A few days ago, this video of a flash mob wedding dance went ‘viral’. The wedding dance video is already an established genre for the Youtube generation, most famously represented by the ‘JK Wedding Entrance Dance’: this is just the latest addition to its growing canon. However, the prominent participation of the vicar within this particular dance and its occurrence in the middle of the wedding service, rather than before the beginning or after the conclusion marks it out from most others like it.
Some of the responses that the video have occasioned are especially noteworthy. Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown claims that the video provides evidence that ‘there is still some hope for the Church of England.’ Vicky Beeching, in her Independent article, maintains that the wedding dance video provides a salutary vision of the possibility of a more participatory style of worship, expressing her hope that, in Kate Bottley, we are witnessing a woman bishop in the making. To a number of commentators this video represents more than an exuberant and joyous wedding dance alone: it is an indication of the promise a more relatable, engaging, and involving Church of England.
I demur at such encomia. While the joy of the dance is undoubtedly infectious and is not generally inappropriate to the celebration of a wedding, the context is not an appropriate one.
To my mind, this wedding dance represents a further example of the phenomenon of the bespoke wedding ceremony, the wedding ceremony where the expression of the personality of the couple is a primary concern, a phenomenon most typically seen in such practices as the use of self-composed marriage vows. Without wishing to censure the genuine and often laudable intentions of many of those who adopt such practices, they should not be encouraged. The primary responsibility for their prevalence lies not with loving young couples, who are merely uncritically adopting a cultural trend, but with churches that lack the wisdom to resist these.
In a culture where, contrary to Christian sexual ethics, most couples have been openly cohabiting for some time prior to their wedding, the wedding itself becomes less about the solemn creation of a union before God and man and more about the public expression and celebration of the couple’s love. While both of these elements should always be present, their relative priority seems to be shifting quite markedly.
The occurrence of this shift has been particularly noticeable in the context of debates surrounding same sex marriage. Within these, many of us have been especially struck by the degree to which marriage is now widely conceived of in a manner that actively resists any institutional limitations on couples’ rights to self-fashioning. For instance, we are told that it should be ‘open to each couple’ to determine whether sexual exclusivity is something that they deem important in their relationship.
One of the most startling things to observe has been the manner that many of the most vocal advocates for same sex marriage are vehemently opposed to the notion that same sex couples should be exposed to the norms of a marriage culture, norms such as lifelong union, sexual exclusivity, and the general expectation that sexually active persons should move in the direction of marriage. Marriage is discussed in terms of social status and privileges, the right of individuals to express their love publicly and have it affirmed and validated, and the importance of having the choice to get married, with remarkably little positive said about the demands that marriage places upon those entering into it or the possibility that those who want the choice to get married may also rightfully be subjected to the expectation to, and to the other norms that come with the institution.
This resistance to those dimensions of marriage that place limitations or expectations upon us, or that evidence marriage’s identity as an institution that transcends us, grows out of the notion that marriage finds its basis and overriding justification in the love of the couple and that the unique chosen expression of a couple’s love should take priority over all social norms, restrictions, rituals, or customs. As this understanding gains traction, the standard ritual of the wedding will become downplayed, with a growing importance being placed upon the right of couples to treat the wedding service as a customizable template for their self-expression.
When the institution of marriage has been weakened through changing divorce laws, the widespread practice and toleration of cohabitation, the deprioritization of the concerns of children, and other shifting cultural norms, what it means to get married will change too. The institution of marriage will have much less to offer many people. Less of a clear step into something very new, getting married becomes more akin to a sort of formalization of a de facto situation. While this formalization obviously entails certain legal and social benefits, this shift in understanding gives the wedding and the events surrounding it a degree of significance that they did not possess before. While a marriage certificate is often regarded as ‘only a piece of paper’, the wedding and the public recognition and celebration of one’s love are very concrete things.
With the gradual departure of an understanding of marriage as a universal cultural value and a shared project, with norms and ends that transcend particular couples, and expectations to which we must submit, even the traditional form of the wedding ceremony can become reappropriated as a chosen means of self-expression, rather than being submitted to as unchosen expression of something greater than ourselves. With marriage as self-expression, wedding vows function less as solemn commitments and more as subjective romantic aspirations and idealizations, some couples already having checked their exits with carefully crafted prenuptial agreements prior to entering into any formal union.
