Unless you are eloping, this is a question that almost every couple must answer. How much “religion” should you “impose” on your wedding ceremony guests? There is no right or wrong answer, but there are several practical considerations.
Traditionally all weddings have been done in either a religious setting, or by a Judge or Justice of the Peace. If your ceremony is the latter, you probably will not feel any need to incorporate any religious elements. In that case, the officiant is acting as an agent of the State, not as a representative of any religion and its traditions.
The questions arise when you are having a religious service. If the ceremony takes place inside a church or synagogue building, and is officiated by their priest, minister, or rabbi, then the couple pretty much has to accept whatever the religious officiant decides to say. To their credit, most officiants are considerate of the fact that a number of the guests may not subscribe to the same religion. But you cannot expect the officiant to back down on his beliefs, or those of his church or synagogue, just because some attendees may not agree. Again, most officiants are not looking for confrontation, but to express their own meaningful religious traditions in regards to their understanding of marriage. They rarely use the wedding ceremony as an attempt to make new converts!
The biggest challenge is when a couple is having their wedding ceremony in a non-church location, like a hotel or golf course, and are using a non-judicial officiant such as a minister. The first rule is not to let the officiant “surprise” you with his homily on the day of your wedding, with no advance notice. It is imperative that you require your offician to write out exactly what he or she will be saying during your ceremony. Only in this way can you be sure that nothing will be said that will offend you or your guests, or be inappropriate.
A lady told me that at one wedding she recently attended, the minister’s messages was about “The Three Rings of Marriage – Engagement Ring, Wedding Ring, and Suffer-Ring.” He went on to emphasize that marriage was often a lot of hard work and heartbreak, and not to expect everything to be good times. As you can imagine, the couple and their ceremony guests were appalled. This could easily have been prevented by the couple having the complete written ceremony in advance.
There are many religious (and/or ethnic) traditions that are unique and interesting to guests who don’t follow that particular religion. Jewish couples often incorporate the breaking of a glass. Some Irish couples do a Celtic “hand fasting.” Some African-American couples jump over a broomstick. These are what I would call “quasi-religious” in that they are pictorial representations, without dogmatic beliefs being expressed.
The hardest choice is whether or not to include religious readings and/or statements of beliefs during a ceremony. Certainly a couple has the right to express their own beliefs. Many feel they are getting married “before God and witnesses.” And they want to share at least a little of what that means to them as they start their life together. No couple should feel that someone else can determine and limit what they are expressing about themselves.
For example, the “Love Chapter of the Bible”, First Corinthians 13, is probably the most popular reading done at weddings, either civil, religious, or romantic. It is a beautiful sentiment that most feel has not been surpassed in literature anywhere. No one should be offended by it, in spite of the fact that it is found in the Christian Bible. And there are other beautiful, romantic sentiments found in various religious literature that should not offend anyone, since they focus on love and commitment, which are universal to all.
However, some religious traditions concerning husbands and wives are quite controversial, such as requiring the wife to “obey” her husband (see my previous blog on this subject). Others strongly encourage couples to have children (“be fruitful and multiply”), even stating that to be one of the central purposes of marriage. Some traditions have teaching limiting the relationship between the married couple and their parents. One popular teaching is that the union of a couple is an earthly picture of the union of mankind with God. These and many other doctrines have caused heated debates over the years. But surely the wedding ceremony should not be a place to start arguments among guests.
So the most practical path is to avoid religious controversies that might upset one’s wedding ceremony guests, and perhaps darken the activities to follow. Instead, it seems wisest for the ceremony to focus on friendship, love, romance, and the excitement of anticipating a long life married to one’s best friend. Plus the joy of sharing this wedding day with valued family and friends in a meaningful ceremony, and fun reception afterwards.