Sophia Lee thought she’d be heading to the altar next month. She had the dress, the rings, and two plane tickets for a honeymoon in Eastern Europe. Instead, she and her fiancé, David Hermann, are in a holding pattern. The couple is sheltering in place in Los Angeles, preparing to watch their April 25 wedding date come and go. Like fellow engaged couples the world over, their wedding plans have gone the way of the polite handshake—that is to say, up in smoke.
Back in mid-March when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended people avoid gatherings of 10 or more, Lee and Hermann, both Christians, made the tough call to cancel their large wedding ceremony. Lee, a senior reporter for World magazine, had already known for a few weeks that her extended family from South Korea would probably be unable to make the trip. So she and Herrmann made the gut-wrenching decision to plan for a smaller wedding with just their local pastor.
They figured they’d have a small ceremony, forgo their planned trip to eastern Europe, and opt for an Airbnb in Sequoia National Park, where they could honeymoon on a smaller scale and quietly grieve their best laid plans. But even that option now seems unlikely.
Situations like theirs are unfolding all over. Couples who had planned weddings even into the summer are grappling with a world totally unlike the one they knew when the engagement ring first sparkled in the light. Travel restrictions mean out-of-town guests are off the list. Large venues are closed. Some couples are postponing their wedding, while others are moving forward with small ceremonies. Some are even heading to the courthouse, if the courts are still open.
Whether to postpone or cancel a wedding is an especially tough decision for Christians, who are committed to living apart and being celibate until after the wedding.
Alex and Alexa McMahan had been planning a March 22 wedding in Winter Park, Florida. As more and more guests canceled and news of the virus devoured feeds, Alex and Alexa chose to transform their 120-guest event into a small outdoor ceremony in front of just 30 close family members and friends. The rest were invited to watch a livestream of the ceremony on YouTube.
Alexa said that was crucial, especially for her grandparents, whom she and Alex had originally invited to be their “flower girl” and ring-bearer. Alexa suspects they might have risked traveling to the ceremony had the livestream not been available.
The McMahans never considered postponing. “We had decided no matter what happens, we’re definitely going to get married this weekend,” Alexa said.
She and Alex met in 2018 on match.com and have lived apart for the duration of their relationship, Alex in Ohio and Alexa in Florida. They agreed not to live together before the wedding, which factored into their decision to forge ahead despite the pandemic. “I had left my job, and my lease was ending in May,” Alexa said. “And I’m in the process of applying to graduate school in Ohio. It was kind of like, we want to get in the same place and get settled.”
As couples like the McMahans scramble to make difficult decisions, their pastors are problem solving on the fly, too. Ashley Wooldridge is senior pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley, a ten-campus church with 35,000 regular attendees in the Phoenix area. He said he’s counseling couples not to cancel their weddings.
“We’re just trying to come back and center couples on the vow they’re making before God, and that they can still do that in a smaller ceremony,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of backyard weddings right now.”
Wooldridge said he understands the emotional weight of making drastic changes to what have been, in some cases, lifelong wedding dreams. Still, he believes the crisis could be a blessing. “What an opportunity during this time to say, ‘Let’s go back to what the absolute most important thing about a wedding is, and that’s the covenant you’re making.’”
At Gateway Church in Dallas, executive director of media Lawrence Swicegood said they’re taking the opposite approach. To begin with, Swicegood said, not many of Gateway’s 71,000 members across 10 campuses plan weddings at the church even in normal times, because the buildings are so huge. So he didn’t know exactly how many Gateway wedding plans have been interrupted. But he dismissed the question of how many have opted for smaller ceremonies. All Gateway weddings, he suggested, have been effectively “shut down.”
“I think they’re being forced to wait because you can’t even get a marriage license,” he said. “And two, if you wanted your families to enjoy it, you can’t do it right now.”
