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The Nurture of Quaker Marriages

This article has two themes, both of which address what it means to be married under the care of the meeting. First comes a detailed description of the author’s interpretation and observations of the process of marriage in a Quaker meeting. Following this is a narration of her own experiences of caring for marriage after the wedding—in her case, as a part of a group of couples concerned for each other’s ongoing healthy relationships.

The Clearness Process for a Quaker Marriage

When a couple asks to be married “under the care,” they are asking for the spiritual blessings of their faith community. They are expressing their willingness to seek spiritual guidance in living their lives together. They know that they will be asked to meet with a clearness committee to examine their readiness to make a commitment. Faith and Practice of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting clearly states that the same clearness process is used for same gender couples as for heterosexual couples. The final decision for clearness rests with each monthly meeting.

The process begins when the couple writes a letter to the clerk of the meeting, stating that they wish to be married “under the care of the meeting.” The clerk reads this letter at the next meeting for business. At that time, it is referred to the committee that appoints a clearness committee. In different meetings there are various names for this committee, but in Abington (Pa.) Meeting the letter is given to the Care of Members Committee and is read at their next committee meeting.

Other meetings may have a different process, but in Abington Meeting, in past years, serving on the clearness committee was something that we rotated within the Care of Members Committee, assigning two or three people to meet with the couple. We are a fairly large Meeting and have had many weddings. What we learned from some couples was that they felt that the time spent together was more of a social occasion rather than a time of probing questions. Several couples expressed their definite disappointment with the process.

At one of our Care of Members Committee meetings, a person fairly new to our committee expressed disappointment with the clearness process she had observed when she had been asked to accompany two other more experienced members. In response to this concern, the clerk of the committee asked all members to read an issue of The Pastoral Care Newsletter that focused on marriage, and to come to the next meeting prepared to discuss it. In one portion of this newsletter, Jan Hoffman had reported on clearness procedures in various monthly meetings. She mentioned that some meetings have a permanent Clearness Committee. The newest member of our Care of Members Committee suggested that we use this idea.

We now have a completely new process. The Clearness Committee for Marriage is a subcommittee of the Care of Members Committee. First of all, we went outside of the Care of Members Committee to find two more individuals to serve who would relate to younger couples. We now have three women and two men who form this new subcommittee. This group used the publication of Friends General Conference, Living With Oneself and Others, which has queries for couples considering marriage. They modified some queries, added a few, and they send these to the couple a few weeks before they plan to meet with them. The last question is, “Are there any questions that you have avoided discussing with your partner?”

In the past, a clearness committee met with the couple once. With the new process, they first meet with each of the couple separately, with half of the Clearness committee meeting with one person, and the other half meeting with the other person. Then the entire Clearness Committee meets to share comments. Then they all meet with the couple, and more than one meeting may be necessary. Only then does the Clearness Committee report back with its recommendation to the Care of Members Committee. If the report is to recommend that the monthly meeting take this marriage under its care, the clerk of the Care of Members Committee includes this as part of its monthly report at the next monthly meeting for business.

This is not a fast process. It can take several weeks before completion. The Care of Members Committee feels that Abington Meeting has now moved closer to providing the level of marriage counseling that is offered in most other faith communities. For couples that do not wish to submit to the clearness process, or wish to have a wedding at an earlier date, they can still be married “in the manner of Friends.” The actual wedding ceremony would be the same.

Care of the Wedding and Care of the Marriage

When a couple is married under the care of the meeting, the monthly meeting is not just responsible for providing guidance for a Quaker wedding, but it should also have the care of the couple in mind up to and beyond the wedding day.

After a couple has met with the clearness committee and the approval for the marriage has been reported to the monthly meeting, the couple chooses three or four persons to serve as their oversight committee—individuals or couples. If the couple comes from two different monthly meetings, there can be individuals on the oversight committee from both meetings. These individuals will help the couple with the practical details of planning a Quaker wedding. Some couples may never have witnessed a Quaker wedding.

An important early responsibility for the couple is to decide the wording of their vows and the type of marriage certificate they wish to use. Unless the couple wishes to purchase a pre-worded marriage certificate, such as those available from Friends General Conference where the couple fills in the blanks with names and dates, they will need to find someone who can prepare a hand-printed certificate. Friends Journal carries advertisements of individuals who offer this service. Many couples wish to write their own vows. The vows they say at their wedding should be identical to the words that are printed on their marriage certificate. The couple should also have an estimate of the number of wedding guests because space on the certificate must be reserved for signatures of all who attend the wedding. It takes time to prepare this certificate. The oversight committee should be clear about the importance of these early decisions to allow for sufficient preparation time.

