Planning to attend a Quaker wedding? Here’s what you can expect.
Hannah Mayer: I did not expect to be changed by becoming married, because I couldn’t tell that anything would be different. But being in the room in front of my whole community and Eric’s whole community and being so deeply seen in our connection and affirmed in our connection is incredible, and it did something to relax our relationship I think. And it’s different for me coming out of it in a way that I don’t think it would have been if we hadn’t had a Quaker ceremony.
What to Expect in a Quaker Wedding
Sterling Duns: So it’s your first Quaker wedding? What I would recommend doing, one: silence your cell phone because there’s going to be a lot of quiet—a lot of quiet.
Anna McCormally: If you’re invited to a Quaker wedding, it’s because the couple getting married really values you, and that they want you with them as they make these vows.
Valerie Brown: So I think what to expect at a Quaker wedding is maybe the opposite of what many weddings can be: very lavish. There is a real heart of simplicity and there’s such elegance and beauty in that simplicity. So come prepared for the kind of simplicity that is both elegant and beautiful, and to find the beauty in that simplicity.
By the Power Vested in Us
Traci Hjelt Sullivan: Well, the most unique thing about a Quaker wedding is there is no officiant at the front of the room marrying the couple. The couple are marrying themselves. And there are a couple of ways that you can think of that. You can think of it as God has already married the couple in their hearts, and they are publicly attesting to that and their community is witnessing and affirming that’s true. The other way you can understand it is that the couple is in that moment marrying each other before a community.
Anna McCormally: Quakers believe that no one can marry a couple except the two of them and God, that it would be untrue to have an officiant say, “I’m pronouncing you. You’re married.” The only person who can say you’re married is you and your partner and God and the space that you leave for God in your relationship.
Laura Goren: So rather than a pastor or a minister marrying the couple, it is the people getting married themselves who are doing so, and they’re doing so before God and their gathered community and they’re making a promise that they’ll work hard and abide by their vows and the community in return is making a promise that they’ll support the couple.
What to Wear
Traci Hjelt Sullivan: You may wonder what you should wear to a Quaker wedding. My grandfather asked me this question about two months before our wedding, and I told him, “Grandpa, there’s going to be people there in anything from nice jeans to three piece suits. There won’t be any cutoffs and there won’t be any tuxedos.” And that pretty much describes every wedding I’ve been to.
Anna McCormally: Some weddings will definitely be formal. When I got married, I wore a long white gown and my husband wore a suit. Our family and friends dressed up a little bit. I think it would be unusual to go to a black tie Quaker wedding. You probably won’t see a row of groomsmen all in tuxedos. So my advice to you about what to wear to a Quaker wedding is to read the invitation and do what is says.
It Starts With Worship
Barry Scott: So first put on a clean sheet of paper, because it’s not like you might have expected a traditional wedding in our culture to be. It starts basically built around a Quaker worship service, so as community we gather.
Max Carter: The traditional Quaker wedding will proceed like a meeting for worship. They will have done their pre-marital counseling with committees, clearness committees will have done all of that ahead of time. Typically the couple will walk in together, will sit in the front of the worship room.
Faith Kelley: Sometimes the family will walk the bride and groom in and sometimes the bride and groom walk in together, so there’s a lot less of that couple-focused-ness. The father doesn’t give the bride away, there’s none of that sort of transactional trappings that sometimes are in other weddings.
Max Carter: But essentially the couple comes in together. There will usually be an announcement of what’s about to happen, so a description of the traditional Quaker wedding will be given. There might be music or there might not. And then you will settle into silence as you would in meeting for worship in an unprogrammed setting.
Settling into Silence
Traci Hjelt Sullivan: It’s pretty common early on in the wedding that there will be 5, sometimes 10 minutes will be completely silent before the couple exchange vows.
Kevin-Douglas Olive: If you’re religious or if you’re spiritual or whatever faith tradition you’re a part of, it’s a time where we enter into this holy space. For Quakers, it is not the meetinghouse that is holy, there is no consecration of these grounds, this is not a holy space but it’s holy while we’re together. So in a Quaker wedding, you’re entering into a sacred and holy space and you’re part of what makes it sacred and holy by your presence.