When self-expression and a couple’s desire and expectation that their community celebrate and recognize their love becomes the point of marriage, weddings will tend to become more lavish affairs, designed to express a romantic ideal of fairy tale love, displaying the family’s wealth and status, and showcasing the creative ingenuity and individuality of the couple. In such a cultural context, it should not surprise us that a sort of competitiveness starts to enter into our wedding practice. When the wedding becomes less about a cultural form that is shared by people from all classes and backgrounds and more about self-expression, each couple will want a performance that matches up to or exceeds those of others. Hence a drive towards greater expense, more extreme creativity, larger stunts, and the like.
All that one needs to do is spend a few hours on Pinterest to appreciate the strength of this competitive impulse that pervades our wedding culture. In the digital age, the wedding is performed, not merely for those attending, but for a wider audience on Pinterest, Facebook, and Youtube.
Weddings have often been lavish and expensive affairs throughout human history. This isn’t new. The important development is the steady retreat of public institutional meaning and the rushing in of self-expression to take its place. When marriage starts to lose clear cultural meaning as an institution, and comes to mean whatever we want it to mean, the wedding is elevated as the couple’s definitive public performance of this meaning. Unsurprisingly, this encourages a sort of gentrification of the institution of marriage as the excessive weddings demanded by its new meaning put it beyond the financial reach of many from less affluent classes.
And this is why this wedding dance video is such a troubling leaf in the wind: it is just another indication of the way that the ritual, the institutional, the greater than ourselves, is surrendering ground to the rising tide of expressivism in our practice and understanding of marriage.
This particular stunt, occurring within the context of a service traditionally called the ‘solemnization of matrimony’, a service beginning with the warning that the institution be entered into ‘reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God,’ seems to strike a very jarring note. Disco dancing is not the first thing that comes to one’s mind when one hears words such as ‘reverent’, ‘discreet’, or ‘sober’. We shouldn’t need to provide assurances that we are not condemning crazy dancing to stress that there is an appropriate time and a place and that during a service for the solemnization of matrimony is not that time and place.
The word ‘solemn’ carries unfortunate connotations in our culture, suggesting dourness, graveness, and cheerlessness, a mood more befitting to a funeral than a wedding. As C.S. Lewis observes in his A Preface to Paradise Lost, part of our problem is our loss of the sense of the Middle English word solempne (the 1559 Book of Common Prayer refers to the ‘Solempnizacion of Matrimonye’):
This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball at the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a “solemnity.” The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feast are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not.
The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp—and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of “solemnity.” To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast—all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather, it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.
Solempne is a joyful weightiness, resulting from a realization that we are participating in a reality greater than ourselves, humbling us as it raises us up. As a culture loses its sense of the true ground of the solemnity of marriage, of matrimony as the disclosure of a deep reality beyond human choice and self-fashioning, of the reality of the mystery of Christ and the church, and of the realization of the telos of the created realities of sexual dimorphism and heterosexual procreation, in place of these profound transcendent realities that can arouse true solempne even in the most understated of wedding ceremonies we will have such ersatz artifices as fairy tale love, aesthetic spectacle, or dramatic event.
Some might appeal to David’s dancing before the ark in 2 Samuel 6 as an argument in favour of the appropriateness of dancing in the context of festal proceedings. Yet my argument is not against that. Despite my rather excessive British reserve, I will readily admit that there is biblical precedent and justification for dancing on festal occasions. However, David’s dancing before the ark represents a stark contrast to the flash-mob dancing of the video. David’s dancing was a self-forgetful dancing before YHWH. This was dancing characteristic of true solempne, a self-effacing practice designed, not as a performance before men, but as a humble and praising joy before YHWH as the leading worshipper of the nation (and not as a private form of ‘pimping’ an established ritual). By contrast, the wedding flash-mob interrupts proceedings occurring before God to perform a disco-dancing flash-mob for Youtube.
The Solemnity of the Church and its Ministers
In his Guardian piece, Andrew Brown praises Kate Bottley for realizing that it is ‘much better to be silly than self-important.’ Many others have articulated their approval for Bottley’s dance as an expression of a relatable Church of England, a Church of England that isn’t disconnected and judgmental, but which is welcoming and which doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Not taking oneself too seriously is something of a virtue nowadays, especially for the Church in the eyes of the wider society. If the church doesn’t take herself too seriously, the non-practicing population needn’t take her that seriously either. A vicar dancing in her vestments during wedding proceedings is a positive and reassuring image of a church that has shed its forbidding seriousness, abandoning its hubristic and proselytizing affirmation of the primacy of its truth over others for a culture-affirming tolerance, relevance, light irreverence, and accommodation. Such a church can be applauded and then safely ignored.
