What makes a wedding ceremony meaningful? We’ve spent some time thinking about this question — reflecting on our own experiences, talking to accomplished officiants, and consulting experts on ritual design.
The structure of a meaningful wedding ceremony can be better understood by splitting it up into three simpler components, what we call "the three C's":
- Community Connection
- Acknowledging Commitments
- Celebrating Love
While these category descriptions might be original, they may be expressed in more than one way elsewhere. They are fundamental.
Simply stating that you are having a wedding ceremony implies that you will incorporate these themes. This is why, when designing a wedding ceremony, it’s important to be attentive and intentional in how each component is expressed.
In this installment, we explore the concept of Community Connection.
Community Connection represents everything we do to share with and include the people that surround us. This means our family and friends — the loved ones that have long supported us. We include them explicitly in parts of the ceremony and communicate how they are part of our lives.
Why is this so important? Whether you identify as spiritual or not, the wedding ceremony is unquestionably a kind of sacred space. Your ability to connect to your community through your wedding and generate a supportive atmosphere is like providing fertile soil for the seed of marriage that you are planting. It’s not a stretch to say that in this way, the marriage ceremony makes possible something akin to a collective blessing for the couple. You can certainly elope or tie the knot in a courthouse, but to host a wedding ceremony in front of an audience is an intentional choice to prioritize the celebration and integration of the communities that raised each marrying partner.
So the wedding ceremony is a space to gather the love held in our community for the sake of a positive influence on the marriage. This isn’t just symbolic — community has a tangible effect. One study indicated that “the greater the number of people who attend a wedding, the lower the rate of divorce.”
This shows either that community presence is “nutritious” for a fledgling marriage or that couples who sustain a broad community are the kind that are less likely to divorce. In any case, the point remains: emphasizing community is invaluable when it comes to promoting a healthy and lasting partnership. Perhaps the study hints at the power of a ceremony to generate community as well; maybe try inviting a bunch of strangers to the wedding?
How Does Community Connection Fit Into the Ceremony?
Expressions of the couple’s relationship with their community makes its way into the ceremony in multiple ways. Here are some of them:
The procession, with the inclusion of special individuals in the wedding party, honors our closest circle. We make them visible to the rest of our community and go to them for emotional and logistical support. The procession is a hallmark of traditional ceremonies partly because it can be considered a ritual parade that proclaims the fact that the community is showing up for and supporting the marrying partners.
By highlighting the presence of the couple’s closest circle, the procession establishes a foundation for the rest of the ceremony as a space shared with others.
Readings and Speakers
Creating a space for readings allows certain guests to deliver a message that resonates with the intent of the ceremony, clarifying its purpose. Readings are ideally selected such that something special about the relationship between the reader and the couple is expressed. They are a great way to highlight the continuity between the couple’s values and their community’s.
The Seating Arrangement
Seating arrangements can reflect decisions about who we hold in high esteem or how we want our guests to relate to the moment. Do we put our parents at the front? Are chairs arranged traditionally or in a semicircle? Are families and friends mixed or placed in separate sections? These are all elements worth considering.
Being thoughtful about seating arrangement in any way is bound to help create an atmosphere of connection. For example, intentionally placing strangers together can encourage guests to expand and redefine who they acknowledge and include within their own circles.
The Officiant’s Speech
The officiant’s speech is a unique opportunity to explicitly acknowledge and share stories about those that have contributed to the couple’s arrival at a major life milestone. When the officiant is a friend or family member, they are ideally suited to weave a narrative of the couple that includes histories with others present for the ceremony.
No couple stands fully alone — their shared life is a result of the influence and contributions of at least a handful of other people. Surfacing this dynamic is a key component of a successful officiant speech.
The officiant can also mention deceased loved ones or friends that were unable to attend, paying tribute to community beyond the immediate here-and-now.
Unity rituals are often representative of culture, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. A creative unity ritual might also be a nod to family and friends (say, a unity cocktail if you're known for making use of the bar cart when hosting friends).
There is no ritual without community, so even if you’re going for a secular or “culturally agnostic” ritual, it broadcasts at minimum something about what you value and that you are a part of a group that holds such values.
You can even include a ritual that intentionally includes others. A son or daughter can help in lighting a candle. A parent or someone in the wedding party can help the couple don a ceremonial piece of clothing.
Community connection also encapsulates decisions we might make about the venue and any special significance it may have. A chosen location might have a connection to the couple’s history, an aspirational meaning, spiritual importance, or any other kind of symbolic significance.
In a more straightforward way, the chosen location may reflect the willingness of certain people to create space to host you. If you have family members who are financially contributing to your ceremony or are opening up a property for your use, your connection to them is more obviously instrumental.
Acknowledging that connection within the ceremony, with gratitude, whatever it may be, is a thoughtful and polite way to highlight the generosity that made the moment possible. Community connection is all about bringing to light that the two individuals at the altar are not alone.