The pattern is familiar: a couple calls the church office to say that they are planning to be married and want to arrange a wedding in the church. They are not members of this church (or perhaps they were members years ago but haven't been to church since confirmation). They may not even be members of the denomination, but they "knew someone who was married at St. Swithin's two years ago."
How should we respond? What are the pastoral possibilities inherent in these situations?
Many clergy dismiss such calls immediately, explaining that they perform services only for members of their own congregation. Others may see some of the couples and make a decision to perform the ceremony on the basis of the couple's rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith. Still others act as ecclesiastical marriage brokers, performing the ceremony for any and all who ask, usually beefing up their discretionary fund in the process.
After struggling with these questions for some time, I have devised an approach, based on a number of theological suppositions, that seems to work well.
Why Are They Here?
My primary assumption about all the individuals who call is that they have been prompted to call by the Holy Spirit. To be sure, they are probably unaware of this prompting, but in each of these situations, I assume that God is giving me an opportunity to do some serious examination with the couple about the nature and quality of Christian marriage.
The couple may have their own reasons for calling the church, and each of them is woefully familiar to every minister:
"Your church is so pretty."
"Your church is close to our reception hall."
"My second cousin was married here by the minister who was here before you."
Their initial reason for calling is unimportant. The Holy Spirit has prompted them to call your church, even if yours is the fourth or fifth on a list of possible places. You have been presented with an unparalleled opportunity to reach out with Christ's love to two people who may have never before experienced it in all its fullness. I don't dismiss such opportunities quickly.
My second assumption when the unchurched call is that this may be the first time they have ever turned to the church for help. If they are a young couple, both sets of parents are probably still living, and there is a good chance, given increasing rates of longevity, that the grandparents are living as well. Consequently, this couple may never have had an opportunity or the need to turn to the church in time of crisis. While they may have attended Sunday school in childhood, their most recent experience of church was probably a Christmas Eve service a number of years ago. For the first time in their lives, they want something from the church, really want something.
Our initial response to their call will determine whether they see the church as cold and unresponsive, or open and responsive to those outside as well as inside its fellowship.
My third assumption is that there are some shreds of spiritual awareness which prompt them to seek marriage in the church. To be sure, a certain percentage of the couples who call want a church wedding only because "it's traditional," or because their parents insist. However, we must also recognize that for others, there are certain events in their lives which they see as "religious moments." While they may want to confine their experience of God to controlled and predictable encounters, there are moments when they feel God should be included.