It has been interesting to observe how much of the conversation following the release of the wedding dance video has treated the dance as evidence of Bottley’s particular suitability for ordained Christian ministry (a few commentators mentioning the b word) in the contemporary context. That such a connection should be drawn is evidence if any were needed that we urgently need to have a conversation about the biblical character of priestly ministry or church leadership. For all of the interminable discussions about women priests and bishops – and, I would suggest, in large part the reason why we are having these discussions in the first place – remarkably little attention seems to be given to close scriptural analysis of what the office and task of a priest actually is.
The popular vision of the ideal contemporary priest seems to be someone affirming, non-threatening, folksy, accommodating, relatable, occasionally gently irreverent, someone who doesn’t take their office too seriously, and who doesn’t have notions about their authority or importance. Instead of authoritative words given from the front, we want a priest who will moderate the discussion of our various opinions in a manner that ensures inclusivity. Instead of a more paternal priesthood, characterized by virtues such as authority, judgment, fortitude, and uncompromising nerve in divine service, we want a more therapeutic and nurturing maternal priesthood, one that will make people feel affirmed and welcomed.
Yet, as we look through Scripture, it shouldn’t be hard to see that the form of priesthood and church leadership encouraged and exemplified is one that is framed by deeply agonistic realities. The priest is a man who deals with life and death and for whom a primary qualification is his power and determination to stand against the most vehement spiritual and personal opposition, first evidenced in his self-discipline in personal holiness. He is a guardian of the most important things of all: the holiness of God’s Name and of the community in which he has placed it. As a shepherd, it is his charge to face off with wild beasts and murderous thieves who would destroy the flock entrusted to his protection and care. He has the responsibility of teaching and guarding the word of God, representing divine authority to the church and ministering that authority in his leadership of a congregation. He stands over against the congregation in important respects, and his sex is not accidental to this. He has to be the sort of man who can resist the pull of a false pity and who has the nerve to make tough and unpopular decisions. Obviously, as a father figure, he must also be characterized by gentleness and concern for those entrusted to his care, but this fact does not negate the other dimensions of his ministry.
This is a very serious and solemn calling, one that is measured, not by popularity and relatability within society, but the degree to which the priest has maintained the integrity of the congregation and the word of the Lord that he proclaims, and established the congregation in the truth in a manner that encourages their growth in freedom and life.
Given the weightiness of this vocation, it is utterly inappropriate for a priest to behave in their official capacity as a representative of the Lord in a manner that would downplay the dignity of that office. The priest is under authority. He is not ministering an authority of his own, but God’s authority in and for the sake of his Church. In faithfully guarding and upholding the authority committed to his charge the priest maintains the claims of his master and the rights of those he serves. His strength in resisting sin and error in his own life and in the wider community is essential to the spiritual immune system of the congregation.
A priesthood that is concerned not to take itself too seriously is a priesthood that risks robbing the church of a ministry that has been given to it for its protection and edification. While I do not want to place the full responsibility of these judgments onto the shoulders of Kate Bottley, who I have every reason to believe is just a well-meaning daughter of our generation of the Church of England, I believe that it should be clear that interrupting wedding proceedings occurring before God to engage in a disco dancing flash-mob is a gross debasement of the dignity of the Christian ministry. Those who represent Her Majesty the Queen in an official capacity would not assume the licence to behave in such a manner: why should the ordained representatives of the King of Kings assume that they can? Perhaps one of the most basic ways in which priests uphold the authority of God within the churches to which they minister is by the seriousness with which they treat their vocation and office.
Finally, a few words about Vicky Beeching’s remarks about participatory worship.
First, one of the reasons why we have a standard form of wedding service – one which does not include provisions for disco dancing flash-mobs – is in order that the wedding service might be more fully participatory. As I have argued in the past, the liturgy and such rituals as the wedding service have a set form in order that they might be more truly public and shared. The unified form of the ritual expresses the equal stake that every couple has in the institution of marriage. It expresses the truth that marriage is a cultural project that we inherit from previous generations and a project that we must in turn pass on to our children.
However, as we permit people to insert more of their own elements into this ritual, the ritual becomes less a manifestation of our common heritage, vocation, and blessing and more of a template for a (frequently competitive) self-expression within which the truth of a common calling that transcends each particular couple is easily forgotten.
