The Meaning of Marriage

“For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests’ or magistrates’;for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s; and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marrynone; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.”

George Fox, 1669

“At the beginning of the 21st century marriage has become a contract between individuals and is no longerseen as the way in which communities renew themselves through thecreation of new life and new energy for life. In contrast we need tohave faith that the synergy created within marriage will flow outinto the world and that in God we have the power to make rightrelationships.”

Roger and Susan Sawtell, 2006

Marriage has a special status in Quakerpractice. From the very beginning – for longer even than membership– Friends have regarded marriage as a state so momentous that it requires an explicit, solemn enactment in a meeting for worship. Friends understand marriage to be equally available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Friends recognize marriage to be something quite distinct from simple cohabitation, no matter how loving. It is first and foremost a spiritual union, not merely an emotional or physical or legal one, although each of these aspectshas its importance. Crucially, marriage involves an unconditional andexpress commitment, not only to one another, but equally of thecouple reciprocally to the meeting, to the community, to society, andto God: the commitment to be a couple and to stay a couple. It is acommitment so profound that it must be made in public, witnessed inmeeting, and recognized by the law of the land. Those who make itmust fully intend the commitment to be lifelong; marriage is not astate that should be entered into or departed from lightly.

Thomas Ellwood, recalling his own marriage in 1669, wrote of the value of the meeting for worship: ‘Wesensibly felt the Lord with us and joining us, the sense whereof remained with us all our lifetime, and was of good service and verycomfortable to us on all occasions.’

The basis of a Friends’ marriage remains the same as in the early days of the Society. The simpleQuaker wedding where the couple, together with their friends, gather in worship is for Friends the most natural setting for the two concerned to make a commitment to each other in the presence of God. With their declaration they take each other freely and equally aslifelong partners, committing themselves to joining their lives together in loving companionship, asking God’s blessing on their union. Friends have always seen both members of a marriage as ‘equalcomrades’. With God’s help their love for each other can deepenand change in a lifetime of marriage together.

As a number of those attending the wedding may be unfamiliar with worship based on silence, it is particularly important that there should be a good attendance of Friends who come concerned for the spiritual depth of the occasion. A meeting for worship for the solemnization of a marriage is held in the same form and spirit as a Friends’ meeting for worship at other times. It is an occasion when those joining in marriage may gain inspiration and help from the meeting, which may continue to be a source of strength to them during their married life. It is also an opportunity for all those who attend the meeting for worship to ask God’s blessing on the marriage and to support the couple in their prayers.

Early Friends realized the importance of recording marriages which had taken place in a meeting for worship and increasingly recognized their responsibility for reporting such marriages to the authorities. They fervently maintained, however, that marriage was a solemn contract made in the presence of God in the meeting for worship. From the very early days of the Society stress was laid on the need for serious consideration prior to marriage, the clearness of each person from all other engagements,the publicity given to the intention of marriage and the value of the meeting for worship, in which the declarations were made by the couple in the presence of a number of members of the Society.

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