The Ceremony of Marriage According to the Rites of The Greek Orthodox Church

Marriage is a Sacrament, a Mystery of the Orthodox Church, through which the union of man and woman is sanctified by God.

The Orthodox marriage ceremony, the most ancient of Christian wedding rites, is steeped in ritual and symbolism, reflecting the theology of the Church.

The rite is performed by a Priest who stands before an appropriately covered ceremonial table. It is placed in the middle of the Soleas area of the church, in front of the Holy Altar.

Upon the table are placed the Holy Gospel, a cup of wine, the Betrothal Rings and the Wedding Crowns. Two candles are lit as a reminder that Christ is “the Light of the world” Who offers Himself as illumination for the couple that they “will not walk in darkness but will have the Light of life”.

The couple stands facing the Priest and the Royal Door of the Holy Altar; the Groom on the right; the Bride on the left.

The Ceremony comprises Two Parts:

1. The Betrothal Service with the official Blessing of the Rings, and
2. The Marriage Service with the Crowning of the Bride and Groom

The Betrothal Service

The Priest begins the Service intoning: “Blessed is our God always, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen”.

He then recites the Litany in which he beseeches the Lord for the salvation of the Bride and Groom; to send down upon them perfect and peaceful love; to preserve them in steadfastness of faith; to bless them with a blameless life; to grant them an honourable marriage. He concludes the Litany glorifying God: “For to You belong all glory, honour and worship, to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

Two more prayers are recited asking God to set a unity upon the Couple which cannot be broken; a blessing of peace; oneness of mind; a spirit of truth and love.

Through tradition. Every Orthodox betrothal is a double ring Ceremony. The Priest takes the Rings and with them makes the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the Groom saying: “The servant of God … (groom) is betrothed to the servant of God … (bride) in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen” (three times).

The same procedure is repeated making the sign of the Cross over the Bride’s forehead, signifying the equality of man and woman in the eyes of God. At the conclusion, the Rings are placed on the fourth finger of the right hands of the couple.

The paranymphos or koumbaros (the Best Man), steps forward and, crossing his hands first, takes the Rings and exchanges them, over and under, on the same fingers, three times.

The Priest then recites a prayer beseeching God … “to bless this putting on of rings with a heavenly blessing and that an Angel of the Lord will go before these Your servants, all the days of their life”. Here ends the Betrothal Service.

The Marriage Service

The Marriage Service is called “stepsis” in Greek, meaning crowning. After the chanting of three verses from Psalm 127, the Priest commences the Service by intoning: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages”. He then recites a series of petitions and three long prayers beseeching the Lord to “bless this marriage, granting to Your servants long life, purity, mutual love in the bond of peace, enduring prosperity, the blessing of children and the unfading crown of glory.”

The Joining of the Hands

The Priest then beseeches God “to unite the bridal couple in concord and crown them in one flesh”. At this point the right hands of the Bride and Groom are joined by the Priest. They remain joined throughout the remainder of the Service symbolizing the “oneness” of the couple.

The Crowning

The Crowning Ceremony is the climax of the Marriage Service. In the Orthodox Church each wedding is a form of Coronation Service. Since the Bride and Groom are regarded as part of the “royal family” of God, they are crowned king and queen of their own dominion – their new fellowship and family. Crowns are a symbol of victory for those who “have fought the good fight” of the Christian life and “have kept the faith.” In short, both they and the actual office of marriage are given great honour.

The Crowns were usually plaited of lemon blossoms or flowers. Today they are often made of silver or gold. They are a sign of the bond between the Bride and Groom and represent the glory and honour which God bestows upon the couple who have observed His Commandments.

The most beautiful and significant symbolism of the crown is expressed in the words of the priest before placing them on couple. Making the sign of the Cross on the Groom”s forehead, he exclaims: “The servant of God … (groom) takes as his crown the servant of God … (bride) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen” (three times).

Similarly, signifying equality once again and making the sign of the Cross on the Bride”s forehead, the Priest exclaims: “the servant of God … (bride) is takes as her crown the servant of God … (groom) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen” (three times).

These words indicate that the great crown in marriage, your great glory is the one you have chosen to join to for the rest of your life.

The Best Man then exchanges the Crowns three times while the Priest and the Chanter sing: “Lord our God, crown them in glory and honour.”

