Friday, 13 July 2012

A Big Fat Greek Wedding - and some thoughts on gay marriage.

A couple of weekends ago I attended the wedding of my cousin’s daughter in Thessaloniki. The Greeks certainly know how to celebrate and this was, in every sense, a joyous and joyful occasion. Having left behind a grey, cold London at some unearthly hour on the Friday morning, the mood changed the minute our plane touched down on the sun drenched tarmac of Thessaloniki Airport. I had travelled with my brother and his wife, who were staying at the Makedonia Palace, and I was to join my mother, who was staying at my aunt’s, all of us within walking distance of the famous White Tower and close to the church where Christina and her husband were to be married. As the ceremony was not due to take place till 7pm, after a quick drink at my brother’s hotel, I made for my aunt’s to get some sleep before what would inevitably be a very long night.

The movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding was aptly named, I can tell you. From the moment we pulled up outside the church, it was evident it was going to be just that. Unlike at a typical English wedding, where guests are ushered into the church and into designated pews, the majority of the guests were milling around outside, laughing, greeting one another, and awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom. It still being rather hot, and my 89 year old mother and 91 year old aunt being in need of a seat, we entered the cool of the beautifully decorated church, the hush inside contrasting with the noisy cacophony of chatter and traffic outside. There were few other people inside, though occasionally someone would come in to check all was in readiness, before darting back out into the sunshine to await the happy couple. Inside the church we were alerted to their arrival by the sound of cheering and applause from outside, and then all of a sudden, the bride and groom led the throng into the church, he dark and handsome in a charcoal suit and crisp white shirt, and she stunningly beautiful and radiantly smiling in a white silk full skirted dress, with a short train. Indeed Christina’s incandescent smile scarcely left her face throughout the service. I doubt I have ever seen a more beautiful, more completely happy bride in all my life, and that includes Kate Middleton!
Now one might think that the Greek Orthodox Church is very high and formal, but there is absolutely nothing of the staid formality of a Church of England service, with its written script and responses. There is no real altar as such, just a small table for the various accoutrements of the weddings, the bridal crowns that the bride and groom exchange, the wine etc. The congregation mostly just gathered round the central group of bride and groom, parents, best woman (the groom had a best woman, his sister, rather than a best man), and bridesmaids, whilst the priest conducted the service. In fact nobody else speaks during the service, which was all conducted in Greek, so I couldn’t really understand what was going on. The couple drank wine and exchanged rings (three times, presumably symbolic of father son and holy ghost), then the best woman crossed their hands three times, before the priest placed two Stefana bridal crowns, joined by a single ribbon, onto their heads. These symbolise the glory and honour that is being bestwoed on them by God, and the ribbon symblises their unity. The best woman crossed these three times too, before the priest led bride and groom and best woman around the table in a circle, also three times. This is apparently called the Dance of Isaiah, and typifies eternity, an expression of joy and with this the bridal party signify their pledge to preserve this holy bond, until it is broken by death. This also signified the end of the ceremony, the guests pelted the couple with rice, and with that the bridal procession moved outside where they formally greeted their guests, presenting each with a traditional Greek boubouniera, sugar almonds, wrapped in lace and tied with a ribbon, a team of photographers, who had been in attendance since we arrived at the church, filming and photographing everything that happened. Guests then departed for the reception, whilst the bride and groom were driven to the beach for more photographs.