Second, representing the wedding dance flash-mob as a model of participation strikes me as rather odd. For one, it is still very ‘front-led’. While it was definitely entertaining and engaging for those in attendance, its purpose wasn’t really to include every person attending within its performance, as only some were in on the stunt. A significant number of those in attendance weren’t participating at all and I suspect that among them were a few who felt alienated from the proceedings on account of physical immobility, their lack of rhythm, their confusion over the dance moves, or cultural alienation from the music. At least in a regular service, one feels far less awkward in one’s non-participation.
Third, we need to discuss the place of performance within the life of the church. What occurs in the video very much falls into such a category, being primarily performed for the sake of those attending the wedding, some of whom joined in, and then also for a wider audience. The performance was clearly dynamic, joyful, humorous, and engaging, but the suggestion that it provides a model for the more general practice of the Church is very questionable. The appeal of the performance owes much to the fact that it was designed to entertain (which I believe puts a finger on what was really taking place better than the word participation does), to its orientation towards a human audience, and to its suspension of the linguistic and cultural forms of the Church for those of the disco.
Unfortunately for those who would want to adopt this as a model for the Church’s worship, worship isn’t designed to be entertaining and often isn’t even supposed to be ‘uplifting’. Worship isn’t about us and, rather than honouring our desire to express ourselves and our unique generational or subcultural preferences, tends to foist upon us catholic forms that subject us to a form of worship that we must share in common with people from many other different ages and contexts.
If the church went to lengths to encourage deeply participatory psalm-singing, for instance, setting aside time to teach congregants various parts, much as those engaged in the wedding dance flash-mob spent several weeks in preparation, would this be something that make the church a more appealing place to be? Or would the so-called ‘participatory’ factor diminish with the level of entertainment? If we were participating in something that clearly wasn’t about us, wasn’t entertaining to us, but was undertaken in service of God, would we be so interested in becoming involved?
In the context of worship, ‘participatory’ is one of those buzzwords that are far more commonly deployed than they are analysed and unpacked. Let me make one thing very clear, though: participatory worship is something of which I am firmly in favour. I believe in the importance of a form of worship that acknowledges the participation of all ages in worship. I believe in the importance of a form of worship that acknowledges the common stake that each of us, young or old, hip or square, possesses in the realities that we declare. I believe in the importance of a form of worship that acknowledges that we participate in the same worship that the church has been engaged in throughout its history, treating it as something that we inherit from past generations and pass on to future ones. I believe in the importance of a form of worship that discourages self-expression that draws attention to ourselves and our preferences, in favour of common expression that draws attention away from us and our tastes to God.
Such common, participatory worship has the effect of blunting the sectarianism of private taste, the cause of more division in the church in the past generation than perhaps any other single issue. It would resist the stratification of the church on the ground of generational musical tastes, in favour of a common culture that called all of us beyond the elevation of our personal preferences. It would also encourage the sense of true solempne, which exceeding the feeling of being caught up in the electric euphoria of an entertained crowd, situates us within an event far greater than us, as with the saints of all ages, and the angels around God’s throne, we joyfully declare the worth and goodness of his Name in words and melodies that we share with Christians from many different ages. However, one suspects that such a vision of participatory worship conflicts rather sharply with much that Vicky and others would envisage.
As a priest in the Church of England has a unique responsibility to provide ministry to every person in their parish, questions of how to establish some sort of cultural contact will be especially keen. Bottley’s position isn’t one that many of those outside of the established church tradition will experience in quite the same way. Apart from this wedding ceremony, the couple and many of their guests might have little contact with the church and its life. Trying to make them feel welcome and providing them with some assurance of the truth that the Church of England exists for their benefit, among other things, is an important and worthy, though difficult, task.
The joy exhibited in the dance is also completely appropriate to the general celebration of a wedding. God has given us marriage as something to delight in and to celebrate and he smiles upon us as we do so. However, there are appropriate and inappropriate contexts for the expression of such things. Had this dance occurred later at the reception, my feelings about it would be markedly different.
What has been more troubling than the video itself has been the response to it in many quarters, and it is to this response that this post has been primarily directed. Far from demonstrating a healthy model for the church to follow, I believe that the video and its popularity are indicative of troubling trends in people’s understanding of marriage and Christian worship. While I appreciate that many will very strongly disagree with the position articulated above, hopefully I have provided some measure of a rationale and a provocative starting point for an important conversation.