David Swain and Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
1. The Nontheist’s story
Rae and I decided to get married. I won’t go into the background – it goes back over half a century, so we were both of full age, perhaps overfull. We decided we would like a Quaker wedding, so went through all the hoops. We needed Regional Meeting approval as Rae was a Member and I was only an attender. That was done without problems. But then we thought about vows.
The standard vow as set out in the Handbook of Practice and Procedure is:
“Friends, in the presence of God and this assembly, I take my friend Rae Patricia to be my wife, trusting with divine assistance to be loving and faithful as long as we both on earth shall live.”
I said: “Well, I don’t actually believe in God and divine assistance. Could we change it a little?”
Rae is not a non-theist, but is very tolerant, and said that she understood how I felt, but would like us both to have the same vows. So we put together something we were both comfortable with.
Then we made the mistake of looking in the Handbook again. We discovered that the vows could only be changed with the permission of the Regional Meeting. Now, the New South Wales Regional Meeting had been held recently, and the next scheduled meeting was uncomfortably close to the wedding date, so it was necessary to call a Special Regional Meeting.
The Special Regional Meeting was duly called, and was attended largely by Friends and friends of our local meeting. I started by saying that if I was to be married in, say, an Anglican church, I would use the prescribed magic words, demythologising in my head. I thought, however, Quakers could do better. To pronounce vows containing words I didn’t believe in, or which no longer had a definable meaning, seemed to offend against the Testimony of Integrity.
Quakers have no set doctrines, but they do have Testimonies, I argued. I would be happy to have a vow based on the Testimonies. The meeting discussed our suggestions at length. I don’t think there were any other nontheists in the meeting, but the discussions were tolerant, understanding, and supportive. I could sense that some members were saddened by our suggestions, and at times I was tempted to drop the whole thing so as not to distress them. But in the end we agreed on the following vow:
Friends, in the presence of this community, I take this my friend Rae Patricia to be my wife, promising to be loving and faithful as long as we both shall live, and endeavouring to live together according to the Quaker testimonies of equality, truth, simplicity and peace.
I’ve learnt a lot about Quakers from this experience.
2. The Theist’s story
David claims we only disagree about two things: when to put milk into coffee, and the existence of God. He is of a scientific turn of mind – he says he doesn’t like to use the word “God” because he cannot attach a clear meaning to it. I reckon that if you think you can come up with a clear definition of God, you have definitely strayed into error, if not lunacy. That doesn’t mean that there is no divine purpose or oversight in the universe.
Our theological differences have never prevented us from going to Meeting for Worship together or involving ourselves in the life of the Meeting. They only really became an issue when we decided to get married.
I have to confess that although I have been a local and regional meeting clerk, I am not an avid reader of the Handbook. However, I knew that one needed the permission of Regional Meeting to get married, and we duly applied for permission, describing ourselves as one Member and one Attender. Permission was granted, and I thought little more about it until directed by the Registering Officer to read the relevant sections of the Handbook. There we discovered that if you want to change the wording of the marriage vow you must first obtain the approval of your Regional Meeting. Thus, as David has described, a special meeting was called.
David and I had prepared a Draft Vow. Although we do not agree on theology, we do agree on the Testimonies, and we decided to make them the focus of our vows which would go like this: “Friends, I take David John to be my husband, promising to be loving and faithful as long as we both shall live, and promising to live together according to the Quaker testimonies of equality, truth, simplicity and peace.”
As I would have been happy with the traditional vow, David spoke first to explain why he could not say this vow with integrity. I then tried to explain why I supported him. Basically, I felt the marriage would have to be on the basis of what we agreed on, not what we disagreed on. Therefore I wanted us to have the same vows.
Did I not think I was “in the presence of God” as stated in the standard vow? Yes, I believe we are always in the presence of God, and not only in a Meeting for Worship. However, in no other Meeting for Worship do we publicly declare that we are in the presence of God, and I do not see why a Meeting for Worship for Marriage need be any different. Did I not wish to ask for “divine assistance”? Well, I believe that God is always offering assistance, whether we ask for it or not, and that the lack of a form of words will not mean that divine assistance will be denied to us. Furthermore, the vows are only the first piece of ministry offered at a Meeting for Worship for Marriage. If anyone else would like to take the opportunity to publicly ask for divine blessing on our marriage we would both accept this as a loving gesture.
I also added, rather waspishly, that there were other phases in one’s life when divine guidance is sorely needed; but no-one urges us to publicly ask for divine guidance when we have children, or go through a difficult period at work, or have to care for a dying relative. I have been living with David for three years, and I cannot imagine an easier person to live with. Of course no-one knows what difficulties lie ahead, but that applies to the unmarried as well as the married.
Then we came to the number of testimonies we had mentioned. Why only four? The reason was that we felt these were the testimonies particularly relevant to a marriage. I was not sure what it meant to live as a married couple according to the Testimony of Community – to me it conjured up an image of a hippy commune. However we wanted to get married in a Quaker meeting house because we felt part of the Quaker community. This difficulty was overcome by adding “in the presence of this community” at the beginning of the vows. We also agreed to change “promising to live together according to the Quaker testimonies” to “endeavouring to live together ” in recognition of the fact that the Testimonies are not easy to live up to!
The experience of getting approval for the vows was a bit unnerving – after all, the invitations to the wedding had already gone out! What were we going to do if the meeting could not reach unity? But in the event we spent a very “gathered” hour, and a variety of views were expressed with great respect and consideration. I think it was worthwhile.