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.
What is to be done? Here are four proposals. First, individual pastors, and ultimately, denominational leaders, should reclaim the historic responsibility inherent in communities of faith to promulgate and maintain the integrity of the marriage vows exchanged in their churches. Central to this reclamation would be the revival of the vow of marital permanence.
Second, pastors should agree to marry couples in their churches only when at least one member of the couple is also a member of the church. That would help end the current practice among many couples of choosing a church for the wedding primarily on the basis of architecture and reducing the pastor to a bit player. Third, pastors should require all couples who marry in their churches to participate in a serious program of church-sponsored premarital education.
And finally, individual churches should formally embrace the goal of strengthening marriage and lowering the divorce rate in their congregations, specifically through ongoing programs aimed at marital enrichment and "marriage-saving," and generally by seeking to create a marriage culture within the divorce community that is distinct from the divorce culture in the larger society.
Together, these policies would convey a clear message to engaged couples: Couples who get married here learn what marriage is. Couples who get married here understand and accept as their own the marriage promise that this community of faith requires, including the vow of marital permanence. Couples who get married here become part of a community that affirms and supports marriage. As a result, couples who get married here are more likely to be able to keep their promises, in part because they make promises worth keeping.