As we were more or less the last to leave the church, we were also amongst the last to arrive at the reception, a taverna with seating out in the open, everything beautifully decorated with white candles, flowers and muslin. I’d say there were around 300 guests, all at tables surrounding a large dance floor, a DJ sitting in the covered area at the far end. A buffet of cold starters and hot main courses was delicious and plentiful; as was the wine, but at this point we were a rather subdued group. Eventually, though, the happy couple arrived and the whole atmosphere of the occasion changed; the couple’s happiness so palpable that it infected the whole place. Suddenly this disparate group of people had a focus. The young couple led the dancing, first in traditional Greek dances, and then eventually more modern Western style, until it was impossible not to get up and join in. Everyone, young and old, was dancing, and, if my mother’s legs no longer allowed her to get up and dance, her eyes and smile showed that she too was still dancing. “My legs won’t let me, but I am dancing inside with every fibre of my being,” she shouted to me, and certainly it was a long time since I had seen her so happy herself. Christina’s mother, my cousin’s wife, Sophie, told me that Christina had planned every part of the ceremony down to the finest detail. This was her and her husband, Panayotis’s day, and she wanted everyone to share in their happiness. Even at 3 in the morning, with the hem of her dress torn, and her hair coming loose, she looked as radiant when as she had when she entered the church at 7pm, and, though we left exhausted at that point, she apparently continued dancing and partying with her husband and friends till 5.30am!

Watching the two of them dancing together, holding each other tightly and looking into each other’s eyes, I felt honoured to be included in their happiness and their love. Momentarily, a feeling of sadness came over me. Will I ever feel again what these two young people so evidently feel for each other? But then I remembered something else. If I did meet the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, if I too wanted to share with everyone my happiness and my commitment to that other person, would I be able to do it in quite the same way? Unfortunately there are still plenty of people around who would not want me to, and are actively involved in actually preventing me from doing so. Why, only a couple of weeks ago a young, recently married couple had very publicly gone to 10 Downing Street, to present the Prime Minister with a petition against marriage for single sex couples. What they quite clearly, and smugly, were saying is, “You can’t have this. You can’t have what we have. You are not worthy of it.” Is it any wonder they were the subject of hate mongering and nasty messages? I don’t condone the hate messages they received, but I understand them. What did they really expect?  

What has emerged in the last few weeks is that some, not all, religions are determined to deny us equality, to deny us the chance to love, and to commit to the person we love. At one point I read somewhere that the Catholic Church was suggesting an alliance between them, Muslims and Orthodox Jews to fight plans for the legalisation of civil marriage for same sex partners. Clearly, they hate us even more than they hate each other. Apparently if we are allowed to marry, it will mean the end of civilisation as we know it. Given their idea of civilisation, maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

With David Cameron and many key members of the Coalition Government throwing their weight behind the argument for full gay marriage, what has emerged is a battle between Church and State, regardless of the fact that the present law will not allow religious organisations to perform same sex marriages anyway. The Church of England, which is itself divided on this issue, has been leading the onslaught, closely followed by the Roman Catholics, with the Vatican, of course, standing firmly behind them. This seems to me more than a mite ironic. The Church of England was founded on a battle between Church and State some 470 years ago, when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church of Rome, who, in turn, excommunicated him. Henry made himself Supreme Head of the Church, and the Church of England subsequently became the established church of the United Kingdom. I don’t want to delve too deeply into history, but one of the threats that the present C of E is using against the government is that it will disestablish itself from the State. That is good news indeed. Apparently only about 2% of the UK population regularly attends church on a Sunday. Why should an institution that commands such a small following be granted a say in the running of the country? It has no business meddling in matters of State, which is what the whole gay marriage issue is.

The government should not be deflected from their purpose to give equal marriage rights, because it is the right thing to do, and religions should not be allowed to deny us the happiness they bestow so eagerly on two people of the opposite sex. When it finally becomes law, and they lose their battle, I hope that it will also eventually become law for religious institutions to be able to carry out gay weddings, if they wish to do so. Then we will have true equality, for that, after all, is what this is all about. Whether you agree with the institution of marriage or not, we should all be able to celebrate and share with the world the commitment we make to another person, whether that person is of the same sex or not.

I believe that in twenty years from now, maybe even ten, people will look back on this time and wonder what all the fuss was about. Even now, a younger generation don't really get it. For my nephew and niece, and all the friends I meet through them, gay marriage isn't even an issue. They don't understand the objections. Remember that it was only as recently as 1967, paradoxically the same year homosexuality was legalised in the UK, that blacks were allowed to marry whites in the US. Would anyone now say that the laws preventing them from marrying were right or just?

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