Traditional Vows, part 2

trad vow2

In my last post, I addressed myself to husbands on the promise made in the traditional wedding vow. This week, I am going to examine the vow that brides made to their husbands, but this vow actually predates the Book of Common Prayer, which was the source of the husband’s promise to worship with his body.

But before I do, I’d like to expand on why I think this topic and these ideas matter. Last year, I wrote a series of posts on the Apostles’ Creed, explaining that the Creed is more than just something to recite, but is the basic confession of belief of Christians in all times and places, and that it is important for Christians to know what they believe.

And I found out that I was, in my own small pond, re-inventing the wheel. Just a couple of months ago, I came across a book by the late Charles Colson entitled The Faith, and I find that this book is a warning about an ignorant Church, not knowing what it believes or why. The kicker for me was that it was published in 2008, seven years before I started writing about the Creed. This sentence, from the first chapter, sums up the dilemma of trying to live as a Christian today:

How can a Christianity that is not understood be practiced?

And, I believe, the same goes for marriage…

Historical Background

In my last post, part 1, I wrote of our culture re-creating marriage in its own image, and I stated that I am concerned that Christians are helping, through their own ignorance of what marriage is. I posited that the desire to rewrite vows to suit our tastes is symptomatic of our ignorance, and started looking at traditional vows, and the why behind them.

The source for the vow “With my body, I thee worship” is the Book of Common Prayer, which was compiled and published in 1549 under the auspices of the Church of England during the English Revolution. Tended by Thomas Cranmer, it became the source of liturgy for the English church for 450 years. I discovered, however, that there was a widely used source for liturgy in England that predated Cranmer by over 300 years.

The Sarum Use was created under St. Osmund, bishop of Sarum (Salisbury) in the 11th century, and set in order Christian worship in England after the Norman conquest. There were other Uses, but the Sarum Use quickly became the accepted source for church liturgy in England, until the English Reformation and the Book of Common Prayer. (I know that all this is just dry history, but I do love this kind of stuff. As my mom likes to  say, “My trivia is important to me.”)

Bonowre And Buhsum In Bedde And At Borde

Having waded through that mess, let’s bring it back to the subject at hand, wedding vows. As I said in my last post, there was a vow by the husband (“With my body, I thee worship”) that the bride did not make. But was there a reciprocal promise, a vow, that the bride made to her husband? Well, yes. Yes, there was.

In looking for information about the history of wedding vows, I was surprised to find that there was a vow that predated the “I thee worship” statement by the groom; this was contained in Medieval English and Celtic wedding ceremonies and originated in the above mentioned Sarum Use.

So, what was this bridal vow? In Chaucerian language, the bride vowed to be “bonowre and buhsum in bedde and at borde.” “Bonowre?” “Buhsum?” Here is the bride’s vow translated from Chaucerian English into modern English:

I take thee to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom at bed and at board, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God’s holy ordinance.


Settle down, don’t get too excited (well, just a little, but more on that later.) Yes, in the marriage ceremony, the bride promises to be “bonoure and buxum [agreeable and compliant], in bed and at borde”.

And, yes, my sesquipedalian heart beat a little faster in learning the etymology of “bonny” and “buxom,” which is actually relevant to understanding the vow. Today, we think of “bonny” as a quaint Scottish compliment made of a pretty girl, as in “Ach, she’s a bonny lass.” But it is believed that bonoure/bonny are derived from the French bon, or “good.” After all, I don’t think folks who spoke of “bonny Prince Charlie” were talking about “pretty Prince Charlie,” unless I missed something in my history books.

And buhsum/buxom? Buhsum is from the Old English bugen, “to bow”, and has cognates in Dutch (buigzaam) and German (biegsam), both of which meant “flexible,” “pliable”.

So, in the vow from the Sarum Use, the bride, in pledging to be “bonny and buxom,” was saying that she would be both good and pliant to her husband. And look at that! We’re back in the submission briarpatch again, aren’t we?

