An Argument For Traditional Wedding Vows
It would be hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance of this shift toward self-composed vows. The old vows were created by society and presented to the couple, signifying the goal of conforming the couple to marriage. The new vows are created by the couple and presented to society, signifying the goal of conforming marriage to the couple. The two approaches reflect strikingly divergent views of marriage and of reality itself.
In one view, the vow is prior to the couple. The vow exists on its own, exerting social and sacred authority that is independent of the couple. In this sense, the vow helps to create the couple. In making the same promise that others before them have made and that others after them will make, the couple vows on their wedding day to become accountable to an ideal of marriage that is outside of them and bigger than they are.
In the other, the couple is prior to the promise. The vow is not an external reality, like gravity or the weather, but instead a subjective projection, deriving its meaning solely from the couple. From this perspective, the couple approaches the vow as a painter approaches a canvas. Rather than the vow creating the couple, the couple creates the vow. With this one procedural change in the making and exchanging of vows, a ceremony of continuity and idealized forms is displaced by a ceremony of creativity and personal expression.
The essence of this change reflects a dramatic shrinking of our idea of marriage. With the new vows, the robust expectation of marital permanence shrinks to a frail, often unstated hope. Marriage as a vital communal institution shrinks to marriage as a frail, often unstated hope. As the idea of marriage gets weaker, so does the reality. In this sense, the new vows are important philosophical authorizations for our divorce culture. They are both minor causes and revealing results of a society in which marriage as an institution is decomposing before our eyes.
Who is to blame for the transformation of the vow? There are three possible answers: society, the couples, and the pastors. All things considered, I suggest that we blame the clergy. I do not understand why the clergy, the custodians of our marriage tradition, so willingly relinquish their authority and, in effect, collaborate in their own marginalization. Much of the content of contemporary weddings, of which vows are only one aspect, stems from a massive transfer of authority--generally, from the community to the individual, and specifically, from the pastor to the couple.