Courts in Dallas County are currently closed, and Swicegood said nearby counties will likely follow suit. Even prior to these events, Swicegood said Gateway pastors had already moved their marriage counseling sessions online. Couples perhaps read between the lines. “We as an organization have not had to call any of these couples and say, ‘Hey, you need to postpone this,’” he said. “They’re calling us.”
Back in LA, Lee and Hermann are in a similar pickle. As of this week, 65 people have died from the coronavirus in LA County and roughly 3,500 people have been infected, making it one of the hardest-hit counties in the state. Local officials have closed the county courts indefinitely. In fact, the courts closed the day Lee and Herrmann tried to pick up their marriage license. “They said, ‘We don’t know when we’re going to open, and it’s probably going to be a long time,’” Lee said.
At Gateway in Texas, Swicegood implied that getting married without a license wasn’t an option.
A courtroom wedding, or even an outdoor ceremony like the McMahans’, isn’t an option for Catholics. Canon law dictates couples must get married inside a Catholic church and be witnessed by a priest or a deacon. Some rules have been suspended due to the coronavirus, but those governing weddings still stand.
Two weeks ago, Brian O’Brien of St. Francis Xavier in Stillwater, Oklahoma, tweeted a photo of a newlywed bride and groom, backs to the altar, grinning at a sea of empty pews. “What do weddings with only 7 people in attendance look like? Like this. Joyful. Marriage>wedding,” O’Brien tweeted.
That particular couple had their marriage license in hand, but not all do. O’Brien said the question of whether to initiate a ceremony without a license was “new ground” for him and likely for his bishop, who hasn’t yet issued any official guidance. The conundrum carries a faint echo of what some conservative Christians and churches threatened to do after the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage: to forgo the civil trappings of marriage altogether.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he wouldn’t judge a church or pastor who decided one way or the other right now. “This is a complicated question, and unprecedented,” he said, but as a general rule, he said churches should adhere to civil regulations.
“A crucial aspect of a wedding ceremony is the holding of the couple accountable to their vows,” Moore said. “If we had a fully functioning sense of church accountability, then we could do that apart from state recognition, but we don’t right now.”
It’s generally too easy in the American church, Moore said, for couples to divorce and move on. The state, on the other hand, has not only an interest in holding couples accountable to their vows (on behalf of children, for example) but also the leverage to encourage it (through exacting a financial cost on divorce, for example).
Moore’s other hesitation about holding tiny, socially distanced ceremonies is that they may hamper another purpose of weddings: inviting church communities to take their own vows to support the couple. “The vows are about what the gathered community is committing to, not just the couple,” Moore said.
Wayne Grudem, professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, takes a slightly different position. “I would encourage people to go ahead and get married by a pastor and then get a marriage license as soon as the office reopens,” he said. “An analogy might be the captain of a ship at sea, who is authorized to perform weddings.”
When Alex and Alexa gave their vows in Winter Park, their officiant noted, it was done tearfully, knowing not everyone they wished could be there was present. Still, she asked those in attendance whether they’d promise to support the couple. At the same moment that the small crowd gave an enthusiastic “we will,” the comments section on the YouTube livestream lit up. “We will!” commenters wrote.
In LA Country, where getting her marriage license is off the table, Sophia Lee is feeling jaded. “I made plan B and plan B failed; I made plan C and then plan C failed,” she said. As of now, she and her fiancé are still hoping to have a small ceremony with just their pastor. They’ll get their marriage license when they get their marriage license. “That’s just a legal thing,” she said. “In the eyes of God, we can still get married.”
But Lee said she’s holding even that expectation loosely. She said the situation has reminded her that God is in control. But she’s still planning for the worst. “Maybe our pastor can’t even meet us,” she said. “Maybe they’ll have a new rule where you can’t go to another person’s house if they’re not family.”
Nevertheless, come rain, shine, or COVID-19, Lee said she and Hermann are going to tie that stubborn knot. Her dad, a pastor who lives in Virginia, was originally going to officiate their wedding. “If worse comes to worst, I’ll get my father to officiate us through Skype,” Lee said. “But he needs to learn how to use Skype first.”