The Bible Readings

With the Crowns now placed on their heads of the Bride and Groom uniting them as Husband and Wife, the Epistle is read from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:20-33. The Gospel is then read from John 2:1-11.

The Common Cup

That Jesus chose a wedding to enact his first miracle is the most profound indication of the dignity attributed to the union of man and woman by God. Since the changing of water into wine at Cana, Jesus continues to change the ‘water’ of ordinary relationships into the ‘wine’ of Sacramental marriage. In remembrance of Christ’s first miracle, therefore, a cup of wine is shared by the Bride and Groom as a sign of unity with each other and with Christ.

This is not Holy Communion. Rather, it is a symbol of the “common cup of life,” a sign denoting the mutual sharing of joy and sorrow; a token of harmony. The Priest offers the cup, firstly to the Groom then to the Bride.

The Dance of Isaiah

The procession, a symbolic dance for the joy of God’s presence, is conducted in a circular fashion with the Holy Gospel in the hands of the priest who leads the couple holding their united hands. This highlights the Church’s prayerful desire that the life of the couple will walk through life led by the infallible and secure Word of God and inspired by the Church

During the Procession, the Priest and the Chanter sing the Hymn “Rejoice, Isaiah, the Virgin has conceived and has brought forth a son, the Emmanuel, both God and Man: Dayspring is His name. As we magnify Him we call the Virgin Blessed.” The second and third Hymns remind the newlyweds of the virtuous lives of the Saints and Martyrs whose faith and sacrifice they are called to emulate.

Removal of the Crowns

Following the procession, the Priest places his hand on the Groom’s head saying “May you be magnified, o Bridegroom, like Abraham, and be blessed like Isaac and be fruitful like Jacob as you go in peace, fulfilling in righteousness the Commandments of God.”

Likewise, placing his hand on the Bride’s head, the Priest says: “And you, o Bride, may you be magnified like Sarah and rejoice like Rebecca and be fruitful like Rachel, rejoicing in your own husband and observing the limits of the law, for so God is well pleased.”

During the ensuing prayer, the priest removes the Crowns from the newlyweds’ heads praying: “O God, our God, Who when You were present in Cana of Galilee blessed the marriage there, bless also these Your servants who have been joined together by Your providence in the fellowship of Marriage; bless their comings in and their goings out; make their lives fruitful for good; take their Crowns unto Your kingdom and preserve them blameless, guileless and unstained unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

The Service closes with the benediction “Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers have mercy upon us, Lord Jesus Christ our God, and save us. Amen.” Before congratulating the Newlyweds, the Priest takes the Holy Gospel and separates their right hands with it, thus signifying that nothing and no one, except the God alone, who forgives and unites and strengthens, should come between the new couple.

The Sacrament of Marriage

Marriage-finalThe sacrament of marriage, or crowning, is performed by the bishop, or priest, to a man and a woman who – being blessed with love and mutual respect – want to share their lives as husband and wife. Their commitment is expressed by the rings they exchange and by partaking from the ‘common cup’. In the scriptural readings within the service, wedding appears as endowed with mystical character, taking place ‘in the Lord’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:39). Thus, the apostolic pericope (Ephesians 5:20-33) asserts the sanctity of marriage by assimilating it to the communion between Christ and his Church. In turn, the gospel reading (John 2:1-11), of the change of the water into wine, suggests marriage’s dimension of spiritual transformation.

According to the first prayer of betrothal (preceding the sacrament of crowning), God is the one who calls people together into union and blesses them with love. In our tradition, consequently, love is never treated lightly as merely ‘natural’ or an ephemeral event of chemical reactions. The synaxis of love manifests a mystery of divine-human interaction, on the one hand through the mutual affection and agreement of the groom and the bride, and on the other hand through the blessing they receive from above. In addition, there is a related aspect indicating the significance of marriage: the whole ritual points to the Christian wisdom and sacrificial spirit to which the two are called together. This aspect is suggested by the remembrance in the ceremony of a series of saintly families – icons of wisdom, commitment and blessed life. Also, by the crowns bestowed upon the groom and the bride, crowns of martyrs, indicating the spiritual, or ascetical, dimension involved with living together in Christ (as further suggested by the mystical dance around the book of the Gospels and the holy cross).

