Couples seeking to marry in the Orthodox Church often have many questions. For example, some aren’t familiar with which days the Church does not officiate marriages. Others aren’t quite sure who can serve as a witness, how many witnesses they should have, or what role those witnesses play in the ceremony. And a few have no idea if they can get married in the Church in the first place! So what are the actual requirements for a wedding in the Orthodox Church? Let’s take a look at the guidelines and requirements the Church has in place.
- Who can get married in the Church?
- When can the wedding take place?
- Where can the wedding take place?
- Selection of the Wedding Party
- Required legal documents for an Orthodox wedding
- Required items for an Orthodox wedding service
- Miscellaneous guidelines
Who can get married in the Church?
Before you can even contemplate having a wedding in the Orthodox Church, you must make sure you and your spouse meet certain requirements. While some jurisdictions may have additional guidelines for couples, there are two that every jurisdiction has in common. They are rather simple and self-explanatory:
- Both of you must be baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity (cf. Matt. 28:19), and at least one (but preferably both) of you must be Orthodox.
In other words, this means the Church does not bless or perform marriages between Orthodox Christians and non-Christians (ex. Muslims, Jews, Atheists). This is because the sacramental nature of the marriage bond requires the couple to not only pledge their love to each other but also their lives to Christ. If one of you does not believe in Him, how can you pledge your lives to Him together?
*Note: the priest may request baptismal certificates to prove that baptism in the name of the Trinity truly took place. He may also request valid birth certificates.
- Neither of you can be currently married to another.
This applies to marriages blessed by the Orthodox Church and to secular marriages. If either of you received a civil divorce, typically you must first receive a blessing from your bishop recognizing the divorce and allowing remarriage. Additionally, if you or your future spouse is widowed, you must produce a legal death certificate for the deceased spouse.
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Additional marriage restrictions
The Orthodox Church also prohibits the following marriages:
- Parent with child/grandchild
- Brother-in-law with sister-in-law
- First or second cousins
- Aunt/Uncle with niece/nephew
- Godparent with Godchild
- Godfather/mother with parent of Godchild
- Foster parents with foster child
- Same gender relations
When can the wedding take place?
Additionally, there are requirements for the date of a wedding in the Orthodox Church. During the year, the Church does not officiate marriages during certain seasons or on certain dates. If you are Orthodox and have access to a liturgical calendar, here is a good rule of thumb: you cannot be married on any day that calls for fasting (colored red on the calendar). Occasionally these dates vary in different jurisdictions; however, in general, Orthodox churches avoid officiating marriages on the following dates:
- All Wednesdays and Fridays (unless they are during feast periods)
- Any evening that comes before one of the Twelve Major Feasts
- During any of the four extended fasting periods
- Nativity Fast (Nov. 15 – Dec. 24)
- Great Lent (dates change depending on the date of Jewish Passover)
- Apostles’ Fast (the Monday after All Saints to the feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29)
- Dormition Fast (Aug. 1 – Aug. 14)
- Aug. 28/29 (the Beheading of St. John the Baptist)
- Sept. 13/14 (the Exaltation of the Holy Cross)
Only under grave circumstance will the Church allow weddings during these periods. In that case, the Metropolitan must grant permission for the marriage to take place.
Additionally, when planning your wedding, attempt to communicate with the priest administering the marriage, as soon as you can. Take into account his schedule and the availability of the church’s facilities as well.
Where can the wedding take place?
Thankfully, this question is one of the easiest to answer for Orthodox Christians. Orthodox weddings must take place in an Orthodox church building, not at a private home, botanical garden, beach, etc. Since marriage is a sacrament intimately tied to the life of the Church, it must be administered within the Church, which resides in physical buildings under the authority of bishops.
Selection of the Wedding Party
Out of all wedding party members, the Koumbaros/Koumbara is perhaps the most important. Every couple married in the Eastern Orthodox Church must have one, and he/she must be a member in good standing of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Put another way, only those baptized Orthodox can fulfill this role. You only need to have either a Koumbaros or a Koumbara, not both. However, if you wish to have both, that is perfectly acceptable. In Orthodox Tradition, the man, woman, or couple chosen eventually become the godparents of any future children.
In the strict interpretation of the Church, the Koumbaros/Koumbara is not the same as the best man/maid of honor. While the latter serves as nothing more than a legal witness, the former serves as an ecclesiastical witness, or a witness before God and the Church, attesting to the reality of your marriage. In some traditions, he may also exchange the rings and the crowns, and hold the ribbon as you walk around the ceremonial table together as husband and wife. As part of this role, he purchases the wedding crowns, the silver tray, the almonds, the candles, etc., used during the ceremony. But if you prefer, you can have the same person serve in both roles in your wedding.
If you plan to have additional groomsmen, bridesmaids, ushers, etc., know that the Church does not require them to be Orthodox. They must, however, agree to observe the practice of Eastern Orthodox Tradition while participating in your wedding. Additionally, make sure to speak with your priest, so he is aware of those who will be in the wedding party.
Required legal documents for an Orthodox wedding
After choosing a date and selecting your wedding party, you will need to consult with the priest. During the course of these talks, you will receive an application for an ecclesial marriage license (marriage in the Church). You must obtain the following documents to complete that application:
- Baptismal certificates for both you and your future spouse
- A copy of your civil Certificate of Marriage (if already civilly married)
- Civil divorce papers (if previously married in a civil service)
- Original ecclesial divorce certificate (if previously married in the Orthodox Church)
One quick note about civil marriage licenses. In order for a priest to marry you in the Church, by law you must obtain a civil marriage licence. Both parties must be present to obtain a marriage license.
Required items for an Orthodox wedding service
Lastly, you want to make sure you meet all the requirements for items you’ll need for the wedding service itself. Here is a general list of items, though this might vary by jurisdiction or parish. Check with your priest for a more comprehensive list.
- The rings
- A pair of wedding crowns
- Two white candles
- A silver tray with almonds
Keep in mind that the Betrothal service and Marriage (Crowning) service are one united Sacrament. Therefore, they must be celebrated at the same time and can never be separated. (This contrasts Roman Catholic and Protestant practice, in which some couples become betrothed before the marriage service. Additionally, clergy cannot officiate at the marriage of multiple brides and grooms at the same time. One couple, one service.
Lastly, if both you and your future spouse are Orthodox, you should plan to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion prior to the wedding ceremony. Even if only one of you is Orthodox, that one should do the same.
In summary, make sure you fulfill all the requirements we discussed above if you wish to be married in the Orthodox Church. Make sure you and your spouse are eligible, that you choose an appropriate date, select your wedding party members with great care, and obtain all important legal documents to give to the priest. And of course, don’t forget to get all the items you will need for the ceremony itself.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
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