Three Weddings, One Marriage

We did not set out to have three weddings. We were both married before and were in our 50s and 60s, so we didn’t have a strong desire to make a big fuss. When we met at Northern Yearly Meeting’s 2006 annual session, Eleanor was from Minneapolis and George was from Milwaukee. It seemed obvious that we would get married under the care of whichever meeting was in the city we chose to make our home. And we imagined that our friends, family, and members from the other meeting would travel there as was typical with other marriages we knew.

When we decided that George would move to Minneapolis, we assumed the marriage would be under the care of Minneapolis Meeting, and the wedding would be there. But as George contemplated the many relationships he would leave behind, it became clear how much Milwaukee Meeting had nurtured and challenged him to be ready for this next step. He began to see his meeting community as an important part of what he brought to the marriage, and it became more difficult to leave Milwaukee out. In the end, we were married under the care of both Meetings, each with a clearness committee and each with a meeting for worship with attention to marriage. We had two Quaker weddings two weeks apart, August 25, 2007, in Minneapolis and September 8 in Milwaukee.

And then, as if things were not already interesting enough, between the two weddings we moved from the Midwest to Pendle Hill, just outside Philadelphia—a dramatic change of plans when Eleanor accepted a staff position offered to her in June. So Eleanor, too, had to contemplate the many relationships she would leave behind, as well as the importance of Minneapolis Meeting to her spiritual development. This experience of the shifting nature of our relationships with both of our meetings immediately following our two weddings has led us to some reflections.

In the year before our Quaker weddings, Eleanor had left her job and was spending nine months as a resident student at Pendle Hill. By the end of 2006, we had met with each of our two marriage clearness committees, and felt well prepared. We decided to marry in the summer, after Eleanor finished her student year at Pendle Hill.

Except for one problem, which led us to our third wedding. Eleanor’s health insurance from her former job was going to run out December 31st. She could have gone on COBRA at great expense, but if we were married she could be added to George’s insurance under his employer at about a quarter of the cost. So we decided to proceed with a private civil marriage. On January 1, 2007, a Minneapolis judge came through the freshly plowed snow to the home where we were staying, changed out of her snow boots into her dress shoes, and married us, with our dear friend and one of her neighbors as witnesses. Under the laws of the civil government, we were now married. But we didn’t tell many people because we felt the real marriage would be our spiritual marriage under the care of our meetings.

Separating Civil and Spiritual Marriage

We separated the civil marriage from the spiritual marriage for practical reasons, but we gradually came to appreciate the clarity that this approach brought to our relationship with each other and with our civil and spiritual communities. Much of the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity is about stripping away distraction. With the civil marriage out of the way, the meaning of our Quaker marriages was not cluttered with legal, civil issues. Instead we focused on what was really important to us: declaring our covenant with each other before God, our family, our friends, and the community of Friends. This is the heart and soul of spiritual marriage, the covenant not just with each other, but with God and our community—and not just the gift they were to us, but also the gift we were to them.

Civil marriage, on the other hand, is simply a transaction with government in the service of social goals such as extending rights and duties regarding health, death, taxes, and property, and the protection of dependent spouses and children. Often clumsy and unjust, civil marriage still contains essential rights that justice and equality demand be extended to all couples.

Because we had separated our civil and spiritual marriages, it became clear to us what a good idea that was. "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s." We Quakers have no business acting as agents for the state. At Quaker meetings for worship with attention to marriage, everyone present signs the marriage certificate as witnesses to the spiritual marriage. Why should we also sign the state’s civil marriage certificate? Why should we be agents for the state, particularly in this matter where the state refuses to extend the rights of marriage equally to all its citizens? Imagine a true separation of church and state where the only legal civil marriage was one performed by the state. Then everyone would be free to pursue the spiritual marriage of their choice, and no one religious view could hold everyone else hostage. With that separation, it would be much harder for the state to maintain its current discrimination against same sex marriage, and marriages performed by spiritual communities would take on a renewed level of seriousness.

Taking Spiritual Marriage Seriously

In recent years, Minneapolis Meeting has worked to make marriage under its care truly extend beyond the traditional marriage clearness process. It formed a Marriage Oversight Committee, which provides guidance for the marriage clearness committees, and also facilitates an ongoing relationship with the couple. Its focus includes the entire life of the marriage, recognizing the differing needs of young families, empty nesters, and elderly couples. One year after our wedding, we received an invitation to be in touch with our clearness committee, and suggesting ways to do so.

Marriages fail at an alarming rate in the larger society, and unfortunately the Religious Society of Friends does not perform any better. It is difficult to practice the covenant of intimacy in marriage when the larger society distracts us and lures us away from an intimate relationship with self, community, place, and God. Spiritual marriage brings us back to our meetings where we find the understanding, wisdom, perseverance, support, and joy for our spiritual covenant with God, our community, and our marriage. Otherwise a civil marriage would do just fine.

Long before we met, our experiences in our meetings helped shape our ideas and feelings about spiritual marriage. Often in our early discussions about our marriage, we found ourselves referencing examples of couples we knew from our meetings. Our marriage clearness committees asked tough questions and engaged us in thoughtful consideration of the challenges and opportunities ahead. Our marriage vows are a covenant to each other and a covenant with God and our community. Our meetings accepted our marriages under their care. Reflecting on our experience has clarified to us just how much our meetings influence the journey toward marriage and continue to nurture the marriage throughout its life.

Our reflections on marriage raise up a more general truth. By faithfully attending to our meetings as our chosen community of Spirit, we can experience a depth of knowing and compassion not otherwise possible without God’s grace. This knowing and compassion challenges us when we are stuck, supports us when we are suffering, and celebrates with us in our joys. We are known, cared for, and useful. This is covenant community.

Proximity Matters, Community Matters

But what of those of us who physically relocate? We, for example, moved away from our covenant communities immediately after our weddings. By choosing to move to Pendle Hill we have become displaced, separated from those who know us best, and who we know best. Our covenant with past communities remains intact, but the intimacy is weakened. We remain connected and we visit, but it is no longer the same.
We have been lucky to experience much faithfulness with our past communities and much welcoming from the new. But it is challenging to form new intimacy with a new community and new place while retaining our covenant with the old. And of course the new contains none of our history, and no intimate knowledge or understanding of our experiences. With time we will develop new history and new covenants, but it is humbling to confront our difficulties along the way.

Several years ago, a Quaker couple with young children who had become members of Minneapolis Meeting asked the meeting to take their marriage under its care because they had quickly moved away from the meeting under whose care they had been married. They went through a clearness process with the meeting, and this new covenant was celebrated with meeting for worship and a reception. Perhaps this reflects a broader need, not yet addressed by many couples and meetings, for reaffirming and re-engaging this care and covenant whenever we transfer to another meeting.

This same need applies equally to all of the non-couples, single people, alternative relationships, transitions, and lifestyles that also make up our communities. What are we doing to enrich, strengthen, and deepen the power of true spiritual community within our meetings?

Our "one marriage with three weddings" has brought home to us the importance of our meetings for learning and practicing intimacy, integrity, and connectedness in community. It is this practice of spiritual community that best nurtures and challenges us and deepens our covenant with each other and with God.

Eleanor Harris

Eleanor Harris, director of development and outreach for Pendle Hill Quaker retreat and study center in Wallingford, Pa., is a member of Minneapolis (Minn.) Meeting. George Owen, volunteer sustainability coordinator for Pendle Hill, is a member of Milwaukee (Wis.) Meeting. They are currently sojourning at Middletown (Pa.) Meeting.