Mary Crauderueff: So before everything really gets started you’ll walk into a service and sit down and there will be this period of time when everything is silent and you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing.
Anna McCormally: If you’re not used to silent worship, you might be like, “What’s going on? When is something going to happen?” Oh my gosh, my niece was two at our wedding. As soon as the silence started, she started saying, “No one’s talking. No one’s talking. No one’s talking!” Which I think is how a lot of non-Quakers also felt, but she was the one who said it out loud, because she was two.
Mary Crauderueff: Something that I think about is thinking about if you’re a praying sort of a person or even just a reflective person, think about the couple. This is a time to really think about the joy and the love that you feel for them.
George Lakey: For me, a Quaker wedding is an opportunity to let go of any agenda besides delight in the person that you’re rooting for. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an athletic contest where you so strongly wanted one team to win that you were really on somebody’s side. Maybe you were yelling out as long as you can, rooting for them to win. That’s what we do in Quaker meeting but we just tend to keep quiet while we’re doing it, but inside we have this chance to just 100% root for the success and the happiness, the delight and love of the person that’s getting married or the pair of them together.
Max Carter: And after a few minutes, the nervous couple will rise and, facing each other, take each other by the hand, and repeat the traditional Quaker wedding vows, which in my wife’s and my case back in 1974 were: “In the presence of God, I take thee, Jane to be my wife, promising with divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful husband for as long as we both shall live.”
Anna McCormally: What I love about that vow is how simple it is. All you are promising to do is be loving and faithful, and of course those are enormous things. I know in a lot of wedding vows, people write their own vows and there’s a lot of inside jokes or long promises and I think that is really beautiful and it comes from the people who are marrying, but what we wanted was this really simple promise, which was brief but also had space in it, space within “loving and faithful” for us to decide what that meant and what that looked like and to keep deciding it for the rest of our lives together.
Kevin-Douglas Olive: So those are the vows and they’re very simple, and they’re spoken with the couple standing in front of the meeting. I stood right over there with my partner and then afterwards we signed the marriage certificate.
Max Carter: This goes back hundreds of years to when Quakers as a non-conformist group had no ordained clergy. The only thing that legalized their marriages was this certificate that had essentially their genealogy on it, who they were who their parents were, and what their vows were. And then that certificate will be read as the couple goes back and sits down finally, having done their vows and gotten through the nervous part of it.
Open Worship, Space for Vocal Ministry
Kevin-Douglas Olive: Then we go back into silent worship, and at that point, people present can stand and speak.
Doug Gwyn: Whereas a pastor or a priest might talk about what marriage is (and these two people in particular that are being married in that moment), that’s something we will do as a group. Each participant is welcomed to speak something if they feel a clear sense of leading or prompting by the spirit to rise out of the silence to speak a few words of encouragement—maybe out of your own experience of marriage or your knowledge of one or both of the two people getting married. That can be really rich.
Sterling Duns: You don’t have to share, but you might feel called to share something. Give some space between messages: it just allows the messages to resonate with folks, to land on folks.
Traci Hjelt Sullivan: It’s like having a conversation with someone who is really listening to you really well. One of the signs that someone is really listening to you is when you stop talking, they don’t respond right away. You have this sense that they’re really taking in what you have to say before they start thinking about whether they have a response. It’s that kind of silence that follows a message.
George Lakey: I find myself standing up and speaking in the middle of one of these Quaker weddings only if I can’t hold back any longer: when my heart just feels so full that I need to express it. I try to express it briefly because I know others will want to as well.
Traci Hjelt Sulivan: For some people, the closest thing they’ve ever seen is the “toasts and roasts” at a bachelor’s party or rehearsal dinner, and it ain’t that.
Anna McCormally: I think also more practically, toasts are often funny or sort of roasty and messages come from a place of sincerity. There’s a qualitative difference I think that the message is a little more reverent, a little more rooted in seriousness and the gravity of the occasion.
