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Why Do We Ask if Anyone Objects at Weddings?

It all started as a way to stop people from ‘accidentally’ marrying their cousins. Yeah.

If life were a movie, we’d have an epidemic of love-struck men bursting through chapel doors and objecting at weddings. But is that a real thing? Why do we even bother asking for objections? And what would actually happen if someone objected at your wedding? 

Let’s take a walk down the aisle of history.

“Historically, much of the wedding ceremony we think of as shown in American pop culture is descended from the Book of Common Prayer, dated 1662, from the Church of England,” humanist celebrant Beth Stokes explains. “At that time, the legal and religious aspects of a marriage were one and the same, and ensuring the legality of a marriage was the responsibility of the Church: Couples were required to post notices in their parishes for weeks in advance to let people know they intended to be married and to allow anyone who had legal reason to object prior to the religious ceremony. During the ceremony itself, the religious leader would ask one final time if anyone had legal objections to the marriage about to be solemnized.”

As a quick aside, marriage celebrant Jennifer Cram says the notion of objecting to a wedding has been around in a less formal sense for much longer. As she explains in a blog post, “It all goes back to two things — concern about marrying close relatives and the notion of consent. While today, in most places it is legal to marry your first cousin, way back in mediaeval times, marrying even a 6th cousin was forbidden. As you can imagine, who your 6th, 5th or even 4th cousin might be may not be common knowledge. At the time, marriage by consent (two people binding themselves to one another in marriage in secret, without witnesses) was recognized as a valid marriage (that is, legal), though it wasn’t allowed by the church.” 

Back then, too, marriage registers were virtually non-existent, and who was related to who was a matter of personal knowledge, so if Brom knew that you were marrying your cousin, Rowan, he could loosely object.

Anyway, the more concrete idea of objections that we see in the Book of Common Prayer, which specifically maintains that marriage is meant for procreation, as a remedy against sin — i.e., premarital sex — and for the benefit of all parties involved. If anyone in the audience viewed the marriage as anything beyond these purposes, they were given the opportunity to object after the now-famous line was read from the book: “Therefore if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.”

As wedding authority Father Jason Lody explains, “People get married for many reasons, and sometimes the reason may not be rooted in love or mutual consent.” This became especially prevalent once laws were put in place that transferred wealth and land ownership after a wedding, and the popularity of asking for objections subsequently grew.

But as religion and weddings continue to separate from one another, and marriage laws have become more reasonable, the line has largely lost its meaning. “These days, I don’t know any non-religious celebrants or officiants who pose this question seriously, for a few reasons,” Stokes says. “First, our bookkeeping methods in 2020 are better than they were in 1662, and when couples apply for a marriage license, the paperwork they fill out allows city clerks to validate whether the couple is married to someone else or if there are other legal reasons prohibiting the marriage. Therefore, a celebrant or officiant doesn’t have to carry out this role. Second, the marrying couple doesn’t need anyone else’s consent to marry, and asking this question sets up needless drama for pointless return. Even if someone did object, it would be on personal or emotional grounds, rather than legal.”

As just one example of how marriage laws have changed, in the 1700s and 1800s, women were regarded as the property of their husbands, so there was a lot at stake when getting married. In at least most Western democratic countries these days, women now have their own legal and economic status within a marriage. We still have a ways to go when it comes to marriage law, but generally speaking, marriages are looser than they once were and have less need for people stepping in to stop any potential foul play.

In fact, Alan Katz, presiding officiant of Great Officiants, says, “As a professional officiant for over 15 years of doing over 1,500 weddings a year, I’ve never heard anybody object to one, other than in jest.”

Likewise, Stokes says, “I’ve never heard of it, though you’ll see it in pop culture for dramatic effect. It may happen in cultures or locations where there’s no legal vetting of the couple’s ability to marry before the ceremony itself. Other than that, the celebrant or officiant does have the responsibility to refuse to perform the wedding if the couple doesn’t produce the required paperwork before the ceremony.”

But theoretically speaking, what would happen if someone burst through the doors and objected at your wedding? 

“That’s sort of up to the couple,” Stokes says. “If I were officiating a wedding and someone objected to it, even if I hadn’t asked the question, I’d start by treating it as a light joke and announce that despite their objections, this ceremony is continuing. If they continued to make a fuss, I’d quickly and quietly check with the couple if this is something we need to pause the ceremony for compassionately (the chance that someone is struggling with mental health issues comes to mind), or else we can identify someone (a best man, a coordinator or other calming person) to escort the person from the ceremony so we can continue in peace. With most things that go off-script during a ceremony, it usually makes for a good story in retrospect and is only a momentary hiccup during the ceremony itself.”

I guess we’re all better off forever holding our peace, then.

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