Thinking about a Quaker marriage?

A guide for non-members.

What happens in a Quaker Marriage ceremony?

All Quaker meetings are based on worship in silence. A Quaker meeting for the solemnization of marriage is a slightly modified version of a normal meeting for worship, and not something completely different.

The usual arrangement of the Meeting Room is changed a little when a marriage is taking place. The table is put towards one side of the room for the use of the couple, the witnesses and the registering officer. Some couples like to reserve particular seats for their families. The meeting begins when the first person takes their seat, and by the time appointed for the marriage everyone should be present and sitting in silence. As the procedure may not be familiar to all of the guests, the registering officer or another person appointed to do so stands and gives a brief explanation of what is to follow. There is then a period of silence.

When the couple are ready, they stand, take each other by the hand, and make the official declarations. The man and woman may decide which of them speaks first.

Friend, I take this my friend [name] to be my wife, promising, through divine assistance, to be unto her a loving and faithful husband, so long as we both on earth shall live.

Friend, I take this my friend [name] to be my husband, promising, through divine assistance, to be unto him a loving and faithful wife, so long as we both on earth shall live.

The declaration may be prefaced by In the presence of God or In the fear of the Lord and in the presence of this assembly. The phrase through divine assistance may be replaced by the words with God's help. The phrase so long as we both on earth shall live may be replaced by the words until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us.

The couple sign the marriage certificate, and two witnesses sign immediately afterwards. The Registering Officer reads the declaration aloud. There is then a further period of silence, in which anyone present may stand and speak if they feel that this would contribute to the spirit of worship. The most helpful contributions are usually brief, and well separated from each other by periods of silence. This is a time of shared worship in which all may ask for God's blessing on the marriage and offer their prayers for the couple. It is quite common for helpful contributions to come from people who have never been to a Quaker meeting before. Many people prefer to avoid conventional religious language, and to express their love and support for the couple in whatever words they find most natural.

Half an hour is usually allowed for the meeting, but this is flexible, and it will be allowed to continue for as long as necessary. The end of the silent worship is indicated when an elder shakes hands with the person next to them. Everyone else shakes hands with their neighbours and then the couple, the Registering Officer and the witnesses leave to complete the register. While this is being done, everyone who heard the declarations is invited to sign the marriage certificate, so making a permanent record of everyone who was present.

Who is entitled to a Quaker marriage?

When the Quaker movement began the only religious marriage ceremony available was a service in an Anglican church, and Quakers did not feel able to make use of this, so they set up their own marriage procedure. Eventually this was legally recognised, but only for couples who were both Quakers. This caused a great deal of unhappiness until the law was changed to permit marriages in which or both of the couple were not in membership.

The basis of a Friends' marriage remains the same as in the early days of the Society. (Friend is an alternative word for a Quaker) The simple Quaker wedding where the couple, together with their friends, gather in worship is for Friends the most natural setting for the two concerned to make a commitment to each other in the presence of God. With their declaration they take each other freely and equally as life-long partners, committing themselves to joining their lives in loving companionship, asking God's blessing on their union. They believe that, whatever stresses and strains may arise in the relationship, these can be resolved if both partners are able and willing to trust each other in a generous spirit. With God's help their love for each other can deepen and change in a lifetime of marriage together.

The marriage is not the work of Quaker officials, who simply carry out the legal requirements and maintain proper records. Quakers believe that they are witnesses to a solemn contract made in the presence of God in a meeting for worship. On the other hand, those who attend the meeting are not present merely as witnesses; they accept the responsibility to uphold and assist the couple throughout their married lives by their prayers, friendship and practical assistance.

Many people who come to meeting for worship on a regular basis have become very much a part of the meeting, even if they have not formally become members, and Friends try to minimise the distinction between members and attenders. Many attenders understand and accept the Quaker view of marriage, and there would be very little difficulty in their getting permission to marry in meeting. We are not under any obligation to solemnize a marriage for anyone who is not one of our members, and we need to be satisfied that non-members who apply are in unity with our beliefs about the religious nature of marriage.

It is not easy to be sure that applicants who are unknown to us have a real understanding and acceptance of what we believe, and it would not be possible for a meeting to make a real act of commitment to the future support of the couple if it was not likely to see them again, so we are cautious about accepting requests from people who are new to us. Nevertheless, our procedures have a certain degree of flexibility, and we can sometimes recognise and respond to unusual circumstances.

When couples who are not in membership wish to consider marriage in a Quaker meeting they need to consult the Registering Officer. Officers usually have advisors, and will meet with the couple so that all can come to some understanding upon which a meaningful decision can be made about whether a Quaker ceremony would be appropriate. The Registering Officer can make a decision, but may wish to refer the matter to the Monthly Meeting (the local body on whose behalf the officer acts). It is most likely that permission will be granted when the couple have an existing relationship with the meeting, or it seems likely that the initial approach concerning the marriage is likely to be followed by a long-term commitment to the meeting.

