Ah, Spain. A beautiful country where, every now and then, non-Catholics who are Christians get married. Or a Roman Catholic gets married to a non-Catholic, which often means no Catholic wedding.

And sometimes these folks come to us Anglicans.

Just how much can the Anglican liturgy be modified?

In this article, I want to share my own experience as an Anglican pastor and how I handled two different situations where I had to ask myself, just how much can the Anglican liturgy be modified?

In one case I felt in good conscience that I could allow certain modifications, while in another case I had to say no.

Wedding #1

Let’s call them Boniface and Katie. He’s from South America and is Roman Catholic, she’s from Norway and from a Lutheran background. They had a beautiful family already and had been living together for years. Recently, though, they had decided to formalize the informal union, both before the civil authorities and also before the Church.

Technically, then, this was a solemnization of a civil marriage, which is the norm for Protestants in Spain. (During the Franco era, Protestant ministers did not, legally speaking, exist, and so could not do anything other than bless a civil union.)

His family was coming from Colombia, hers from Norway. They rented a beautiful summer home outside of Toledo, the historical capital of Spain.

Aided by a seminarian visiting for the summer, we put together a basic bilingual liturgy based on the 1979 Prayer Book, which is easily available online in both English and Spanish. (I could have used the prayer book of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church—no relation to REC in the USA—but the language is antiquated and, as far as I could discern, not easily available in English.)

They liked the liturgy. Could a few things be changed? Could they insert some music here and there? Certainly.

But two further modifications were requested. First, could they have both the readings from Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13, in addition to the Gospel reading from John 2? Second, could we use hosts (little round wafers) instead of sliced sandwich bread for Communion?

The first request seemed simple: how could I say no to more Bible in the service?

The second request requires a bit of background. The SREC, and especially the cathedral, which has no dean and is therefore pastored directly by our bishop, often emphasizes how it is not Roman Catholic. One way of doing this is by using sliced, white sandwich bread for Communion. Not all of our churches do this, but at the cathedral, that is how it is.

The couple actually did the work of buying the round wafers and taking them to Toledo, while I took my own chalice and paten. Given that Anglicans the world around use this sort of bread for Communion, and that the Catholics from Colombia would feel more at home during Communion, I thought this was reasonable.

The wedding was a great success. People recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed in whatever language they prefered. I switched back and forth between English and Spanish, preached the same brief sermon once in each language, and almost everyone came to take Communion.

Wedding #2

And now a second wedding, which has yet to take place. The young couple assists our Friday evening meditative prayer service (you know it’s good because there’s no sermon!). He comes from an Orthodox background and she from an evangelical background. Would I officiate at the solemnization of their vows with both families in attendance?

I would be happy to, I said. I sent them the same liturgy we had used in Toledo, though this wedding would be all in English.

Two requests were made:

One, there is an Orthodox tradition of the priest wrapping their hands in his stole and placing them over a Bible when the blessing of the couple is said. Would I do this?

Second, could they write their own vows?

I lived and ministered in Israel and Jordan for seven years. There, the main form of Christianity is Orthodoxy, so the first request was not surprising to me. This was an addition to the wedding liturgy. The symbol was beautiful and profound. I would be glad to add it in.

Regarding the vows, however, I felt less comfortable.

These vows (nearly identical in the 1979 BCP and the Spanish Prayer Book), I explained, were important. They committed what needed to be committed, neither more nor less. When people made their own vows, I explained, you could get in trouble.

Some people vow things they cannot offer, like “I will never love anyone more than I love you!” That might sound innocuous, but holy matrimony—a Christian marriage—is not a place to celebrate the passion and strength of feeling of the two people.

I tried to compromise: they could celebrate their love and self-expression at the reception when they toasted to each other. Or perhaps during the prayers they could each compose and say a prayer of thanksgiving for the other person.

For me, though, the vow itself was sacrosanct. I could not change it anymore than I could modify the anamnesis or epiclesis or words of institution.

I will still attend the wedding, which will be officiated by an evangelical pastor from a non-liturgical tradition. As an Anglican pastor, though, I believe that the proper setting for Holy Matrimony is Holy Communion. The liturgy is first and foremost about Jesus Christ the Son of God. In the context of that liturgy the solemnization of vows is carried out. The liturgy is not primarily about the couple, it is about the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Of course, different pastors would do things differently.

I’m not saying that all good pastors would make the same decisions I did. Some dioceses are more free or more structured with these things. Some bishops might be very strict regarding form, others not.

But in the interests of sharing a glimpse into the lived life of an Anglican pastor, I share this tale of two weddings, so that you can see how one person navigated some practical liturgical questions in carrying out his ministry, attempting to stay faithful to the Anglican way while also respecting, within those limits, the personal preferences of the two people administering the sacramental rite of holy matrimony to each other.

(And yes, the ministers of that sacramental rite are indeed the two people being married, but that’s a topic, if you’re interested, for another article.)