March 28, 2008

"Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace"

Stupid Question ™
Dec. 27, 2002
By John Ruch
© 2002

Q: In many Christian wedding ceremonies, the pastor invites anyone who objects to the marriage to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” What happens if someone does object?

A: Used infrequently in both Catholic and Protestant weddings, “forever hold your peace” is not a required phrase, and I could find no case of it inspiring any objections.

That’s because it’s just the symbolic capstone of an investigation that sorted out any problems long before the wedding.

The process goes back to the medieval power struggle between church and state. Until the 1500s, European marriages could be conducted entirely in private with just a couple witnesses. It was a mess of incest, forced marriages, bigamy and worse.

The Church finally made church weddings mandatory, and instituted a marriage investigation system that continues today in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and in some civil law.

First, the two engaged people are questioned to make sure none of several specific “impediments” block their way to marriage. These include incest, bigamy, forced marriage, being underage, being impotent or infertile, being a priest or nun, or having been divorced.

Then comes the publishing of the banns. The banns are simply announcements of the couple’s intent to marry, intended to uncover any impediments the couple hasn’t confessed to or doesn’t know about.
The banns are read aloud in church three consecutive Sundays or holidays, usually concluding with the question, “Does anyone have any objections?”
The “forever hold your peace” line in marriage ceremonies is just a symbolic echo of this marriage-banns question (totally symbolic in Protestant churches that don’t use banns at all). It’s also balderdash—you can protest a Catholic marriage at any time, as long as the husband and wife are both still alive.

If you do have an objection, the church seriously wants to hear it. The Roman Catholics will even take objections from non-Catholics.

But modern decorum suggests you bring up the matter privately with the minister, not shout it out in church. (In fact, if an impediment is already well-known, the church may dispense with the banns to prevent public embarrassment.) Last August, a Connecticut wedding was disrupted by a woman shouting her apparently deranged objections; she was arrested for trespassing and disturbing the peace.

Even in medieval times, when people were getting used to the church rules and weddings were objected to constantly, it appears most of the objecting was done privately. Today, any serious objection will be investigated by the minister (and if the wedding already happened, it may become the subject of a church trial).

But remember that you can object only to the specific impediments to marriage, not to larger religious issues or the marriage itself. (Sorry, Hollywood.)

For example, in December of last year, the banns for a gay marriage were read at an Ontario church. When the minister asked for objections, two men stood up and objected to gay marriage as un-Christian. The minister replied that the objections were not for “lawful cause,” and the men left.

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