The Parish Church of St Francis of Assisi in Notting Hill, West London, is without doubt exquisite. The church was designed by Francis Bentley and was opened in 1860. Bentley went on to gain fame as the architect of Westminster Cathedral, that great Byzantine pile located in Victoria which, to my mind. is one of the most dreary churches in Christendom.
Bentley converted to Catholicism while he worked on the Church of St Francis and it was there that he married his wife. So a spirit of mysticism and romance surrounds the place. It's the ideal wedding church: not too big or too small, and adorned with some glorious pieces of religious art. Wedding photographers have told me that thcy love taking photographs at St Francis because -it's a really classy place, vicar, nice for the snaps".
Ministry to brides constitutes a large part of my job and the month of May heralds the beginning of the wedding season. Now, I'm not saying that these girls are neurotic when ths process of preparing for marriage begins. The joy of finding a spouse is very satisfying for both people concerned. But as the months go on, having completed reams of paperwork and as the ceremony and reception draw near, a strange sort of madness overcomes these women, who for the most part have been quite rational and emotionally intelligent.
Most of the couples concerned have availed themselves of the preparation course offered by Marriage Care and are aware of the importance of the public commitment they are about to make, but all that seems to get swallowed up in what can only be described as wedding fever. Thoughts about the vows are brushed to one side as the "little details" take precedence.
I've known women to jump on jets to New York to pick up a Vera Wang dress because "there simply isn't anything in London". Then, of course, there's the question of the venue, the cake, the size and quantity of the flowers, bridesmaids, photographs and video.
Catering is another sensitive area. One bride arrived on my doorstep in tears. I thought the wedding was off; but no, she was upset because her caterer had told her drat her planned menu of shepherds' pie was "inelegant" and now she was being forced to have teryaki skewers. I assured her that shepherds' pie would be delicious and that she should have what she wanted. After all. she was paying.
Rings are another story. His and hers; platinum or gold? Garrard's. Tiffany, Asprey or Cartier? One is, of course. expected to have an opinion on all these matters.
Eventually we get to the delicate matter of the liturgy. Obviously a priest always wants to do a good job, to make the day memorable. But the liturgy can become a battleground, especially as the proposed small ceremony "for family and a few intimate friends" has by this stage grown into a cross between the Last Night of the Proms and Ladies' Day at Ascot.
One bridegroom, wondering what had become of the sweet young woman he'd asked to marry him. asked if as part of the Liturgy of the Word he could have a poem which summed up his feelings. I asked what the poem was and I told him that I was always partial to a bit of Eliot or Coleridge. The groom answered that the poem was by John Cooper Clark and was entitled, "I married a monster from outer space."
"Enough said," I thought.
Fi.nally, the great day arrives. Whether it's nerves, reality or grace, for a few moments in the church the fripperies seem to fade away. They dissolve like the biodegradable confetti that will be used at the end of the service. Ultimately the couple who stand before the altar have decided to get married in Church and in so doing they expose their vulnerability and weakness but they also display courage, hope, determination, fortitude and love.