Project Canterbury

An Aid for Churchmen Episcopal and Orthodox
Toward a Mutual Understanding, by Means of a Brief Comparison of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Orthodox Church
with those of the Episcopal (Anglican Church)

By the Rev. H. Henry Spoer, B.D., Ph.D.
Sometime Lecturer at the Lichfield Theological College, England

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Morehouse, 1930.
London: Mowbray, 1930.

Chapter VI. Holy Matrimony

The Betrothal Service

It may be noted that in the Orthodox Church the Marriage Service is preceded by the Ceremony of Betrothal, as was formerly the custom in our own Church. Such a case is recorded in England as late as the seventeenth century. The two Services need not follow closely and, indeed, an interval of several years may occur; on the other hand, the two are now frequently merged into one.

Whether the ceremony be that of Betrothal or of Marriage, the priest meets the bridal pair at the church door, censes them cross-wise, and gives them lighted candles, which are later carried by the attendants. The lights signify the honesty of their intentions and the purity of their lives. All stand facing the altar, the Royal Door being open, the bridal pair having their respective baptismal sponsors beside them. As with us, the groom stands to the right of the woman.

The Ceremony of Betrothal is known as arrabon, the word used by St. Paul in the sense of "pledge" or "earnest" (II Corinthians 4:5), "who also has given us the earnest of the spirit." Two rings are provided, both of which are now commonly of gold, though formerly custom varied on this point. The rubrics assign a gold ring to the man and a silver ring to the woman.

A litany referring to the responsibilities of the married state is read by the deacon, followed by two prayers said by the priest, mentioning the bridal pair by name, and asking for God's blessing upon their union.

The actual Betrothal now takes place in the giving of the rings, which are brought from the altar. The priest makes the sign of the cross with the woman's ring over the man, saying to him three times: "The servant of God, N., is betrothed to the handmaid of God, N. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."

Then, with the man's ring, he makes the sign of the cross over the woman and uses the same formula for her: "The handmaid of God, N., is betrothed to the servant of God," etc, after which he makes the sign of the cross above their heads, and places the rings on their right hands, the ring-hand in the Eastern Church.

The groomsman, who, if possible, is the godfather of the bridegroom, or his representative, interchanges the rings three times, symbolizing thereby the oneness of the pair.

In the prayer which is now said by the priest, emphasis is laid upon the ring as a symbol of troth, and upon the right hand as a symbol of strength:

"... the right hand of Thy servants shall be blessed by Thy mighty word and Thine uplifted arm. . . . Therefore, O Master, do Thou Thyself now bless this putting on of rings."

The Betrothal is sometimes performed at home, when there is a natural tendency to add to the festivity of the occasion, while preserving due regard for its sacred character. One feature is the exhibition of the bridegroom's gifts to the bride, thus carrying out the idea of the arrabon or earnest. We may recall that formerly, in our own Church, gold and silver were produced with the ring as tokens of "spousage." It is obvious that, indirectly, this usage is the origin of the general custom of wedding presents.


The second part of the Rite of Holy Matrimony is known to the Orthodox Church as the akolouthia tou stephanomatos or Crowning, in reference to the ceremony of placing crowns upon the heads of the bride and bridegroom." The wearing of crowns by both, and of a veil by the bride, as well as the ring and the joining of hands, are a legacy from the customs of ancient Rome.

[According to the rubric, "they go into the temple with burning tapers preceded by the priest with the censer," singing Psalm 128, which is used also in the Anglican Service. It is evident that this refers to the time when the Betrothal and Marriage Services were separately performed.]

The analogies with our own Service are interesting. Formerly the opening address, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here," etc., was also read at the entrance to the church, and in both cases the priest opens with an exhortation, telling them "wherein the Sacrament of Marriage consisteth and how they ought to live godly and uprightly in the wedded state." Next, again as with us, the pair are sternly questioned as to the possible existence of any impediment. A litany, recited by the deacon, with responses by the choir, praying for the gifts of chastity and of the blessing of children, is followed by three prayers said by the priest. Two of these consist largely of references to married couples of the Old and New Testaments, and to the value of their example. Details of special interest are the prayer for the bridal pair, the prayer for "the parents who have nurtured them . . . for the prayers of parents make firm the foundation of houses," and the prayer "for the groomsman and bridesmaid who are come together in this joy." In the third prayer we have the petition:

"O Master stretch forth Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling-place and conjoin this Thy servant N. and this Thy handmaid N., for by Thee a woman is conjoined unto a man."

The Ceremony of Crowning. A small table or reading desk stands beside the priest, bearing the cross for blessing, a copy of the Gospels, two candles, a cup of red wine, and the two crowns, with one of which the priest crowns the bridegroom, saying three times: "The servant of God, N., is crowned unto the handmaid of God, N. In the Name of the Father," etc.

The bride is crowned in the same way, the priest saying three times: "The handmaid of God, N.," etc. He blesses the pair three times with the words: "O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor." This concludes the Marriage Service.