Abington Meeting is a fairly large meeting and does have frequent requests from couples to be married at the meetinghouse. The role of the oversight committee is to raise questions about details that the couple may not have considered. The Care of Members Committee has prepared a pamphlet, Getting Married at Abington Meeting, to assist couples in the various decisions, including whether they are being married “in the manner of Friends” or “under the care of the Meeting.”

The date and time for the wedding and rehearsal should be cleared with the meeting calendar. At the rehearsal or before, the couple needs to choose someone on the oversight committee to open and close meeting. This can be the same person or two people. The marriage license should be brought to the rehearsal and kept by one member of the oversight committee.

The couple is encouraged to make sure that the person they have selected to read the certificate is present at the rehearsal. It helps if all persons who will be in the wedding party are also present for the rehearsal, but this is not always possible. Experience has proven that a second “walk through” at the rehearsal is wise.

On the day of the wedding, someone from the oversight committee should arrive at the meetinghouse before guests arrive. There are generally practical concerns where someone familiar with the meetinghouse needs to be present, such as the location of the rest rooms, glasses for water, or parking assistance.

Generally one person from the Oversight Committee is the last to be seated after determining that all in the wedding party are ready at the appointed hour. The oversight committee is seated near the couple. At Abington Meeting, we have two special wedding chairs for the couple being married.

A Quaker wedding in an unprogrammed meeting is very different from a traditional church wedding. The couple enters as equals. A third person is not needed to “give another in marriage.” Clergy are not required. After the couple and any attendants have entered and are seated, the person that the couple has chosen to open meeting gives a quick explanation of what happens at a Quaker wedding and how it ends.

After all the explanations, when the couple feels centered, they stand, say their vows to each other, and exchange rings if desired, followed by their first married kiss. The couple is then seated. A table holding the marriage certificate is carried to the couple and placed where they can comfortably sign their names. This is the time that the parties indicate if they are keeping their surnames or assuming the surname of the other.

It is important to use archival-quality pens so the ink on the certificate will never fade, and it is a good idea to have a spare. The table is then removed, and the certificate is given to the one chosen to read the entire certificate aloud, including the names just signed.

After the reading, the certificate is returned to the table and all enter into silence. In the opening remarks, anyone present was encouraged to speak during this time. Sometimes there are wonderful memories recalled, sibling stories told, best wishes extended, and new members are welcomed into the families. Tears and laughter are not strangers in a Quaker wedding, and sometimes there are even expressions of healing of a relationship. Every wedding is different.

It is the responsibility of the Oversight Committee to decide when to end the wedding. When it seems that most who have wanted to speak have had an opportunity, the ceremony ends with the shaking of hands. The person chosen to close meeting then asks all to remain seated while the wedding party and family leave the room.

This is also the time that the person on the Oversight Committee stresses the importance that everyone in the room sign the marriage certificate, even the children. This signing as witnesses to the marriage is the equivalent of “I now pronounce you” that would be the final words in a traditional wedding.

The couple chooses someone to supervise the signing of the certificate. There are usually lines penciled in for the anticipated number of guests. Spaces near the top can be reserved for the family members who may be involved in a receiving line and will sign later. Names are completed across one line before moving down to the next. Children can be assisted in signing.

In Pennsylvania, one of the two responsibilities for the Oversight Committee is to see that the marriage license is signed by the new couple and two members of the Oversight Committee and the appropriate section is returned to the courthouse of the county where the license was obtained. The second is the reporting at the next meeting for business. One of the Oversight Committee members reports that the marriage was held in good order, giving the complete names of the couple and the date of the wedding. They also report if one has assumed the surname of the other. This information is recorded in the minutes and eventually becomes a part of its archives.

In the best of circumstances, the monthly meeting continues its “care of the marriage” after the wedding. If the couple has remained in the community, the Oversight Committee may invite them for dinner near their anniversary. If they remain active in the meeting, a continuing concern is easier to maintain. Often a couple has moved away, and this requires a more creative approach to keep in touch. A telephone call near the anniversary, or any other time, would be one way. It is appropriate to ask, “How is your marriage?” A card is less personal, but would be welcomed.

A Marriage Group

Because my husband, Charley, and I had been asked to be on an oversight committee by four couples within two years, we decided to start a “marriage group” and invited these couples to be a part. We added another couple who were married under the care of the Meeting before we knew them, and another couple who were already married when they came to the meeting. For three of the couples it was a second marriage for one of the partners.

We decided to have a potluck supper on a summer evening. To begin, following some great food, Charley and I shared an essay on our marriage that we had written at Pendle Hill when we were resident students for a term. Each student was required to have an end-of-semester project. Since we had celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary during our time there, we decided to write a chronicle of our marriage, the ups and down, warts and all. We were candid and honest about the problems we had faced, our faults, and how we gradually changed and we shared all of this with this new group at our first meeting.

