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Are Costly Weddings the Result of Social Pressure?

Priests hear from many couples who want to get married but believe they cannot afford a wedding, according to British Father Stephen Wang. He indicated that some couples put off marrying due to the typical wedding’s high-cost today.

That’s why, when he worked “in a parish in north London, we had a standing agreement with couples that if they needed help we would provide an all-inclusive wedding for them at no cost,” he said. Included, he explained, were the “church building, music, minister (me), flowers (a modest display), limo (my Nissan Micra), confetti and reception in the parish hall,” though not a free bar!

Father Wang discussed the social pressure to have a costly wedding in an Aug. 19 entry on his “Bridges and Tangents” blog titled, “Do You Want a Fairy-tale Wedding or a Lifelong Marriage?” In Britain, the average wedding’s estimated cost is said to be even higher than in the U.S.

A priest of the Westminster Archdiocese, Father Wang is dean of studies at Allen Hall, Westminster’s seminary, where he teaches philosophy and theology. He is an author and frequent speaker.

Weddings Have Become “All About Me”

Commentators sometimes attribute the high cost of contemporary weddings to a belief on the bride’s and groom’s part that their wedding day must be perfect, with everything revolving around them. A debate about this developed in England in August after the Rev. Giles Fraser, chancellor of St. Paul’s, London’s Anglican cathedral, spoke out about the issue.

“Too many modern weddings have just lost their way,” Rev. Fraser said on BBC Radio on Aug. 4. A wedding’s meaning is lost from view when “the ceremony itself is specifically designed to be all about ‘me,’ about being a ‘princess for a day,’” he said.

A later article by the Anglican leader in the London Mail newspaper online said, “It is absolutely right that the bride and groom ought to feel ‘special.’” But, he stressed, “the modern wedding has become far too much about the egos of the bride and groom.”

Father Wang weighed in by focusing not on the couple’s egos, but on social pressures propelling couples into costly weddings. “I am not condemning brides or grooms,” he told me. But he wondered why more couples do not “resist and stand up for what they really believe about the value of their marriage and the importance of the wedding.”

One reason may be that “some are not confident in their own beliefs,” he said. And even those who are confident about beliefs “may not have the social/psychological confidence to stand up to all the other pressures.” However, when couples resist these pressures, their wedding guests “have a fantastic time,” Father Wang insisted.

The “social and psychological pressures” involved are a reason his London parish had offered the free, all-inclusive wedding. It was “a serious offer,” he insisted. “It was because of the social pressures on couples to turn their wedding day into a carefully choreographed production of mammoth proportions.”

Small Wedding Now vs. Big Wedding Later

Another reason cited by Father Wang for the free-of-charge wedding offer was that “many cohabiting couples didn’t feel any urgency about bringing the wedding forward and were content to save for a big wedding in the future instead of embracing a smaller one much sooner.”

Father Wang called attention to comments by the journalist Jemima Lewis, who, responding in the London Telegraph to Rev. Fraser’s observations, examined a dilemma that couples face. “The only alternative to a big wedding is a tiny one — you, he and a couple of witnesses snatched off the street. Any more than that, and people start getting offended that they haven’t been invited,” she wrote.

In Lewis’ analysis, once all those who must be invited are invited, a wedding’s proportions expand; a “serious frock” is purchased, and an “obsession with table settings and floral arrangements” surfaces.

Father Wang said, “a common option for north London Catholics was to fly to Rome with a handful of relations and close friends, and have the wedding there.” He told me he “often supported couples in their wish to have a simpler wedding abroad as a way of deflecting complaints they would receive about simplifying a home wedding or scaling down the invitation list.”

Apparently, some couples planned a later party with their friends. “The strange thing is, I think people understood,” Father Wang said. He wrote:

“Couples are doing the [grand wedding] because they think everyone else expects it. But if they had the no-cost wedding in the parish hall, I think most of their guests would actually be delighted.”

Responding to Father Wang’s blog, a priest friend reported that a couple came to ask “if they could have a blessing after a [civil] wedding.” This priest, “seeing an ounce of hope,” asked the couple “why they wanted a blessing” and why they’d had a civil wedding.

When the couple responded that a church wedding was “too expensive,” the priest offered to “waive the church fee,” having a “little service in the chapel.” And if the couple wanted, they could simply walk to church, wear what they wished, and “go home for tea and biscuits” afterward, the priest proposed.

In fact, the couple “opted for smart clothes and a buffet in the parish hall afterward.” The priest exclaimed, “Good wedding!”

Father Wang told me about a friend’s wedding: “The wedding was in the parish church; the reception in the parish hall; parishioners provided the music at the reception — and a great time was had by all!”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.