The reading of the Epistle and Gospel follows, preceded by the Gradual, "Thou hast set upon their heads crowns of precious stones; they asked life of Thee and Thou gavest it them."

The Epistle is the passage Ephesians 10: 20, "Wives submit yourselves," and the Gospel is the story of the Marriage in Cana, St. John 2: 1-11. This is referred to by the priest in the prayer which follows.

The Common Cup. The common cup of wine is brought forward and blessed by the priest, saying:

"O God, Thou who hast made all things by Thy power, and hast established the universe and adornest the crown of all things that have been made by Thee, bless with a spiritual blessing also this common cup given to those who are conjoined, for the community of marriage." (Choir) "Amen."

The cup is given to each of them three times, to the man first. It signifies the sharing of their lives for better, for worse. Then, while the groomsman holds on their crowns, the priest leads them three times in a circle round the table, upon which lie the Book of the Gospels and the cross, referring to their oath to preserve their marriage bond. The threefold repetition of the procession is in honor of the Trinity, thus invoked as witness, and the circle signifies eternity.

Next, the priest, taking the crown from the bridegroom, says: "Be thou magnified, O Bridegroom, as Abraham, and blessed as Isaac, and increased as Jacob, walking in peace, and performing in righteousness the commandments of God." Taking the crown from the bride, he says: "And thou, O Bride, be thou magnified as Sarah, and rejoiced as Rebecca, and increased as Rachel, being glad in thy husband, and keeping the paths of the law, for so God is well-pleased."

One of the prayers which follow closes with the words, "... replenish their lives with good things, receive their crowns in Thy kingdom unsullied and undefiled, and preserve them without offence to ages of ages." The newly-married pair kiss each other. The friends come forward to congratulate, and they are dismissed with a blessing.

It is taken for granted, as until 1661 was the case in our own Church, that the bride and bridegroom communicate on the day of the wedding; in the Orthodox Church before the ceremony, in the Anglican afterwards.

The Loosening of the Crowns

Formerly the married pair wore their crowns for eight days, when a short, simple ceremony, called "the Loosening of the Crowns," took place in the church, where the crowns were removed with a prayer and blessing. Where the custom is preserved, it is usually carried out in the home of the newly-married, and is made an occasion of festivity.

Second Marriage

There is a special Service for a second marriage, omitting the opening explanatory exhortation and the first two prayers, and substituting shorter prayers, one of which quotes from St. Paul's reasons for marrying as being possibly those which account for a second marriage (I Corinthians 7: 8-9).The Crowning and the remainder of the Service are the same as before. The Patriarch Nicephorus (802-811) laid a penance of two years' deprivation of the Holy Communion on those who entered into a second marriage, and ordered that they should not be crowned, but this did not remain long in force.

Third marriages are disapproved by the Orthodox Church, and a fourth is absolutely forbidden by the Byzantine Canon Law.

Marriage of the Clergy

A parish priest must have been married before ordination to the diaconate, but he cannot be married a second time. Monks and members of the hierarchy cannot marry. A widowed priest is in the position of a monk, and the highest ecclesiastical ranks are open to him.

Hindrances to Marriage

The prohibited degrees rest, as with us, upon two broad principles, the bar of consanguinity, since man and wife are one flesh, and that of affinity, or relationship by marriage. There is, in addition, the bar of spiritual relationship, that is, of the two being godparents of the same child. In all three cases the prohibition extends to the seventh degree, comprising affinity as well as relationship, as in the Church of England. In the Orthodox Church, however, two brothers may not marry two sisters. As the spiritual relation tends to create special difficulties of inter-relation in small communities, where the choice of godparents is limited, a dispensation may usually be obtained.

The legal age at which the duty of sponsorship may be accepted is fifteen for a boy, and thirteen for a girl.

Forbidden Periods

The rule as to forbidden periods applies to the Betrothal as well as to the Marriage Ceremony. They are from Christmas to Epiphany, during Lent, the four days preceding it, Easter week, and the Fast of the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary (known in the Latin Church as the Feast of the Assumption), that is, the first half of the month of August. It may be noted that the rule of avoiding festivities in Lent dates from the fourth century, and in regard to other fasts from the eleventh century.


The wedding candles of fine white wax are large, and often elaborately moulded. The broad white ribbon which holds them together is sometimes used to bind the hands of the newly-married pair in the procession round the lectern. In our own Church the hands, after being joined, were formerly tied together with the priest's stole, still an occasional usage.

The crowns vary according to the district. In the early Church, they were of olive leaves, as emblematic of fertility, as is still the custom in Greece. In Russia they are of metal adorned with sacred pictures. Elsewhere they may be of flowers, real or artificial.

A special carpet is used during the saying of Offices. For marriage it is rose-colored, as setting forth a happy future. A small sum in gold or silver is sometimes hidden beneath it, a custom which belongs rather to the Marriage than to the Betrothal Service, but if they are celebrated together it is put in place at the beginning.

The presence of the deacon and of the choir at a wedding is assumed, but, as at other Services, is not indispensable.

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