Doug Gwyn: There’s room for laughter and lightness, but still you want to keep some sense of the gravity of this moment in these people’s lives and so hopefully you strike a balance with that.
Walter Hjelt Sullivan: There’s a particular spiritual rhythm to weddings because generally there are more messages in weddings because people are filled with the love and excitement. But if you’re always kind of touching that point of silence and then coming again, that way Spirit is continuously invited to be present in the room. We say “with divine assistance” in most of the vows, so the wedding is the opportunity to practice letting divine assistance start seeping into this couples shared community experience.
The End of the Ceremony
Mary Crauderueff: So after a period of time, there will be lots of messages that have happened and then there might be this silence that settles over the wedding. The way that you know it’s done is that people will start shaking hands. Usually someone at the front will start shaking hands with the couple, and then the people around them. That’s a time to greet each other, and to greet the people next to you whether you know them or not.
Eric Peterson: I think it’s like every other wedding, where someone gets up and says, “You’re married!” and we kissed several times and sort of ran out of the room. That’s a pretty good indication that the wedding is over.
Hannah Mayer: The ceremony…
Eric Peterson: The ceremony part. That’s a good indication that the ceremony part of the wedding is over.
Hannah Mayer: And then comes the party!
Eric Peterson: Yeah!
Mary Caruderueff: Quakers love to party in varieties of ways. Some people have blowout—huge parties in tents afterwards—and some just have a small reception at the meetinghouse.
George Lakey: The Quaker wedding format is a bit strange for some portion of the people there who aren’t Quakers, so it may feel to some folks a bit confining. That makes it all the more fun then to party afterward because that’s a chance for us to do however we do in a celebration kind of way.
Sterling Duns: And then people hang out yes, absolutely! Have fun, dancing, depending on the kind of Quaker wedding and the folks getting married… it is not abnormal for Quakers to get down, so be open to that being a possibility.
Mary Crauderueff: But something before you get there, something that is part of that transition point, what you’ll do is you’ll be part of signing the marriage certificate.
Signing the Certificate
Ted Heck: Everyone who has attended signs the certificate and so the certificate is, in addition to having basically the vows of the couple on it, it also has all the names of all the people who were there.
Doug Gwyn: And that is formalized at the end of the wedding by all of us signing the wedding certificate with our names that we were witnesses to them making promises to one another and joining our intentions with theirs that this will be a successful marriage, and we are also committing ourselves really in whatever ways turn out to be possible for us—to support them and encourage them in that commitment that they’re making that day.
Max Carter: It’s no longer in most cases the legal document. They’ve already gone downtown and gotten their certificate and their license, but this will be framed. It will be hung on their bedroom wall or their living room wall, and for the duration of their lives it will represent who that community of witnesses was, and it’s a moving thing to see, to reflect on. It reminds you of the vows you took, the promises you made. And there’s that nephew who signed in block letters at age 3 who is now married with children of his own in his forties, and there’s the beloved parents and grandparents who have passed onto their great reward but there are those, in these neat columns of witness that were there.
The Journey Beyond the Wedding
Walter Hjelt Sullivan: So in that sharing, that worship with maybe vocal ministry, prayer, a few songs, always going back into the silence, the hearts of the community are knit together. The couple’s hearts are knit together in love for each other and in appreciation for the community that is holding their marriage, and then this particular group of people who have assembled for this particular event become an entity, a spiritual entity that will actually never get together again but who all commit at some level to care for this couple that’s going to go through marriage and hopefully a life together.
And I think as we all know there’s the love and joy and lush of the beginning of a relationship and marriage and all that kind of stuff, and then there’s the long journey into deepening that relationship that has rough edges, big mistakes, poor responses to big mistakes, and yet some effort to build a life together and to grow and change. All of that is being held by the gathered community. So instead of being a list or a schedule of sayings and prayers and things that have been written by other people, the content of a Quaker wedding is a specific group of people with their specific love and well-wishing for a specific couple. It’s a very special thing.
It has been an honor to serve Friends as the founder and director of QuakerSpeak. Now I am pleased to announce my next endeavor, a Quaker media project for the modern era. Find out more at TheeQuaker.org