pastoral and personal interactions of the couple and pastor prior to a wedding. Such sermonic repetition demonstrates that the preacher has made no attempt to discuss a preaching text with the couple for their wedding.
One form of wedding proclamation, minus any biblical text, indulges in gimmickry. One student reported that a pastor used the “rock, paper, scissor’ game as a template for every wedding sermon and a way to speak of marriage. Other nuances of this approach including telling stock stories and jokes. The wedding sermon is understood, sans biblical basis, as a light-hearted way to move the entire service along. The preacher plays the role of M.C. The unspoken assumption is, “But we know they don’t listen and just want to get to the reception.” The preacher may as well dispense with the sermon entirely since it seems a variant of the joking discourse which will be done at the wedding reception.
One fairly new type of sermon, which has gained in great popularity in the last few years, is based on a couple’s choice of a “theme wedding.” The couple and their attendants may use dress, ritual, decorations and various speech forms to enact some popular fairytale or well known movie fantasy to stage the wedding. Preachers will use the theme, rather than any biblical text, to reflect on marriage. While this may be an exercise in creative theater on the part of the preacher, there is little to recommend it in terms of forging any connections between what amounts to an unrealistic fantasy world and the realities of the gospel and married life.
With all the rich possibilities that Gospel commentary can bring to many aspects of marriage, I contend that really excellent wedding proclamation is based on a biblical text and one chosen together with the pastor and marrying couple. This kind of preaching is not Sunday morning preaching that uses more lengthy theological discourse, but offers a well-focused, brief sermon on a biblical text that explores how the Christian faith offers resources and an anchor for marriage. Such sermonic efforts requires of the preacher a willingness to honestly engage the demands of the gospel and to decide how most effectively to blend a text-based sermon and the social realities which are part of every wedding.
Next week’s article in Susan Hedahl’s series is, “Choosing Biblical Texts for a Wedding Sermon.”