Preaching at Weddings
Preaching at a wedding is both similar to and different from preaching on a Sunday morning. A wedding sermon has to be relevant to the occasion, and we know that in many (most?) cases, the congregation will be largely made up of people who aren’t regular church attenders, so we need to preach using language that they can understand and that is relatable. Preaching at a wedding can feel particularly daunting because we know how important the day is to the couple and their family and friends. And a particular challenge in preparing a wedding sermon is capturing both the solemnity of the occasion and the enormity of what the couple are doing, as well as the fantastic joy of the event.
When to preach
If you are someone who has experience of preaching at weddings, take a moment to think about these questions:
- Where do I put the sermon – before or after the couple have made their vows?
- Why do I put the sermon at that point in the service?
I am a priest in the Church of England, which means that when I conduct a wedding, the service I’m working with is usually that found in Common Worship (the Book of Common Prayer now being a rarely used option). The default within the Common Worship service is that the sermon is delivered before the exchange of vows. However, Common Worship also says, ‘If occasion demands, either the sermon or the readings and sermon may come after the blessing of the marriage.’ It doesn’t, however, specify what conditions might qualify for the occasion demanding this re-structuring of service, and I know that some clergy routinely preach after the exchange of vows and the blessing of the marriage, rather than before.
Is it important and what difference does it make where the sermon goes in a wedding service? Personally, I think it is important, and I’m definitely a before-the-exchange-of-vows type. There are two main reasons for this, one practical and one pastoral. The practical reason is simply that the highlight of the service is the marriage proper and once that’s done, people’s minds are likely to be elsewhere, for example, on the upcoming reception, or how happy the couple look, or how exciting it is that they are now married, so they are unlikely to concentrate on the sermon or take in what’s being said. The relief at having reached the big moment in the service and successfully negotiated the vows can also leave the couple themselves unable to really concentrate on what is being said after that point. In my experience, many couples, post vows, are focused more on each other than anything happening around them, taking in the reality that they are husband and wife. So, in effect, placing the sermon after the exchange of vows means that the sermon becomes an ‘add-on’ rather than an integral part of the wedding service.
The pastoral reason for placing the sermon before the vows takes us back to the realisation that a wedding is a joyful occasion but also a solemn one with serious purpose. Putting the sermon before the vows allows the sermon to act as a reminder to the couple of the seriousness of what they are doing, and the meaning and purpose of marriage (more on which below). I think placing the sermon early in the service helps them to really think about what they are saying when they exchange vows and makes the exchange of vows that much more meaningful.
THE PURPOSE OF THE WEDDING SERMON
What should a wedding sermon do? I would like to suggest that there are three main purposes or goals of a wedding sermon:
- Share the gospel with those present
- Explain the Christian understanding of marriage
- Make connections between the couple’s chosen readings and their life together
SHARING THE GOSPEL
Depending on your personality, church tradition, and the wedding couple, you might or might not feel comfortable preaching an overtly evangelistic sermon at a wedding. Even if a strongly evangelistic sermon at a wedding wouldn’t be your style, the Bible readings that are most commonly used at weddings definitely lend themselves to preaching about God’s love for us and that we all have a standing invitation to develop a relationship with God. The Bible readings commonly used at weddings, unsurprisingly, speak of love (for example Song of Songs 8.6-7, 1 John 4.7-12), and a sermon based on those readings can explore the relationship between human love and the love of God, and can tell the congregation that God’s love is for all of us and that God longs to be part of our lives. The wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11) provides a good starting point for this theme. When a couple gets married in church, they are asking God to be a part of their wedding and their marriage, so the sermon can also highlight this and remind those present that just as God invites us to come to him, we too can invite God to be active in our lives. In this way, the wedding sermon becomes a tool for sharing the message of the gospel with the couple and their guests and letting them know it is for them.
