The rites and rings of saying `I do'

Marriage in Britain has never been less popular: 299,000 couples tied the knot in 1993, 4 per cent down on 1992 and the lowest figure for 40 years. Could this decline have something to do with the ceremony itself which, unlike St Valentine's declarati
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Will Marshall, 25, married Phoebe Barlow, 25, in August 1993. The couple live in a 40-room mansion, which is run as an arts co-op, in Orchardton, Galloway. They have a daughter called Dana. Phoebe works with special-needs children. Will is a self-employed potter.

"We were married in the lounge of a council flat. The tenant was a registrar - and she was delighted to link us together. She decorated the living room with plants especially for the occasion.

Afterwards we were taken back to our home in a car covered with woodgrain wallpaper. We made our vows to each other, standing inside a heart shaped out of stones. We promised to be faithful and to share our feelings.

A red telephone box had been carried into the garden - similar to the telephone box in which I first kissed Phoebe when we were 11 years old. We didn't see each other for eight years after that kiss and, when we did meet again, our next kiss was also in a phone box.

The guests formed an arch of arms and Phoebe and I ran through the arch. At the end of it lay the telephone box. We opened the door and went in. Within seconds the telephone rang.

When we picked it up there was a message: `This is God speaking. I'm going to give you detailed instructions on how to kiss.' Eventually we did kiss and, as we did, a whole series of fireworks exploded and some balloons were released into the air. It was quite scary."

Here a guest takes up the story:

"Later there was a Middle Eastern-style wedding feast. Will stood up and gave a speech, including extracts from his diary from when he was a boy. For example: `11.45am, Phoebe should have got my note by now... I wonder what the answer is.' A letter was read out too: `Dear Phoebe, I'll love you forever, even though you love Adrian more than me.'

When he had sat down, Phoebe stood up and sang `Love Me Tender, Love Me True' for Will. But she got stage-fright after a few lines and had to stop singing. It was very touching.

A close friend of Will's stood up to read a story. When he had finished, he raised his glass and proposed a toast to Will's brother, Ed, who had died the previous year. The room fell quiet; most of the people there had been at Ed's funeral. It was very painful. Then Will, who was probably the only person who could have done it, screamed `Yeah!', and that got the whole thing going again.

At 4am the wedding couple were led off to a leafy bower in the woods. We had made a tent out of white sheets decorated with leaves and lit by 100 candles. The couple left the next morning for a holiday in Blackpool. It was a free couple of days in a B&B - a special offer collected from petrol coupons.

Will had laid his posy on Ed's grave before he left. He was very close to his brother. When Phoebe threw her posy to the crowd, the woman who caught it decided to put it on the grave as well. So when his parents went to the cemetery later, they found the bride and groom's posies together on Ed's grave, and that was somehow right."

Carmella, 37, married Abel B'Hahn, 38, in April 1987. They live in south Devon with Asher, their 14-month-old son. Carmella is a writer. The couple also runs Birthworks, a company that hires out baths for underwater births.

"We got married at Himley Hall, an abandoned stately home in the West Midlands, which we hired for £200. We decorated it with draped cloths, flowers and beautiful rugs. By the entrance we had a board where people could pin their cards. We wanted the guests to be bombarded with images.

At first we planned to invite just family and friends, then a journalist asked for an invitation and we just thought: why not invite everyone. So we issued an open invitation - for anyone to experience the adventure.

We didn't want presents. Instead we asked guests to bring a dish of their favourite food and to donate money towards our honeymoon. We went to California for six months with the money, researching natural childbirth. I'd given birth to one of the country's first `water babies' six months earlier.

In the morning, my father drove me to Himley Hall. When I arrived the guests were practising a circle dance. They went in, took off their shoes and sat in a large room. Abel and I held hands and climbed through a window. We looked up to find rows of amazed faces.

I didn't want my father to give me away: I don't belong to anyone. I held hands with Abel because I wanted us to come into the room as joint equals to make our public commitment. We took our vows, which we'd prepared ourselves, then presented each other with a ring placed inside two glorious magnolias.

The most moving part was sharing the sour and sweet liquids. We had two bottles - vinegar representing the sad times in life, and orange juice for the happy times. I wanted to acknowledge that life is a roller-coaster, and that we must stick together. I looked up at Abel's face as I was drinking. He was looking at me with extreme concern!

One by one the guests came over and opened their hearts. Their words showed deep caring and love. Some sang songs. I felt blessed in abundance.

Five years later our son drowned. We gave him the most beautiful send- off, adapting our wedding ceremony for his funeral. There were flowers and I wore my wedding trousers. At the time I thought of it as one of the high points in my life. My mother, my sister and I find ourselves calling it my wedding day."

Andrew Green, 38, an aromatherapist who sells organic food, married Mary-Claire Buckle, 34, in August 1992. They live in Dorset, with their twins, Arran and Fingal.

"I wanted to have a wedding with spiritual significance. A register office wedding was out of the question - too sparse. So was a church ceremony - we didn't want `religious' words.

We ended up being married in a Unitarian church - they are happy to hold non-official ceremonies. And Mary-Claire and I wrote our own ceremony.

In the end our wedding was quite traditional, with hymns, readings and prayers. Mary-Claire wore cream. But there were certain traditions we considered and then discarded.

One was the idea of the father giving his daughter away. We didn't like the notion of her being `property'. So we walked down either side of the church and met at the altar. A veil was out, too: there is something coquettish about a bride covering her face then pulling the veil aside. It didn't seem a fitting start to the journey of two equal partners. Nor did I carry her across the threshold - too many connotations of `capture'!

Neither of us liked the idea of the state being involved. We see marriage as an agreement between two people, without a third party. No matter that it was not official. The power lies in the act of committing yourselves to one another in public.

I feel strongly about words. So we took out the Christian references from the usual ceremony - especially the line about the woman obeying the man.

Our ceremony was influenced by Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century anarchist who said: `We restore life, reality and morality to natural marriage based solely on human respect and the freedom of two persons - a man and a woman who love each other.' We also liked the words of Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet, particularly the passage beginning: `You were born together and together you shall be for ever more'.

Rings were exchanged - not because we want to possess each other, but because we liked the symbolism of unity, that wherever we go alone, we'll come back to each other again. We ended with the words of a Native American poet: `Now you will feel no rain/ for each of you will be shelter to the other./ Now you will feel no cold/ for now you will be warmth to each other ... Now go to your dwelling place to enter into your life together./ And may your days be long upon the earth.' "

Unitarian Churches: 0171-240 2384.

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