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When I was working in a parish in north London we had a standing agreement with couples that if they needed help we would provide an all-inclusive wedding for them at no cost. This would include: church building, music, minister (me), flowers (a modest display), limo (my Nissan Micra), confetti, and reception in the parish hall. We couldn’t do the free bar, or the honeymoon in Thailand, but I would gladly have thrown in two tickets to the local Cineworld at Staples Corner, and a large bag of sweet or salted popcorn.

It was a serious offer. Why? Because so many couples said to us priests that they wanted to get married but couldn’t afford to. It wasn’t, as the Rev Dr Giles Fraser said recently, because of the narcissism of brides. It was because of the social pressures on couples to turn their wedding day into a carefully choreographed production of mammoth proportions. And, it has to be said, because many cohabiting couples didn’t feel any urgency about bringing the wedding forward, and were content to save for a big wedding in the future instead of embracing a smaller one much sooner.

Rebecca Mead, who has experience of reporting about US weddings, is sympathetic to Giles Fraser’s criticisms of contemporary weddings:

“I’d even say they were becoming a threat to marriage itself,” he said, speaking on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day – his words were, to me, not at all unfamiliar. I spent three years researching the American wedding industry for a book I wrote a few years ago, and during that time I discovered that clergymen and clergywomen could often be vocal critics of the brides and grooms whose unions they were sanctifying. Jody Vickery, a minister in Georgia, summed up the prevailing mood in an article in Christianity Today. “I hate weddings,” Vickery wrote. “Funerals? I love them. At funerals people are shellshocked by the ultimate realities of life, death, grief, and God.”

According to both ministers, self-centred brides are to blame for the state of modern weddings – events that Vickery calls “narcissistic cleavage conventions”. And bridal mania – the belief on the part of an engaged woman that the world revolves around her, her dress, and her floral-design choices – is unarguably a genuine phenomenon.

When a wedding seizes the public, or at least the media, imagination – as Chelsea Clinton’s did last week, with American television reporters breathlessly noting the rumbling arrival of food-service delivery trucks outside Astor Courts, the venue in Rhinebeck, New York, where she wed Marc Mezvinsky – it only amplifies the bridal imperative to ensure that the day is perfectly orchestrated, beautifully conducted and exquisitely memorable.

Yet are narcissistic brides solely to blame for the way in which contemporary weddings are, as Fraser put it, “specifically designed to be all about ‘me'”? Or might some of the blame lie with an ever-proliferating wedding industry – one that seeks to ensure that for every vow exchanged there is a sweeping gown of satin and tulle to be sold, or that every kiss bestowed at the altar is, potentially, an occasion for the use of a leatherbound guest book, a frilly lace garter threaded with blue ribbon, and a chocolate fountain?

The cost of the average wedding in the UK is estimated to be about £20,000 – even higher than the cost in the US, where, according to wedding-industry figures, the estimated amount that brides and grooms are spending in 2010 is averaging about $23,000, or £15,000. American brides – or their parents – are spending, on average, just over a thousand dollars on a dress, more than $2,000 on flowers, nearly $1,000 on beauty services (including an average of $183 on teeth-whitening) – and almost $3,500 on a photographer and videographer to make sure the expense of all the above is captured for posterity.

Jemima Lewis is less critical of the brides, and more astute about the real social and psychological pressures involved:

Granted, there may be some brides who get carried away for the wrong reasons. They see Katie Price marrying a luminous orange, cross-dressing cage-fighter while the paparazzi attempt to batter down the church door, and they want a piece of the dream. But most big weddings get that way for reasons of tact, rather than egotism.

The only alternative to a big wedding is a tiny one – you, him and a couple of witnesses snatched off the street. Any more than that, and people start getting offended that they haven’t been invited. Once you’ve invited Uncle Bob, you have to invite his alcoholic wife – and next thing you know, the guest list is littered with dipsomaniacs, sex-pests, embittered divorcees, drug-addicts and bores. At that stage, the only solution is to throw a party large enough to absorb and dilute the difficult guests.

What this means is that you need a serious frock: you cannot have hundreds of people staring at you while you make the most intimate public declaration of your life without some kind of body armour. Getting togged out like Barbie on acid is a symptom of stage fright, rather than vanity. It is what happens when a generous impulse (wanting to invite Uncle Bob) spirals out of control.

Likewise, the obsession with table settings and floral arrangements – though “expensive and distracting”, as the Rev complains – is born of anxiety rather than pride. No one wants to be found wanting as a hostess, though every bride knows she will be.

A big white wedding is a huge fandangle for not much return. The guests carp about their placement; the vicar, it turns out, would rather be at a funeral; and the happy couple are either rigid with stress or flaccid with drink. But, like democracy, it remains the least worst option: formulaic enough to contain the chaos of the modern extended family; romantic enough to entice the faithless masses up the aisle. If I were Dr Fraser, I would be grateful for that alone.

A common option amongst north London Catholics was to fly to Rome with a handful of relations and close friends and have the wedding there. If it meant the difference between getting married or not, I always encouraged this option. There was no pretence: “We want to get married; we can’t afford a big British wedding; we are just going to do it; and we’ll have a great party for all our friends when we get back.” The strange thing is, I think people understood. Couples are doing the £20k wedding because they think everyone else expects it. But if they had the no-cost wedding in the parish hall I think most of their guests would actually be delighted.

I’m not against big weddings; I’m not puritanical. I think we should celebrate sacraments lavishly. But if the wedding gets in the way of the marriage, then something has gone wrong.

[Addition to the post: A friend who is a priest just put this comment on my Facebook:

I had a couple came and asked if they could have a blessing after a registry wedding. Seeing an ounce of hope I asked why they wanted a blessing, why a registry? Church too expensive, they said. I said to them: If I wave the church fee, little service in the chapel, walk to church, wear what you like, go home for tea and biscuits they would be married. They opted for smart clothes and a buffet in the parish hall afterwards. Good wedding!

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