Habitual rituals should be open to change

The Rev Dr Elizabeth Macfarlane, chaplain and fellow of St John’s College, Oxford

The Rev Dr Elizabeth Macfarlane, chaplain and fellow of St John’s College, Oxford

First published in News

IT'S wedding season in college. The quiet rhythms of twice-weekly choral evensong are gone, replaced by the high-octane pressures of what we hope are services that mark the beginning of life-long marriage.

If something slips up at Evensong, it’s not the end of the world, but for wedding services there’s a lingering expectation of perfection. It is, after all, once in a lifetime.

Even with plenty of rehearsal time, and years of working together, the choir and I know we can’t guarantee a flawless performance. When people assemble for a wedding from all over the world, and many have parts to play in reading or providing music, the chances of getting everything perfect seem pretty slim, and yet we strive to get it right for each couple, according to their particular wishes.

This week I’ll conduct two marriages, and as the couples wish, I shall be using two different forms of the marriage service that are available in the Church of England.

One is the old rite, the other the more recent service in contemporary language, which is the one most couples choose. But, contrary to popular imagination, neither couple will say ‘I do’ because, on the whole, we don’t – we replaced it with ‘I will’ rather a long time ago.

It’s a testament to the power of the popular imagination that that’s still what people expect to say, or to hear said, and I wonder whether in 50 years’ time those who bring their children for baptism will still expect to hear a mention of the devil.

A fortnight ago, the Church of England’s parliament, the General Synod, decided that there was a good case for moving away from some of the language used in the baptism service, and the headlines told us that – along with Wonga – the Church of England was getting rid of the devil.

It always surprises me that the media pays any attention to Synod, but when it does, it’s usually because there’s change in the air.

Of course, it wasn’t the devil that drew the headlines last week, so much as the vote on whether women can be bishops (to quote Bob the Builder, yes we can).

But in both instances, interest focused on anxieties about change. Is it okay to let go of the past, and do something different? Do we lose connection with the past if we do something new?

In the most recent marriage service, it’s not just the couple who make a commitment: everyone presents promises to support them in their marriage now and in the future.

That’s an innovation, something we didn’t ask in the older service. And it’s a change for the better, because it recognises that it takes a lot more than the good will of two people to make a marriage work. We’re all involved.

The couples who marry in St John’s and elsewhere this week are proof that change is not loss.

What the new marriage service requires of us all is that we’re committed to the future not the past.

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