Some people would prefer to replace the traditional wedding vows with words they have composed themselves, thinking that this would make their promises more personal and more authentic. I’m not so sure about this.
I did an email interview last week with David Gibson for the website ‘For Your Marriage‘. He was asking me about some of the ideas I sketched in my recent Royal Wedding post. You can read the interview here, and this is the full response I gave to his questions:
In my experience most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.
It’s not just the romance of a wedding day. I think they recognise that love finds its deepest fulfilment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment. It frightens them, because commitment is frightening, at the same time as it attracts them.
The words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honour each other for the rest of your lives… For better for worse, for richer for poorer… Till death do us part’. Young people are not, on the whole, cynical, selfish or hedonistic. They want to fall in love; and when they do, they want that love to last. They know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice; and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value.
They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive Yes; and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.
Of course a couple can express their love for each other in many different ways; and they can commit themselves to each other in their own words. They should do this often! But I don’t think this can ever substitute for the traditional words of the wedding vows. This is partly because the words themselves are already so meaningful – it’s simply hard to better them. ‘I promise to love and honour you for the rest of my life… For better for worse, for richer for poorer…’ So to substitute your own words would somehow be a diminishment.
But I also think there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself, and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, because then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision. This ‘humility’ allows your love to be purified, stretched, and transformed into something far deeper than you could have imagined.
To use the solemn words of the wedding ritual, rather than your own composition, is to say ‘there is more to love than we have yet understood, and we choose to let this larger love possess us’. It’s not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual; it’s a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and even more beautiful.