The Orthodox Marriage Ceremony: Why It Is The Way It Is

Archpriest Andrew Harrison | 13 November 2009

In January the Parish Council surveyed St. Luke parishioners regarding our Strategic Plan. Four responses to the survey were related to the Orthodox Marriage ceremony. This is significant, and I feel compelled to address these concerns.

The survey comments referred specifically to two American practices: “Giving the bride away,” and the use of instrumental music, especially the song, “Here Comes the Bride.” Both of these have been introduced by some Orthodox jurisdictions into Orthodox wedding services.

The practice of “giving the bride away” comes from Medieval European times when women were considered property that was purchased for a price (dowry). In contemporary Catholic and Protestant worship “giving the bride away” has come to mean that the father bestows the protection of his daughter on her husband. This tends to degrade the Biblical teaching about equality of men and women.

In Orthodox tradition the bride is not considered the property of the father or the husband. No dowry is involved. A father escorting his daughter into the church is a nice tradition, but it is not part of the Orthodox ceremony. In no way can it be called “giving the bride away.”

The use of instrumental music is also not a traditional part of Orthodox worship. In 692 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian called the Council in Trullo (Quinisext Council). This Council followed the 2nd and 3rd Ecumenical Councils (553 and 680-81, respectively) and dealt with disciplinary matters not covered by the Ecumenical Councils. The Council in Trullo decreed that instrumental music couldn’t be used in the church. In modern times, however, some Orthodox jurisdictions have adopted the use of an organ and the song, “Here Comes the Bride.” This song comes from the opera Lohengrin, composed in 1850 by the German musician, Richard Wagner.

Catholic and Protestant wedding services are very similar because they have the same roots and are based on legal agreements and covenants. Thus, these wedding services do contain “Here Comes the Bride” (or some other selected song), as well as a mutual recitation of vows, the placing of rings, and the legal pronouncement by the clergy that the bride and groom are now man and wife. None of this exists in the Orthodox Wedding service.

So why have these practices been tacked on to some Orthodox wedding ceremonies? This may have come about in an attempt to make the non-English Orthodox wedding service intelligible to non-Orthodox Americans. I believe this happens when Orthodox Christians feel embarrassed about Orthodox worship, and they try to make it palatable for non-Orthodox people.

In the Orthodox Church, Marriage, as a Sacrament, is both a mystery and a martyrdom, not a legal contract. The Orthodox wedding ceremony has two parts: Betrothal and Crowning. The Betrothal is an agreement or promise to marry, which is symbolized by the exchange of rings. In ancient times it was a separate service. Today it directly precedes the Crowning in the Marriage ceremony. The rubric books (service instructions) say that the exchange of rings is to take place in the Narthex.

After the betrothal the priest leads the couple in procession into the Nave while chanting Psalm 128: “Blessed are they who walk in the way of the Lord.” This begins the actual Sacrament of Marriage (Crowning). The crown is a sign of the glory and honor that God bestows on the couple. This is a blessing and confirmation by God of an earthly pledge, not a verification of a legal agreement.

The adoption of non-Orthodox customs into the Marriage ceremony raises the larger question: How much of American religious tradition, can be absorbed into Orthodox liturgical worship? This is a very difficult and controversial issue. The church in its history has adopted and blessed many cultural traditions, such as the date of Christmas, numerology, Greek philosophy, iconography, and in modern times in America, fellowship, Sunday school, and pews.

The Orthodox Church is about Faith and Truth. If a custom, tradition, or practice does not deter but actually enhances the Gospel and evangelism, then it is permitted. The decision to do this, however, must be made by our Diocesan Bishop, who is the teacher who is “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). (“Dividing” in this case means expounding the truth).

On occasion our Bishop does make concessions for the good of the couple and family. For example, Saturday weddings are not permitted according to the canons. The Sabbath day in Church tradition is dedicated to the departed. It is the day of rest, mourning, and preparation for Sunday. Saturday is the day of the Old Covenant, which prepared Israel for the coming of Christ. Weddings are joyful celebrations and one of the sacraments of the Kingdom.

In American society weddings generally take place on Saturday. In addition, sometimes one of the marriage partners is non-Orthodox. Thus, the bishop will allow a Saturday wedding with his personal dispensation, providing that the wedding begins in the early afternoon. Then the wedding will not conflict with Vespers which is the Sabbath day service.

As the Orthodox Church begins to evangelize America, it will become more and more important to, as St. Paul said, remain firm in the traditions which have been handed down (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The only way to do this is to raise questions about non-Orthodox practices so that the Holy Spirit will guide us to all Truth (John 16:13).


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