by Rebekah Curtis
Once upon a time, churches published the banns, an announcement that two members intended to marry. Some of us may remember a line from TV weddings, if not real ones: “Speak now or forever your hold your peace.” The banns were not the old-timey version of the local paper’s engagement announcements or Facebooking a relationship status update. They were a way of making sure the couple didn’t have any legal loose ends that would have compromised their marriage. If you knew about a wife hidden upstairs, it was your duty to tell the pastor when you heard the banns for Jane and that sneak Mr. Rochester. The objections were limited and negotiable (ask Charles and Emma Darwin, first cousins and man and wife), but they were considered too serious to disregard.
Pretty nosy, though, right? How is somebody’s marriage anybody else’s business? The banns were a check on horseshoe nails, but now we’d rather risk the kingdom than allow a neighbor to point out the nail on our lane or even tolerate the farrier’s expert opinion. Marriage is private. It’s our life, so butt out. Publishing the banns has gone the way of sleeves on a wedding dress.
We wanted our marital privacy, and now we’ve got it. But the most private human act is (strangely) one of community, so marriage, which protects that act, is of community concern. A secure marriage secures every community it touches. That’s why communities were once understood to have a duty to actively protect individual marriages. When a family breaks or is wrongly formed, the community is left trying to fix things and cover costs for a group of horribly hurt people. Those who bear costs generally want a say in them, but the only thing anyone is allowed to say any more is, “Whatever’s right for you is right.”
Publishing the banns and other norms that recognized communities’ investment in marriage exposed a few families to embarrassment or changes of plan. The heyday of society’s partnership with marriage also had a low rates of divorce, few parents opting out of each other on their children’s behalf and nothing resembling wedding cakes with two brides on top. We all know life is full of tradeoffs. Once-holy matrimony is now a sentiment-based pretend contract, and even the married are on their own.