In fact, living together requires a mutual predisposition to make room to one another and to grow in communion, goals impossible to attain without small sacrifices for the sake of one another. This dynamics of sacrifice determines St Maximus the Confessor to point out the validity of both ascetic ways – marriage and celibacy – with respect to realising the virtuous path (see his Difficulty 10:31a5). The idea, ultimately, of both the order of the service and the traditional literature (worth mentioning here St John Chrysostom’s homilies dedicated to marriage) is that without spiritual progress there is no accomplished married life.

The wedding was initially performed as a blessing within the frame of the divine liturgy, to indicate the ecclesial dimension of the event. Only after the eighth century did it became a separate service, comprising moments and prayers with strong mystagogic character.

There is a series of differences between the various ecclesial traditions with respect to marriage. In the Roman rite marriage as a sacrament is unique and therefore people are unable to divorce and remarry; another feature, suggesting the ‘natural’ dimension of it, is the fact that the recipients are also considered performers of the sacrament; probably related to this ‘natural’ aspect, Roman clergy cannot marry. To the Churches of the Reformation, marriage rather is a contractual bond than a sacrament and therefore can be dissolved for innumerable times. In our tradition, the sacrament of crowning is performed once and for all. However, our Church approaches life realistically, allowing people to divorce and remarry but no more than two times; usually, the second and the third weddings are not considered sacraments and the prayers they comprise have a penitential character. This indicates again, even if indirectly, the spiritual dimension of marriage in the Orthodox Church.

Very Rev. Dr Doru Costache
Senior Lecturer in Patristics at St. Andrew’s Theological College

Laws and Regulations Required for an Orthodox Wedding

The sacramental union of a man and a woman is performed in an Orthodox Church according to the liturgical tradition, and blessed by a Priest who is recognised as canonical (authentic) by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.

To learn more about Marriage as a Sacrament, please read our article on Marriage in the Sacraments section.

The Laws and Regulations pertaining to Weddings are set by the Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church and are implemented accordingly by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.

These regulations apply to every Greek Orthodox Priest across Australia. He is obliged to observe them conscientiously.

Prerequisites for Marriage in the Orthodox Church

There must be no impediment (regarding relationships) according to the Canons of the Church and according to Civil Law. In other words, the parties wishing to marry must not be related to each other.

Prohibited Marriages:

  • First Group Parents with their own children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
  • Second Group Brothers-in-law with sisters-in-law.
  • Third Group Uncles and aunts with nieces and nephews.
  • Fourth Group First cousins with each other.
  • Fifth Group Foster parents with foster children or foster children with the children of foster parents.
  • Sixth Group Godparents with godchildren or godparents with the parents of godchildren.
  • Seventh Group Godchildren of the same godparent.

The Koumbari

The Best Man (koumbaros) or the Matron of Honour (koumbara) are usually of the Orthodox Faith, since they will also be invited by the couple to become Godparent to at least one of their children.

Non-Orthodox Christians of an acceptable denomination may stand as Best Man or Matron of Honour at the Wedding. However, they may not go on to become Godparents at the Christenings of the couple’s future children because the roles are entirely different.

Whereas the Best Man or Matron of Honour at a Wedding is merely a witness, however, at the Baptism of a child the Godparent assumes the responsibility of teaching the child by example those things that he or she believes in. If the candidate for the role of Godparent is not Orthodox, then that is simply not possible.

Mixed Marriages

The Orthodox Church recognises that, in multicultural nations such as Australia, members of the Orthodox Faith might invariably elect to enter into a permanent relationship with persons who are not Orthodox.

In certain cases, despite its strict Canons and Regulations, the Church will accommodate the relationship and bless the union through the Sacrament of Marriage.

A marriage cannot take place in the Orthodox Church between an Orthodox Christian and a non-Christian.

The non-Orthodox partner must be a person who belongs to a Christian denomination ‘acceptable’ to the Orthodox Church. Acceptable denominational traditions include: Roman Catholic, Anglican Church (Church of England)(*), Uniting Church(*), Methodist, Presbyterian(*), Congregationalist(*), Lutherans, Armenians, Copts, Syro-Chaldeans, Uniates, Belorussian Catholic, Byzantine Church of Croatian, Ethiopian Catholic, Greek Byzantine Catholic, Hungarian Byzantine Catholic, Maronite, Melkite, Romanian Catholic, Apostolic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Assyrian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox.

