There is no one definitive list of music appropriate for Lutheran weddings in every place or situation. It is important to remember that a marriage celebrated in church is primarily a service of worship. The focus is on God, and the music should help those present to be aware of that focus. Care must be taken to educate people well in advance of actual wedding planning. Succinct and carefully worded guidelines, distributed to the entire congregation, can help avoid unfortunate and uncomfortable situations as couples plan their wedding.
Determining criteria for accepting or rejecting music for a marriage liturgy is not an easy, clear-cut task.We can talk with couples about the opera Lohengrin and its tragic tale. Does that alone make the "Wedding March" inappropriate for worship? We can say that only music originally conceived for use at worship services may be used, but that eliminates many commonly accepted possibilities, including Jeremiah Clarke’s "Trumpet Voluntary."
We may say that it is not worth the fight. Let the bride and groom have whatever they want, as long as it’s not blatantly profane. The other extreme is to predetermine a narrow list of "acceptable" music, allowing only the best music (by whose standard?) that supports the congregation’s theological position and liturgical life. This approach may be the easiest and clearest, but it rarely receives overwhelming congregational support. Even if it is acceptable to a congregation, it may not be the most pastorally sensitive way of educating congregational members. In this age of increasing pluralism within the church, it is difficult to argue for or against any specific music based solely on style. Our personal preferences as musicians are rarely viewed as the norm for congregational practice, nor should they be.
In every congregation, a small committee, including the pastor and musician, should develop simple principles that guide the selection of music for all liturgies, and share them with the entire congregation. Once clear principles are agreed upon, transferring those criteria to a wedding should not be difficult. This assumes that weddings are understood as events within the whole liturgical life of a congregation. If a church building is simply rented out to anyone who pays the fee, it is nearly impossible to educate about and implement criteria for appropriate musical selections.
Blatantly inappropriate texts have no place in the worship service. Secular texts, even those not offensive or profane but having no specific religious reference are, however, rarely the strongest choice. "Jingle Bells" is a perfectly delightful Christmas carol for use at home and elsewhere. It is not, however, usually sung during the Christmas Eve liturgy. A couple’s favorite song may be more appropriately performed at the reception, just as the hymn "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," on the other hand, allows the congregation to participate and, therefore, is more appropriate in the liturgy. One song is not better than the other; they simply function in different ways and for different occasions.
The original setting for the performance of a composition may not always be the best criterion for determining appropriateness, because many standards in the church have less than sacred beginnings. More important is the effect, sometimes subconscious, a piece has on the gathered assembly. Certainly individuals may carry personal "baggage," for better or worse, about specific musical selections. However, public (mis)use of a particular piece may ruin its use in worship forever. Who has not heard, "Here comes the bride: big, fat, and wide"? These words subconsciously meander through the minds of many guests at a wedding when the so-called traditional wedding march accompanies the procession of the bride and her attendants. Even the more polite, "Here comes the bride all dressed in white" is an inappropriate image for use in a service of worship, where God is rightly the center of attention. Pachelbel’s "Canon" and Mouret’s "Rondeau," although beautiful pieces of music, have been so overused in the commercial world that they may no longer be adequate choices for creating a worshipful environment.
The music chosen for a wedding should also be suitable for the available instruments in order to respect the integrity of the music. When played on the organ, Pachelebel’s "Canon," originally composed for string quartet, is rarely a satisfying experience. Neither is playing a pop rock piece on the organ or as a piano solo. A band at the reception may be in a better position to do justice to that music.
Parish musicians, in cooperation with pastors and worship committees, need to develop clear, concise criteria that guide the selections of appropriate worship music. These guidelines should be made public to the congregation and couples who are looking forward to a wedding well in advance of actually planning a wedding service. When it is evident that the guidelines governing wedding music selections are thought out carefully and are not based on the organist’s personal whims but are grounded in a biblical, confessional, and liturgical understanding of worship, the battles that often surround wedding music selections can be transformed into a positive experience.