The Promise of Wedding Vows

The bride’s entrance into the majesty of St. Paul’s was announced by a fanfare from trumpeters high inside the cathedral’s celebrated dome. Perhaps they were not only announcing a princess bride, but prophetically heralding in, for better or worse, a new era. Thirty-five years ago Lady Diana Spencer’s charismatic appeal as a bride, combined with the grand splendor of the British monarchy, resurrected the “great white wedding”—helped along (especially after the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s) with society’s need for order and tradition, a little Reaganomics, plus a dash of glam and glitter!

Or as author Maria McBride-Mellinger described changes following the royal wedding in 1981: “After a decade of swinging singles and disco infernos, suddenly everyone wanted to be married and every bride wanted a gown fit for a queen: regal and ornate, with a lengthy train, and a jeweled veil. The big white wedding was back in style and no expense seemed too great.”

Signaling another change of the times, the bride and groom made royal history that day with a break in tradition even before becoming husband and wife. Removing some outdated words from the Church of England’s 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, as the couple stood before the archbishop of Canterbury, and witnessed by nearly a million-fold television audience, the bride’s marriage vows did not include the promise “to obey.”

A London byline in The Washington Post a few days before the wedding reported that the archbishop of Canterbury revealed “the decision to drop this vow was made very quickly in his discussion of the service with Charles and Diana and that he told them, the usual clergyman’s joke. ‘It’s a bad thing to start your marriage off with a downright lie.’ He told reporters that many couples now omit the vow, which was a remnant from the Middle Ages, when a wife would pledge ‘to be bonny and buxom in bed and board.’”

I don’t doubt the archbishop’s knowledge of history regarding marriage vows including “to love, cherish and obey.” However, my understanding of the Latin meaning of the word “obey” as used in the old marriage text is “to hear, to deeply listen”—a promise that would be beneficial, even essential, to any marriage, no? If that’s the case (and the harsh, suppressive conditions for women throughout history notwithstanding), my only complaint with the original marriage vows is that the pledge “to obey” (i.e., “to listen”) was in the woman’s declaration but not in the man’s. Is the promise “to love and cherish” really possible without “deep listening”?

At the conclusion of these royal vows, stirring hymns and nuptial presentations, the new princess bride—in handcrafted silk satin Cinderella slippers with a lace-trimmed heart at the toe—stepped out into a sun-lit, adoring world that she would soon be changing in unimaginable ways. As I caught glimpses of the floating creamy silk and tulle vision on television throughout the broadcast that July morning, it was as though I could feel life as I knew it shifting. It was not just that weddings would never be the same and women’s lives were changing exponentially (or that I’d soon begin a whole new phase of my own life because of both phenomenon), but it felt that the world was cracking open into a new kind of mystery—a world sorely in need of the wisdom and gentleness of a woman’s touch along with the vow of “deep listening” in all relationships! And perhaps Diana was the only one who had a sense that these growing pains, although carrying an abundance of blessings, could be life threatening.□


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