Weddings are always public events. The assembled friends and family members are asked to bear witness to the promises made by the loving couple. And a few of those witnesses then sign their names to a license to ensure the marriage is recognized by the state.
But the Oct. 18 wedding of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner felt more public than usual. Because of the controversy over the decision to not allow the ceremony to take place in St. Andrew Presbyterian — the Michelles’ church home for the past 14 years — those who chose to stand witness to the event had to consider what message their mere presence would convey.
Some attendees personally question whether their understanding of scripture and church policy allows for a marriage between two women. Yet they chose to be on hand to show they want to continue their relationship with the Norman-Wikner family. And their questioning voices mixed with those of the open and affirming attendees when the Rev. Colette Ciha Soults asked the congregation to state its willingness to help the Michelles live up to their commitment.
And when all those voices were raised in song — especially in the good acoustics of First Presbyterian’s sanctuary — it was clear that the basic ceremony wasn’t that different from the thousands of other weddings that have taken place in Iowa City’s two Presbyterian churches:
- The happy couple was beaming,
- Friends were crying, and
- The homily reminded everyone how marriage is about much more than the momentary happiness brought on by one day of celebration; how marriage is about the joy that comes with building a life together.
Every wedding, of course, has its unique elements. And that’s especially true when the happy couple has been living together for a decade and a half and has been raising daughters for two-thirds of that time. Or when the ceremony itself wouldn’t have been possible seven months earlier. Or when the couple — whether out of necessity, design or resignation — becomes a symbol for struggles and issues that go far beyond the happiness of just one family.
That must be why the Michelles decided to break with tradition and greet their guests both before the wedding as well as after. It was an extra step to ensure each of their guests felt a welcome part of this long overdue celebration.
Nor did the brides have traditional maids of honor. They, instead, had their daughters stand alongside them to witness and to participate firsthand in the blessing of their family. (The only time I got verklempt, in fact, was when 10-year-old Anna read the scripture with such poise and expression.)
The biggest difference from the traditional ceremony, however, was that no one gave anyone away during the wedding. The two brides walked each other down the aisle instead.
It was a moving symbol of the Michelles’ interdependence as well as a sad reminder that some of their family members disapproved of the wedding and failed to attend.
Likewise, while there were many St. Andrew faces in the congregation, there were still others who — even if they love the Michelles, Anna and Eva as sisters in Christ — felt they could not bear witness to a ceremony they fundamentally disagree with.
That’s why so many of the wedding guests decided to clap so joyfully and loudly at the announcement and (re)introduction of the Norman-Wikner family. They were trying to make up for the people who were missing. They were trying to make up for all the years this family has survived — and thrived — without public acknowledgment.
I hope the ceremony and the reception gave the Michelles the affirmation they deserve. But I also hope — somewhat selfishly — that it eventually will help the Norman-Wikner family make their way back home to St. Andrew.