A Detour Into Third-rail Theology

Followers of my CSL Twitter feed know that I follow politics, and that I am not above using my Twitter account to make political comments. In my political readings, I am frequently coming across the term ‘third-rail issue’, which is used to describe some topics that are so sensitive that even broaching the issue is instant death. (The term comes from the third rail of subway trains, which provide continuous electricity to moving trains.)

In conservative Christian circles (meaning people who actually believe what they say they believe), the topic of submission has been, for years, the third-rail of theology. (As in, “oh, no he DI-N’T!”)

This is something I’ve touched on, in previous posts, and haven’t really addressed, as I have no wish to frolic in that particular briar patch. But I have noted that many teachers twist themselves into theological pretzels in an unctuous desire not to offend. Permit me to quote myself:

I realized that every time I have come across someone who feels that they need to address “Submission” in the Bible, they begin with an apology, and act like they want to apologize to women and wives that they have to even mention the topic. They will begin with caveats as to what “submission” doesn’t mean, they will then proceed to hem and haw their way through their presentation (with continual apologies for bruising wifely sensibilities), and finally end with a “See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?” conclusion that conveys the idea that the Bible doesn’t take the subject of “Submission” so seriously. More often than not, what the speaker or writer is trying to communicate is, “You can trust me, I’m not one of those knuckle-dragging troglodytes that actually believes in ‘Submission’.”
Bad Teaching: “Like Christ Loved The Church”, pt. 2

I get their dilemma; as Christians (still operating on the premise of believing what we say we believe), we want to maintain the evangelical shibboleth that the Bible is our sole guide for doctrine and practice. And yet, we want to be as inoffensive as possible, so as not to raise the hackles of half the congregation. So although submit is a biblical word, we also realize that it is an affront to modern sensibilities in the pew and in the world, and so we are left with trying to explain why “submit doesn’t mean submit” or trying to find ways of invalidating its relevance to today’s Christians.

I get this; after all, I’m a Methodist. For the past four decades, half of the UMC has been trying to explain to the other half why the Bible doesn’t mean it when it says that homosexuals can’t inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9). Just this year, despite the fact that the UMC Book of Discipline states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity and that avowed homosexuals cannot be ordained, one of the U. S. A. conferences elected an ordained (?!) and serving (?!) lesbian UMC pastor to the highest office in Methodism, that of Bishop.

In response to this and other provocative actions taken by American conferences and bodies that are in deliberate disobedience to the Book of Discipline, the bishops of the African UMC conferences penned a response that speaks to all Christians who might tempted to shape their faith by their culture:

One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents.

The African bishops finish with this commitment:

However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.

No Conclusions, Just Questions

As I said, I don’t want to romp about in that briar patch, but I do wonder at the “Why’s.”

For some, I wonder if it’s just because they know what they DON’T like. Years ago, a rabbi I knew told me a little story about a Jew who was shipwrecked on a desert island for three years. When he was finally rescued, the captain of the rescuing ship noted that there were three building on his island: one in the middle and one at either end of his island. He asked why the three buildings, and the man answered, “The one in the middle is my home, the one to the east is the synagogue I go to, and the one to the west is the synagogue I DON’T go to!”

For others, is it just that their inner Joker is being allowed to play? All too often, we operate from what WE don’t like, and expect God to line up with us.

And, yes, there are others (many others, I hope) who are honorable iconoclasts, destroying something that they think to be detrimental. Hezekiah was one such honorable iconoclast, when he destroyed the bronze serpent that Moses made several centuries before (II Kgs. 18); instead of a memorial, it had become an idol.

But isn’t it incumbent upon iconoclasts to make a good case why something that has been around for centuries is detrimental and needing to be destroyed, before destroying it? Are our institutions and practices to be as malleable as our creeds?


Leave a comment

Filed under Marriage & Sexuality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s