I. The human function of ceremony is to bind people together backwards and forwards in time, and thus provide emotional and historical anchoring for individuals at significant junctures in their lives. Ceremonies, like music, are essentially expressive-they may be celebratory or commemorative, they may be exhilarating or sobering, and their forms are legion. Above all, ceremony usually connotes some kind of ritual, an ordering of events, for two or more people; in this sense ceremony is inherently social; it confirms community, its past, present and future value. In a century when human community has often been lost or eviscerated, ceremony can take on an added, even poignant importance, for it serves as a reassuring signpost amidst an often shifting landscape.
The excesses of the Industrial Revolution actually helped generate the conditions out of which the socialist challenge arose in the 19th century. Industrialism caused traditional kinship groups to unravel, leaving in its wake the smaller, more vulnerable nuclear family unit. Among its many promises socialism held out the vision of a restored human community. Even the death-of-God theme initially sounded by Nietzsche can be seen as metaphorical shorthand for the widely experienced sense of the loss of community in the West.
II. The ceremony under consideration here is that of marriage within a Humanist perspective. A wedding is merely the public inauguration of a marriage, it does not guarantee that the mutual commitment of two people will necessarily last a lifetime.
Insofar as marriage signifies making public-and therefore legal-what has hitherto been a private intent, the ceremony is not for the couple alone. It also has significance for the witnessing assembly. Indeed, just as a memorial service offers something of a preview of one’s own death, reminding us of our own shared mortality, so also does a marriage service enable those in attendance to reflect upon and reassess the state of their own current relationships, marital or otherwise.
The 20th-century drive for equality is an assault upon entrenched power and privilege, a rebellion against oppression, whatever its nature. This drive has manifested itself among many women allover the globe as a conscious resistance to further patriarchal claims. In America particularly, where feminism is perhaps most advanced, incremental changes in the relationships between women and men binds fair to transform the sexual, cultural, political and moral landscape and climate. It is a continuing revolution whose final outcome defies prediction.