Quaker weddings can be a kind of miracle. More often than not, the family and friends of the bride and groom are unfamiliar, not just with the traditions of Quakers, but also with our beliefs. I understand the bafflement of the parents and the friends of the bride and groom. You can read about Quakers or be told about our ways in more detail than you would care to hear and still not understand. It isn't that Friends do not have rituals; it is just that ours are informal and more subtle than what is familiar to most non-Friends. The structure is less apparent.
Also, we improvise. To those familiar only with other traditions, the value that we place upon inspiration and spontaneous expression is unusual, to say the least. Probably, it seems risky. You can describe a Quaker wedding to other people, but they are not really going to understand the process until they have experienced it. Experience is what Quakers are all about, and there are limits on the ability of human beings to describe experience. You had to be there, as they say. Having been there, you might agree with me that there is something wonderful about Quaker weddings.
The number of non-Friends present may actually be larger than the number of the members of the Quaker Meeting, which creates a challenge for the latter, outnumbered, group. The non-Friends may be baffled by the absence of icons, the lack of presiding clergy, the absence of bibles, prayerbooks, or hymnals, and the decentralized structure of the seating. This is a church? No, it is a Meetinghouse. It may help you to think of Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends), as similar to Christians after the death of Christ--before there was a liturgy, even before the Gospel existed in written form. You may think of it as the church before there was The Church.
There is a pivotal moment in the wedding process. The bride and groom have made their vows, which they do without signal or announcement, but whenever they are ready. Then the parents have each stood and said what they have wanted to say. Some Friends, in turn, have spoken. Out of the extended silence which follows, it slowly becomes clear to the best friends of the bride and of the groom that if they do not speak now, the opportunity will pass and be gone forever.
A person who has been a longtime friend of either the bride or groom rises to the occasion, sometimes with humor, sometimes with tears. The message is usually heartfelt and spontaneous, perhaps what has never before been said so explicitly: this is what you have meant to me. This is why you are important in my life. Only a stone could fail to be moved. As other non-Friends catch on, seizing the opportunity to speak, the emotional release became an avalanche, the mood one of exhilaration.
This is the miracle of the wedding: without realizing it, all of the non-Friends become Quakers, if only for the time being. The meeting achieves a spiritual unity, in which all of that affectionate attention, all the love is being given in a focus upon the couple who are basking in its glory. It is, after all, not every day that all of the people who are important to you gather in one room and make an effort to tell you how much they love you, and why. At a wedding that I attended, the groom's brother suddenly remarked, "Hey, this is really cool!" Exactly! This is us at our best and it feels wonderful.
The other great thing about Quaker weddings is the children's participation. Children love the celebratory aspect. A party with treats, what could be better? Ironically, the Meeting's children are old hands at the ways of Friends. For once, they have a better idea of what is going on than do many of the adults. The children appreciate that there is no barrier to their participation. Nobody tells them to be quiet or to stay back.
The wedding ends with the certificate, which everybody signs. Friends see this as an outward sign of our commitment to care for the couple. Non-Friends may see it as a legal requirement, which, of course, it is, also. Everybody lines up to sign.
I once stood behind a very young girl. I am glad to say that she did not hesitate, nor ask permission, but stepped right up, took the pen and laboriously created the nine block letters of her first name, ELIZABETH. It took her some time and effort to do this. But when she reached the end to the line, she found that there was no room left for her last name. I watched with amusement as she carefully printed her last name on an ascending diagonal which almost touched the line above, yet managed to avoid intruding upon the white space at the edge of the page.
Afterward, a small boy found that she had taken the last of the lower spaces. He could not reach those remaining spaces higher up on the document. He was disappointed, but to his delight, two older boys picked him up and held him horizontally above the table, so that he was able to reach the empty line that waited for his signature. At that moment, I realized that for any child of a Quaker meeting, their spiritual citizenship begins as soon as they are able to sign their name to a wedding certificate.
The implicit message to the children is that their participation is just as important as that of the adults, which is why the children of the meeting should be encouraged to attend. Weddings are good for them, as they are for the adults.
Quakers weddings, 2017