We were not Quakers when we met in a college class in a church in California. Later we were married in a small chapel in that church. It was wartime; Charley was a newly commissioned officer in the Army Medical Corp. He arrived from Texas on a Friday, and on Saturday we decided to get married. There wasn’t any time for any kind of marriage counseling. We were married on Tuesday, and he left on Thursday to return to Texas to find us a place to live and give me time to give notice at my job. We had four short months together before he was sent to Europe. We lived in a rented room in the home of a widow from the church. We shared a bathroom and kitchen. I had everything to learn about cooking. We jokingly say that Charley could fry the steak and I could cut the avocado.

Although we probably never discussed the subject, we both knew that we intended to marry for keeps. Our relationship to the church had been important to both of us since we were young. We expected this to continue. The reality before us was knowing that Charley was going to war, and that he might not return. Each night, we knelt by the bed and prayed together, out loud.

Charley served 202 days as a combat medical officer, during which time he lived through the Battle of the Bulge. He returned to begin graduate school and we resumed sharing our lives together. Neither of us was provided satisfactory role models from our families of origin for a good marriage or good parenting. We did not have good communication skills. We wasted hours and hours in trying to establish who was to blame for whatever had happened. We shared with the group that we learned that we could drop the blame, and each ask what we could do to correct the problem or even discuss how we might prevent it from happening again.

We shared that assumptions had been a major problem through the years. Many conversations went, “I thought that you meant …” or “I thought you were going to do.…” Gradually we learned to stop and verbally reflect back what we thought we had heard and correct any misinformation.

We shared that we both sought professional counseling because of some family problems and “emotional garbage” from our past. We learned that neither of us knew how to handle anger because we were afraid of losing the other. My father left after a divorce, and Charley’s mother had died when he was young. Most of Charley’s energy went into his career as a college professor and I was left with the feeling that I was a single mom with four children and that Charley simply lived in the same house.

We had a lot of fun also. We took car trips out West to visit family. We went camping and took part in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, and PTA. We always attended Sunday School and church as a family. From the outside, we looked like a pretty “together” family, but we were not. Although we never discussed the subject, I was considering giving the marriage one more year—but Charley was not aware of this. I had become very discontented with the church we were attending. Then I visited Abington Meeting, and I felt I had “come home” to something I did not know existed. I began attending meeting, and some time later Charley and the children began attending. Later we began some counseling. These two influences turned our marriage around.

We began our marriage with a shared faith and it has served us through the years in some tough times.

We ended by assuring our marriage group: “If we could make it, you can make it.”

At our potluck the second year, two couples were willing to share a current problem. The issue for one couple was the handling of finances. The one earning the living was not the one that was good at paying the bills on time. The other was good at handling money but was not the one earning income. Another couple was getting adjusted to always having another person in their lives. One needed “more space” and the other needed “togetherness.” As a group, these couples were just getting acquainted, and there were some cautious comments by a few of the others.

In the next few years, couples were easier with sharing what was going on in the marriages. At first, the women did most of the sharing. There was finally a breakthrough when the men joined in, especially talking about their fathers. All but one man wanted to learn to be a very different person than their fathers.

One year the couples each found a private spot and each wrote what they appreciated about their partner, and then shared those thoughts with each other. Later, when we met back as a group, they shared whatever they were comfortable in sharing. It was very affirming to all to hear the other partner express their appreciation for the other person. Sex was not a subject that was ever brought into the comments or discussions.

This group has been meeting annually each summer for 12 years. The collective wisdom within this group has seemed to support each couple in facing its life situation. Two of the women have experienced breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy. We have all learned from them that the recovery takes a very long time. One has experienced a second brain tumor surgery, and we have all learned of the variety of spiritual resources that she is using to live with her situation. Another couple dealt with the decision of whether to enlarge their family by adopting or taking a foster child. Some couples have utilized the Quaker counseling services when they hit some hard places. One marriage has ended in divorce, but the couple remain friends. One member of the couple continues to participate in the group gatherings.

Charley and I share from the perspective of a couple in our 80s and the concerns that come with getting older. We have had to adjust to the fact that we cannot drive at night. When Charley does not wear his hearing aids, the questions and answers do not always match and can sometimes be quite funny. We also share the joy of being able to square dance in the winter in Arizona and feel such gratitude for the gift of good health.

We have recently celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary.

Our beliefs have changed significantly from those early days. We have learned that “please” and “thank you” are gentle words but contribute greatly to making everyday living much smoother. Seeking spiritual guidance has increasingly become a part of our lives. We don’t pray together except for a silent grace when we eat an occasional meal in our own apartment at our retirement community. Finding the Religious Society of Friends has been central to the two people we have become. Whatever is ahead of us, we know that we have a source of strength that will sustain us.

Ruth Peterson is a member of Abington (Pa.) Meeting, where she is a member of the Care of Members Committee and formerly served as its clerk.


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