Last year, my husband and I asked that our marriage be taken under the care of Salmon Bay Meeting in Seattle. There was nothing unusual about this, except that at the time we had been married for 16 years.
Why go through meeting with a clearness committee and having a "wedding" if you’re already married? The easy answer is that at the time we got married, we were not part of a Friends meeting. My husband had been attending meetings off and on for years but had never become a member, while I had never been to a Friends meeting before and didn’t know if Quakerism was for me.
However, we agreed that we wanted a spiritual home that we could share, and scarcely more than a year after our marriage, we visited Salmon Bay Meeting and felt we’d found one. My husband became a member in 1990 and I in 1994. Over the years, we watched several couples request a clearness process, and later attended their weddings. I remember thinking that there was something extraordinary about the Quaker approach to marriage, and I wondered if it was too late for us to ask the meeting to take us under its care.
Faith and Practice for our yearly meeting provided one answer. It said:
On occasion, a couple joined together outside of the Meeting, or, after years of marriage, desire to renew their vows in the presence of the Divine and the loving community of their Meeting. A couple can request a Clearness Committee to explore the health of their relationship and to chart their future. The celebration is a wonderful opportunity for the Meeting to express its loving support of the couple in the specially called Meeting for Worship.
But that didn’t seem to be enough to convince us that what we wanted to do was the right thing. Both introverts, we hesitated to draw attention to ourselves in this way. Since we were 40 and 45 when we married, we weren’t exactly the picture of fresh young love. Nor were we celebrating one of those "marker" anniversaries—the 10th, say, or the 25th. No, we were just an ordinary couple in a good, solid relationship. Why take the meeting’s time, providing us with a clearness committee and planning a celebration? Surely there were other, more pressing needs for the meeting to attend to.
Still, the thought of having the meeting’s care of our relationship remained in the back of my mind, especially when my husband and I attended another couple’s "state of the union" meetings. My husband had served on this couple’s clearness committee and they invited him and the other members, along with their spouses, to a yearly gathering at which they reported how they were doing. I was impressed by the framework that they had available to them for assessing the state of their marriage. It was this that finally led me to have an informal talk with the clerk of our meeting’s Oversight Committee, who assured me it would be entirely appropriate for us to make this request.
So we did. In late summer we met with our clearness committee for the first time, none of us too sure about what we should be doing. This situation was different from the usual clearness for marriage, so the committee’s role was less clear. When they asked us what we wanted, we both talked about "opening up" our relationship to the community. So they asked us to tell them our story—how we met, how we decided to marry, what our first wedding had been like. By the end of the evening they felt they knew us better, but there was more work to be done, so we set another meeting.
At the second meeting we covered the issues Faith and Practice said should be considered when any couple requests that their marriage be taken under a meeting’s care. My husband and I talked about our value systems, our day-to-day lives, our shared parenthood in raising my now-adult son, and our thoughts about the future. By the end of this discussion, the committee said they were happy to recommend that the meeting take our marriage under its care. We set a final committee meeting to plan the celebration.
Then we got stuck. Our old fears returned. We asked ourselves, was this really worth doing? Would anyone want to come? What were we going to say at the ceremony? We were torn between doing something simple and quick at a regular meeting for worship, and holding a separate event that would require rental of a space (since our meeting does not own a building) and more extensive preparations. We talked it over with our committee at the third meeting. They reassured us that people would want to come, and that they would support us in whatever we wanted to do.
Shortly after that, the clerk of our clearness committee called and said she had found a possible rental space for us. It was in the former rectory of an Episcopal church, in what had once been the living room, now serving as a library. It was cozy, comfortable, and just large enough for the modest crowd we expected. I took a deep breath and rented it for a Saturday night, January 10.
I created and printed invitations, and from there the clearness committee took over—finding child care, and planning food and a few simple decorations. One of them agreed to be the person who introduced the ceremony and explained the procedure to non-Quakers.
Meanwhile, my husband and I had to decide what we would say. Since what we were doing is generally called a renewal of vows, we turned first to the vows we had exchanged when we married in 1987. We had written our own vows, largely because we believed we would have said the traditional vows by rote, without taking in their meaning. But when we pulled out our original vows, we realized they had little to do with the reality of our marriage. So we decided we would each prepare something we wanted to say to the other—and that neither of us would know in advance what the other was going to say.
We did retain one thing from our wedding, however—the reading of a story called "The Rabbi’s Gift," which I had found at the beginning of M. Scott Peck’s book A Different Drum. The story tells of a monastery that has dwindled in size over the years but is revived when an old rabbi tells the abbot that one of his number is the messiah. The monks, believing that to be true, begin to treat each other much better, and as a result others are attracted to their brotherhood. We had asked the minister at our wedding to tell this story because we thought it said something important about marriage, a relationship that is, after all, about living with someone else and treating them well. Sixteen years later, it still seemed appropriate.
When the time for the celebration arrived, we were both extremely nervous as we made our way to the appointed site. Our clearness committee and other Friends were already there, getting everything set up. The room was beautiful with candlelight and fresh flowers. We disappeared into another room until it was time for the ceremony to begin.
The celebration itself was magical. When we entered the worship room and sat down, I looked around at all the faces. Most of the members of our small meeting were there, as were a number of our friends from other places. There were smiles everywhere. I would have smiled back if I hadn’t been so tense. I listened to the explanation of the process without really hearing it. The silence, when it came, was both welcome and expectant.
Then my husband and I stood up. I spoke to him of extraordinary respect, words I had borrowed from "The Rabbi’s Gift." I said that the greatest enemy in marriage is the tendency to take the partner for granted, to notice him only when he does something you dislike. I said that the best thing I could promise him for our future together was that I would treat him always with extraordinary respect. My husband spoke of both our marriage and of Quakerism as being an "affirmation of the potential for hope and creativity and love in the world." He said he thought we would be most likely to find opportunities to express these in the world living together and living in mutual care by and for Salmon Bay Meeting.
We sat down, and our certificate was brought to us to sign. Afterward there was a long silence. Then the messages began. They spoke of marriage and they spoke of us, but what came through beyond the words was their love for us. It was an overwhelming "yes" to what we were doing.
That feeling continued the following morning at meeting. The worship was full and rich, and afterward many people made a special point of telling us how much our celebration had meant to them. One woman, married 35 years, told me, "The things you said—they’re the sorts of things you think and feel, but don’t say. To have the opportunity to stand up and say them to your partner, in public, is priceless."
Our marriage renewal celebration, which initially had seemed almost selfish, was actually a gift. It was an affirmation, not just of our commitment to each other, but of the transforming power of enduring love. What we promised each other this time were things we had learned were important over 16-plus years of marriage. We were not renewing original vows, but making a new contract, one informed by hard experience, but still undertaken with great love.
Our marriage is not the same as it was before we went through this process. In the months since our celebration, I’ve looked at my husband with new eyes, and I’ve found myself thinking of my promise to him every single day. Making a promise in the presence of one’s Quaker community is not to be taken lightly, and having their support means a great deal.
My message to long-married couples who came to Quakerism after marriage is that having a clearness process and marriage celebration can benefit both you and your meeting in ways you couldn’t have imagined beforehand.
On July 25, 2004, my husband and I celebrated our 17th anniversary, but, thanks to our Friends meeting, we are newlyweds.