One statement of marriage vows, permissible in the Church of England, runs as follows:-
I, N , take you, N ,
to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part,
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.
These are worth pondering carefully.
“I take you” – Marriage is the freely-chosen action of an individual who entrusts himself or herself to another. There is something very powerful here: the power of acceptance, without qualifications or conditions. We do not ‘take’ the other on condition that s/he becomes like ourselves. A copy of oneself would be a cheap imitation.
“To be…” – Marriage entails more than a change of role: it entails a transition from one state to another, from being a man or a woman to being a husband or a wife, and then, usually, to being a father or a mother. But, of course, these transitions are not one-off affairs: they are continuing processes that require continual change.
“My wife/husband” – Some marriage texts have the wording “My lawfully wedded wife/husband”. This is good, because it emphasises the social and community aspect of marriage. Marriage has significance beyond the couple themselves. Marriage is not only for our own private good: it is also for the good of society. Again, the presiding minister may address the congregation, asking, “Will you do all in your power to support and uphold this marriage?” This too is good (because they will need all the help they can get!). Then again, it is important that the vows are made before friends and family, for this lends additional solemnity to them, and underlines the fact that a promise of life-time commitment has been made before many witnesses.
“To have” – This speaks of the joy that comes when a person one loves and respects gives themselves to us. “My beloved is mine, and I am his”. But, of course, ‘to have’ includes sharing sorrows as well as joys. Disappointments and setbacks are not interruptions in the marriage; they are part of it.
“To hold from this day forward” – This speaks of the permanence of the marriage vows. How do you hold your spouse during the (hopefully long) years of marriage? How do you speak about him or her when he or she is not there? Do your children and friends know how much you value him or her? Do you tend to empower, or restrict, him or her?
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” – This makes us face up to the realities of married life. It will not always be a bed of roses. Sooner or later, challenges will come. Let us be prepared for them, rather than surprised by them. Facing life’s trials together can bring the kind of joy that James speaks of (James 1:2).
“To love” – As we know, English is not as rich as Greek in its vocabulary of love. Married love includes eros – the love that seeks to possess, agape – the love that seeks the good of the other, and phileo – the love that befriends. Different kinds of love will need to be prominent at different stages of the marriage.
“And to cherish” – This speaks of prizing one another, of treating one another as of great value. To cherish is to rejoice in whom you have married. It is to be content with what God has provided. It is therefore the antidote to coveting another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. It is to speak of one’s spouse as ‘My husband’ or ‘My wife’ with pride.
“Till death us do part” – Here is another reality statement. This covenant will last until death, but then it will be broken by death.
“According to God’s holy law” – Whereas the marriage must be registered with the appropriate human authorities, the covenant itself is established and sustained by God. It is he who first pronounced it ‘not good’ for the man to be alone. It is he who first brought the man and the woman together.
Based on material by Paddy Ducklow, in The Complete Handbook of Everyday Christianity, art. ‘Marriage’.