Then we entered the meeting house, and there were these crisps in bowls in the corner, which finally raised a question among those more used to a C of E ceremony: how odd would this Quaker marriage be?
Plastic chairs, bare walls, a clothes rail packed with coats, a noticeboard covered with bits and bulletins. People were smiley and gossipy, but also chummy. No flowers. No programmes. No whispering ushers. No tum-tum-ti- tum. And when the happy couple came in at last, each with a relative in tow like a hired gun, they just walked to a front table and sat down.
Then came the first of the silences. Oh those silences. Charles Lamb, the 18th-century essayist, calls Quaker silence 'true peace and quiet', but it wasn't like that. You could hear plates clattering in the hotel next door, and traffic, and someone rustling a bag, and two stomachs rumbling, which was really embarrassing - not spiritual at all. By hunching up, you could stop it for a while, but no one can sit like that forever.
Someone explained that there would be more pauses like this, but we could break them if we had something to say. What though? I only wanted to whisper to the other man with the rumbling stomach that if he would just sit like me, he'd be all right.
When the bride and groom exchanged vows in a single, simple sentence - 'Friends, I take this friend to be my wife/husband . . .' - outsiders conditioned by other values reached for their cameras, and the stillness was broken. A white-haired man stood up and said quietly: 'I would ask you not to take photographs. It is not our custom.' Guilt held us in thrall.
The wedding certificate was read out. Silence. A woman got up and said: 'When I woke up this morning I saw that the sun was shining, and I thought that this was somehow symbolic.' Outside, the rain pelted down. Silence. Someone offered
a home- made prayer. Silence. Then a woman of about 40 rose to her feet in the front row, and this happened: she took out a Bible and began to read, but as she did so tears started to pour down her cheeks until she could only sob the words. The emotion clearly wasn't in the text - it was in something else entirely, but she didn't explain, and in the end it didn't matter.
People were moved - something I do not recall from other weddings, with their music, lights, camera, action. This minimalist production had touched a nerve, even for those of us with no faith at all. I don't remember hearing bags rustling or stomachs rumbling at this point, you see. Oddly enough, the crying woman wasn't even a Quaker.
The 'ceremony' ended when two elders shook hands, a signal for all of us to do the same, which wasn't as embarrassing as it sounds. Then we signed the wedding certificate, all 200 of us, sealing our conspiracy of silence in a scrawled list.
Waiting our turn, we non- Quakers chatted excitedly about how we'd helped marry these two people by just being there and shutting up. We had, you see - or at least that was how it felt. The children headed for the crisps, and eventually we all followed.Reuse content