The couple are likely to be guided to a right decision if they attend a meeting for worship as frequently as possible before the marriage. This will help with another of the requirements, that each of them should have a written recommendation from two adult members of the Society.

May divorced persons remarry?

Quakers have a corporate testimony to the sanctity and life-long nature of marriage, but they do not regard failure in this or any other area of life as final. Permission for a remarriage is not a right, but may be granted after careful enquiry. The Registering Officer will generally be guided by advisors who can consider the application in confidence so that detailed information is restricted to the smallest number of people who need to know. Before any ceremony the Registering Officer must see a copy of the decree absolute.

Meetings for Clearness.

Quakers in Britain are beginning to reinstate an old practice that has continued and been found valuable in other countries, that of holding a 'meeting for clearness.' This is a small number of invited people who meet in worship to help the meeting and the couple to decide whether the Quaker form of marriage is right for them. This is not a requirement of Lewes Monthly Meeting, but either the meeting or the couple may request one if it seems likely to be of help.

What are the legal procedures?

Two officials deal with the legal process. The Quaker official is the Registering Officer, and the civil official, from the Office of Births, Marriage and Deaths, is the Superintendent Registrar.

The first step is to contact the Registering Officer, so that general issues can be discussed, and so that the date and time of the proposed marriage can be agreed on. The Meeting House may be already booked for some dates, and the Registering Officer may have prior commitments.

The couple will need to complete several forms before the Registering Officer supplies them with the form for the joint declaration of intention to marry, in which the place of intended marriage must be stated, and the date and time if known. They take this to their local Superintendent Registrar with copies of their birth certificates, and, if necessary, a copy of their Decree Absolute. They will be provided with a certificate which will become valid when six weeks have elapsed, and which remains valid for twelve months. For each party who is not in membership the Registering Officer will provide a form which must record the written recommendation of two adult members.

There is an alternative procedure, marriage by licence (in which a licence is issued by the Superintendent Registrar), but this is rarely used by Friends.

Although, in theory, it would be possible to complete the procedures within six weeks, it would be very unwise to attempt to do so, since any unexpected delay might cause great difficulty. The Registering Officer should have at least three months notice of the intended marriage if possible. Public notice of the intended marriage will be given in advance at the meeting where it is to take place. The marriage cannot take place until the Registering Officer is in possession of the certificate or license.

The preceding paragraphs are only a brief informal summary of the necessarily procedures which need to be completed very carefully. The Registering Officer must be consulted as soon as possible to ensure that the requirements of the law and of the Religious Society of Friends are completed in time for the marriage. These procedures are defined by the law, the current edition of Quaker Faith and Practice, and the local Monthly Meeting.

Practical details.

One of the essential characteristics of a Quaker wedding is simplicity. The couple may wear what they choose. Nobody 'gives away the bride', and wedding rings have no formal part in the ceremony, although rings may be exchanged after the declaration if the couple choose. Photography and recording are not permitted during the ceremony, although arrangements may be made to take photographs in the meeting room before or afterwards.

In addition to the legal documents which need to be completed, there will be a Quaker certificate recording the declarations which the couple have made. The Registering Officer can explain where a preprinted one can be purchased, in scroll or booklet form, but those who have access to artists or calligraphers may have their own prepared, provided that it follows the prescribed wording.

Children are welcome, and if advance notice is given arrangements can be made for the younger ones to be cared for outside of the meeting room. It is good to have them present while the declaration is being made, and, like everyone else present, they are encouraged to sign their names on the certificate.

Tea and coffee are usually offered in another room after the meeting. Arrangements may be made to use the meeting premises for the reception, but alcoholic drinks are not permitted.

Alternatives

Sometimes couples wish to express their commitment to each other in a Quaker meeting in a way other than a marriage ceremony. This may happen when the parties are already married or are about to be married, perhaps in a registry office, and want to acknowledge a spiritual dimension to their relationship. In this case Friends can arrange 'a meeting for worship in loving support of their marriage.' The procedure during the meeting is very similar, but the form of the declaration is different, to make quite clear that the ceremony is not a marriage ceremony.

There are no set words for the declaration, but one example is as follows:- Friends, I have taken my friend [name] as my wife, and now declare that with God's help I will seek to be a loving and faithful husband to her so long as we both on earth shall live. A copy of this declaration can be prepared in advance, and signed by the couple and all present at the meeting. Although it has no legal effect it provides the couple with a lasting reminder of the occasion and of all who were present.

Sometimes a couple belong to different denominations. It is possible, although unusual for a couple who have associations with two churches or other religious bodies to have two separate marriage ceremonies provided that they take place on the same day.

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