It's All About Words - Alexander McCall Smith

What words should one use in a marriage service? The most important words are those that make up the contract – I do or I will. That’s the legal part, but for most people the relatively soulless terms needed to seal the bargain fall far short of what they want. They want something significant, something poetic. And that is where people are increasingly choosing to raid works of fiction or poetry to find the words that say what they feel. Kahil Gibrain’s mystical prose-poem The Prophet is has been a fertile source for this: how many weddings there must have been in the sixties and seventies where lines from this extraordinary book were intoned by dewy-eyed readers. Nowadays people are a bit more adventurous and everything from Shakespeare to the works of up-to-the-minute contemporary poets may be mined for appropriate sentiments.

Those getting married in churches have slightly less choice. They can have readings, of course, that have nothing to do with religion, but generally the words of the marriage service will be set out for them in the relevant prayer book. If you get married in the Church of England today there is a form of words set out in the standard marriage service. They are intended to be clear and understandable, and they certainly are that. But whether they have any poetry or grandeur in them is another matter. A more sensitive couple, then, might choose the older alternative – the words of that magnificent monument to the English language and its possibilities – the Book of Common Prayer. That book is, quite simply, a treasure-trove of beautiful, euphonious English. Modernists don’t like it, of course, and a couple wanting to use it may well encounter resistance from the clergy.

What’s the difference? Well, compare these introductions. In the old service – the one to be found in the Book of Common Prayer – the priest begins with these echoing, lovely words: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy matrimony, which is an honourable estate … and is therefore not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly …”

Magnificent! Dearly beloved: what a wonderful way to address a group of people. And what meaning that phrase has: it places love at the heart of our dealings with others. You are dearly beloved because you are you, and because it is my duty to love you. How’s that for a powerful message?

Now listen to what the modernizers came up with. “In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have come together to witness the marriage of N and N, to pray for God’s blessing in them, to share their joy and to celebrate their love.”
There is simply no comparison! And so it continues. When it comes to the exchange of rings, the old form of words says this: “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow …” The modern form is: “I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you …” Now the new version certainly says it clearly, but where is the poetry in its bland, prosaic language? The answer is that it has been stripped out.

The traditional liturgy of the Church of England, along with the words of that towering work of literature, the King James Bible, contain some of the very finest English ever written. It is not hard to understand, even to a modern ear, and in its echoing resonances one can find mystical and moving insights. Of course languages change, but one might ask whether they really need to be thrown out altogether. The language of contemporary bureaucracy, the debased crudities of television, the sinister doublespeak of meretricious politicians: all of these are linguistic realities. But a wedding service should be a linguistic garden in which delicate and spiritual language, rich in poetry and association, can be used. We used traditional words for our own wedding and also for the baptism of our children. I loved the sound of them, and I think our friends did too. Nobody had to rush off to a dictionary to look up any meanings.

Whatever form of words is used for the Royal Wedding, if you are thinking of getting married yourself, take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and savour the words. You won’t need to rush off to your school edition of Shakespeare – it’s all there. Beautiful words. Words worthy of a wedding.

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (Little,Brown £16.99) by Alexander McCall Smith is available now. His latest book, A Conspiracy of Friends (Polygon, £16.99) will be available 1 May 2011.

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