EXPLAINING THE CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING OF MARRIAGE
A wedding sermon is also an opportunity to explain the Christian understanding of marriage – both to the couple being married (for whom it will hopefully be a reminder, this having been explained during wedding preparation) and for their guests. To this end, the wedding sermon might talk about the two becoming one, a theme in passages such as Genesis 2.18-25 and Mark 10.6-9. The sermon might also explore what it means for the couple to hold a shared identity together with their individual identities, not obliterating their personal identity but adding to it another facet of who each of them now is. The Christian understanding of marriage is that it is life-long and involves self-giving. The sermon might, therefore, emphasise the counter-cultural nature of marriage in today’s society (this can really be drawn out from Ephesians 5.21-33). Instead of putting one’s own needs and fulfilment first, Christian marriage is about putting the other first and making a life-long commitment, rather than sticking with it only so long as it ‘feels good’ or is ‘totally emotionally fulfilling for me’. It might mention the importance of fidelity, and the importance of meaning and keeping the promises being made in the wedding vows.
CONNECTING THE READINGS TO THE LIFE OF THE COUPLE
Making connections with the life of the couple can often be the most fun part of writing a wedding sermon. How this is done will vary depending on the couple and the reading(s) chosen. One way to do this is to connect the themes of the reading to the ideas contained in the Christian understanding of marriage and, consequently, to what the couple is doing as they get married. Another way to do this is to connect something from one or more of the readings to experiences from the couple’s life that they have shared with you during wedding preparation, and how they will take this into their married life or how their married life will be shaped by it. It’s not easy to be specific here, as this really will depend on the couple’s experiences together, what they are happy for you to share during the service, and the readings they have chosen. An example of how this can work would be if a couple that chose the passage from Song of Songs including the verse, ‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it’ also had an episode in their relationship that ended up with one of them accidentally knocking the other into a swimming pool while dressed up for an evening out. It’s the type of episode that could lead to a row, but instead love was not quenched by the inadvertent watering. This is a somewhat silly example, but it’s fine to include some humour in a wedding sermon, and this type of connection can really personalise the story for the couple and their guests. Another example would be a couple who choose Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; and have had times in their life together when one has really helped the other or they have really had to depend on each other for support (after an unexpected medical diagnosis, for example). Finally, it may be that a particular reading has been chosen because it has importance to the family of bride or groom - possibly it was used at a previous family wedding or was the favourite Bible reading of a recently deceased grandparent. When a reading is chosen for this type of reason, that information can be made known to the congregation and the importance of that reading and its family history can be explored. It is helpful to discuss the themes of the reading or readings with the couple before the marriage to get some ideas for how best to find and make connections to their lives.
CONSTRUCTING THE SERMON
How we plan to deliver a sermon will affect how we construct it. When I preach at a wedding, I tend to move between addressing the congregation as a whole and addressing the bride and groom specifically. This helps me to make sure that in the sermon I include a message meaningful to the whole congregation and something that speaks directly to the commitment being taken on by the wedding couple and their responsibility within that commitment, as well as the benefits they will gain from it. Where and how within the sermon text I address congregation and couple will then determine how the ideas in each of those sections of the sermon are linked together to transition back and forth. Here is an example of how this might work:
‘I trust and hope that the fact that we’ve all gathered here today is evidence that we feel that kind of self-giving love for N and N, a love that means that as well as being here to share in their joy today, we will be there for them in the many good times, and in any difficult times, in the years to come. And I also hope and trust, N and N, that it is the kind of love that you have discovered you have for each other. It is certainly the love that God feels for you.’
And, finally, in creating your wedding sermon, don’t forget to include any non-biblical readings the couple have chosen. It is often the case that these can be connected to the biblical reading(s) to highlight the points you are making.
 Common Worship Pastoral Services (2000, 2005). Church House Publishing, p. 132.
 Please not 1 Corinthians 13! This is probably the most common Bible reading chosen for weddings, so you can be forgiven if you never want to read it, hear it, or preach on it again. When faced with this as a couple’s choice of reading, I tend to point out that the love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is one that they won’t ever achieve in their own relationship, because it is not a description of human love, but is a description of the perfect love of God. Once I’ve burst their bubble, however, I go on to say that, just because our human fallibility means we can’t achieve this perfect love in our own relationships at all times, doesn’t mean that the couple shouldn’t strive for it, model their relationship on it, and be kind to one another when they fall short of it, remembering that they are ultimately sustained by this perfect love that God has for them as individuals and as a couple.
Welcome to The College of Preachers
To explore the website fully, please sign in or subscribe.
Non-subscribers can read up to three articles a month for free. (You will need to register.)
This is the last of your 1 free articles this month.
Subscribe today for the full range of resources from The College of Preachers, including Lectionary sermons for every Sunday, book reviews and more.