June is wedding season, and each year I like to think back to the lovely weddings I’ve witnessed over the years. One of the most moving was a Quaker wedding. One of my dear friends – the woman who introduced me to Quakerism – was married in the backyard of her family home in Colorado “in the manner of Friends,” as the Quakers say. Except for the fact that her marriage took place outdoors, rather than in a Quaker Meeting House, it was a true Quaker wedding.
What does it mean to be married “in the manner of Friends?” Quaker weddings often surprise people who have little experience of Quaker practice. Instead of a fancy ceremony with a minister preaching the virtues of marriage, a line of bridesmaids and groomsmen flanking bride and groom, and a church sanctuary decked out in flowers and ribbons, Quaker weddings are often quiet celebrations in modest settings.
The most interesting difference is the minister leading the service – there is none. In unprogrammed Quaker Meetings, such as Reno Friends Meeting, there is no recognized difference between clergy and laity, so there is no official that marries the couple. Quakers believe they are married by God. The Meeting that gathers for the wedding merely witnesses the couple’s declaration of intentions before God.
As George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, said:“For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests’ or the magistrates’; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s; and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.”
A Quaker wedding usually starts like a typical Quaker Silent Worship, with everyone sitting in silence and people speaking out of the silence as they are led. Sometimes the couple to be married sits facing the rest of the group, and sometimes just in a front pew. When they are ready, they rise and exchange “declarations” with each other. They do not swear traditional wedding vows: the Quaker testimony of Integrity holds that Quakers should tell the truth at all times, so vows and oaths are unnecessary. The declarations are usually simple and egalitarian. As the 18th-century Quaker Lucretia Mott said:“In the true marriage relationship the independence of husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.”
My friend’s wedding started with a period of worshipful silence. Next, the bride and groom rose and exchanged their promises to each other. After they sat down again, the Meeting continued in Silent Worship, with people rising occasionally out of the silence to share a message. The silence that day was deeply loving and sacred.
At the close of the wedding, everyone signed the marriage certificate as witnesses. Quaker couples often frame their marriage certificates and hang them in their homes, as a way to remember the community of beloved friends and family who witnessed their solemn marital promises.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.