The day after our engagement people began bombarding us with advice and suggestions for how to plan our wedding. As the bride-to-be, it was assumed I would be in charge of planning everything. Ryan’s role was simply to show up when I told him to show up, wearing what I told him to wear. Countless men (and women) clapped Ryan on the back and insisted that he “just let her do whatever she wants…your job is to stay out of the way.” Many of these people, ironically, are the same ones who expected Ryan to suddenly take the role as the leader as soon as we were married, despite having spent the months before our wedding in complete submission to my wishes.
We watched countless others take this route. But it was simply not an option for us. You see, a little less than a year before our wedding, we had become disenchanted with the church’s traditional view on gender roles. Instead of seeing marriage as a hierarchy, with a husband in authority over his submissive wife, we came to believe a wife and husband should be equals in marriage. For us, that meant making decisions together and both being wholeheartedly involved in the planning of our married life. If we disagreed about something, the decision would be made by the person best qualified or most invested in it. And, we always waited to move forward until we both agreed.
So, when we went to register for kitchen items, Ryan actually took the lead in making the decisions, much to the surprise of the store employees who whispered to me that they wished their fiancés (or husbands) cared enough to even look interested in such purchases. But it only made sense for Ryan to take the reins in that area, because between the two of us, he’s the chef; he’s the one who enjoys cooking for its own sake (and my role is to enjoy eating what he cooks!).
So, Ryan chose the pots and pans, I chose the down comforter, and together we selected our china. This gift-based decision-making easily transferred to our wedding where Ryan chose the cake and the men’s attire, I chose my own dress and the processional music, and we together wrote our vows and designed the centerpieces for our reception. Despite the well- intentioned advice givers, we successfully worked together and jointly decided the details of our wedding, which helped us prepare for our days of joint decision-making as husband and wife. There was no hierarchy or unilateral obedience, but rather loving and mutual submission, which allowed us to place the needs of the other above our own as Christ calls all his followers to do.
In the months leading up to our wedding, I (Ryan) found myself feeling nervous. Not because I wanted to remain single; I didn’t. And not because I was scared of marriage; I wasn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. Unlike the oft-caricatured groom who must be forced to the altar, I could hardly wait to get married. Anna and I were completely committed to sharing our lives together in marriage, and for both of us, it could not come soon enough.
What, then, was the source of my nervousness? To be honest, I feared what kind of story we might be telling with our wedding ceremony, what it might say about our beliefs regarding men and women. As our views on marriage continued to progress away from hierarchy toward mutuality, we increasingly began to notice the ways in which the church subtly (and often not so subtly) proclaims the inferiority of women. And one of the most glaring expressions of inferiority? Wedding ceremonies.
I first noticed it at a wedding rehearsal when the officiating pastor decided to explain the symbolic meaning behind some of the ceremony’s activities. For example, he explained that the groom and groomsmen walk in as a group to begin the processional to demonstrate the man’s roles as the covenant-initiator and leader of the relationship. The bride and bridesmaids, then, come in afterwards to represent the woman’s role in submission to the man’s leadership. The irony of this symbolism notwithstanding (a group of men standing around and waiting for the women to come to them hardly seems like the picture of “leadership”), I found myself disturbed by the idea that the ceremony marking the beginning of our marriage might inadvertently contain the very expressions of hierarchy we so desperately wanted to avoid.
So we began to research the history and purpose of the traditions in wedding ceremonies, and started brainstorming how we could tell a better story. For us, that meant replacing those old traditions with new ones, with visible depictions of how we planned on living out our marriage as a team of equals.
At the beginning of our ceremony, we had both sets of parents light the tapers we would later use to light our unity candle. We broke from the tradition of having only the mothers light these candles because we felt our mothers and fathers were involved in giving us life and raising us, and we wanted to honor the role each of them had played in our lives.
We also included both sets of our parents in the processional, instead of only the bride’s father. When I (Ryan) entered the church, both my mother and my father accompanied me. The three of us walked down the center aisle to the front of the church together, followed by the groomsmen and bridesmaids, who entered as a series of four couples. Finally, Anna, dressed in white and as beautiful as I had ever seen her, appeared at the back of the church with her father on one arm and her mother on the other. In what can only be described as the slowest minute in my life, the three of them together proceeded to the front of the church where I waited.
When I (Anna) reached the front of the church, I was not “given away,” for I willingly chose to enter into marriage as an adult and an individual. We decided to replace this custom after discovering it originated during a time when daughters were considered property of their fathers. The father’s giving away of the daughter, then, signified the passage of his ownership to her new husband, who assumed authority over her. Instead of giving me away, my parents simply hugged me and sat down after reaching the front of the church. Our parents’ presence in this way signified their blessing over our marriage, while still making it clear we did not believe a transfer of ownership was taking place.
The language of the ceremony stressed the theme of equality explicitly, just as we had stressed it symbolically. The pastors spoke of how our wedding involved a submission of our individual authority, desires, and priorities to each other and to the Lord. They also emphasized the oneness into which we entered; a union of souls describable only as a divine mystery. Additionally, we each repeated identical vows, promising to love the other as a person, respect the other as an equal, and to submit ourselves to the other as is fitting in the Lord. We spent more time writing these vows than on any other aspect of the ceremony. They were an expression of the very foundation of our marriage and became the most personal and meaningful experience in our wedding.
Finally, at the conclusion of our ceremony we requested to be introduced as “Ryan and Anna Snyder,” instead of the usual “Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Snyder” to indicate that, although we were now one, we both retained our individual identity. We then departed from our ceremony hand-in-hand, willingly, joyfully, and equally.
We do not share the egalitarian aspects of our wedding to denigrate traditional ceremonies, or shame people who hold to old customs. We frequently followed such practices ourselves; I (Ryan) initiated the engagement by proposing to Anna, and Anna’s parents paid for most of the wedding expenses. Our hope, rather, is to offer alternatives to couples who might want them, as we did when we planned our wedding. Try though we did to find resources on how to make our wedding more egalitarian, we often struggled to break through the barrier that causes people to shrug their shoulders resignedly and say, “But it’s tradition!”
For example, before the wedding, we gave little consideration to the question of whether Anna should take my name, largely because it didn’t really cross our minds to break from the tradition. But, a few months ago, we were talking with a friend who decided not to take her husband’s name. “We’re forming a new team,” she said. “I’m not joining his.” Had we heard such a view prior to the wedding, we may well have chosen to do things differently.
It is true a wedding does not a marriage make, as the saying goes, but it was the first day of our marriage and we are glad we started it off right. Although our guests may not have noticed the differences between our wedding and others, the hours of work we put in trying to demonstrate the equality of women and men benefited us immensely. And, who knows? Perhaps someone did notice the way we told an egalitarian story with our wedding and it got them thinking. But even if not, we know our time was not wasted as we joyfully submitted to one another in sacrificial love, making it a part of our story for the years to come.