This list has been formed on the basis of: (a) the fact that the above baptise in the name of the Holy Trinity, in water, (b) that there is some Apostolic Succession and (c) that they have degrees of Priesthood through Ordination.

(*) A baptism performed by a female pastor or member of clergy is not accepted by the Orthodox Church.

Having been baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, both parties are requested to responsibly declare that any children born of the marriage will be baptised according to the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church and that they shall be raised in the Orthodox Faith.

Far from wishing to interfere in the couple’s discretion and freedom, the reason for this requirement is that the Church has, painfully, seen too many marriages confront often insurmountable problems because the subject of the children and their religious up-bringing was not addressed before the wedding.

Marriages with persons who belong to the following groups are not permitted by the Orthodox Faith: Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, New Thought, Dutch Reformed, Evangelicals, Evangelical Reformed, Free Reformed Churches, Heritage Reformed, Associated Reformed, Anabaptists, Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, Hutterites, Brethren, River Brethren, Pietists, Spiritual Baptists, Neo Charismatic, Messianic Judaism, Religious Society of Friends, Baptist Union of Australia, Salvation Army, Christian Revival Crusades, Reborn Christians, Assembly of God, Born again, Hillsong, Churches Uniting in Christ, Mormons, Stone Campbell, Restoration Movement, South Cottites, Milerites, Adventist (7th Day), Church of God, Church of Christ, Sacred Name, Grace Movement, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah Witnesses, Scientology and similar groups.

Persons who are not Christian or who have never been baptised, even though their parents belonged to a Christian tradition, can only marry in the Orthodox Church upon being baptised in a denomination acceptable to the Orthodox Church. Should they wish to become Orthodox of their own free choice, directions on the procedure are provided under Conversion to Orthodox Christianity section.

A non-Orthodox Christian who marries an Orthodox Christian, whilst welcome to attend Church Services with his or her spouse (and children), does not automatically become a member of the Orthodox Church, and is therefore not permitted to receive Holy Communion or the other Sacraments in the Orthodox Church.

In addition, the Orthodox Church does not permit non-Orthodox clergy to con-celebrate in any of its Services. Nor does the Orthodox Church permit its own Priests to participate in the Services of other denominations, even if those denominations might allow Orthodox priests to participate.

Marriages between Orthodox and Orthodox

Where both parties are of the Greek Orthodox Faith, they must have been baptised in a canonical (authentic) Orthodox Church. Indeed, 98% of the Greek Orthodox faithful in Australia are baptised in the canonical Orthodox Church through the authority of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.

Schismatics

For the 2% whose parents may or may not have been aware that the church where they had arranged for the Baptism of their child was not canonical, the following clarifications might be informative.

In such cases, the question is often asked: “Isn’t every Greek Orthodox Church in Australia ‘Orthodox’?” Unfortunately, there are some so-called ‘Greek Orthodox Churches’ operating in this free and democratic nation which are not recognised by any canonical Orthodox authority in the world, and are classified as ‘schismatic’. Consequently, neither their ‘priests’ are recognised, nor are their ‘Sacraments’, even though each of these groups attempts to justify their existence by their own line of defence.

Such ‘schismatic’ ‘Churches’ include: the so-called Autocephalic Greek Orthodox Church of America and Australia Inc., the Independent Greek Orthodox Church of Australia and New Zealand, the Genuine Orthodox Church and others.

These groups, whilst recognised by the State as ‘religious entities’ and are permitted to operate by law, nonetheless do not have the spiritual recognition of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia which functions under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – the Spiritual Centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church throughout the world.

As a result, persons ‘baptised’ by such non-canonical clergy in any of the above ‘schismatic’ churches and desiring to marry must firstly speak to a canonical Priest who will advise what must be done in accordance with the regulations of the Archdiocese to formalise their standing in the Church.

Oriental Orthodox

There are also Churches which identify themselves as ‘Orthodox’ but which, for many centuries, have not belonged to the original tree of Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, marriages with persons from those traditions are permitted.

They include the Oriental Orthodox Churches such as: The Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Indian Orthodox Church, and others.

For further clarification please consult the local Parish Priest.

Dates on which Marriages are not permitted:

  • From 13th December until Christmas day.
  • On the 5th January, the eve of Epiphany.
  • From Great Lent until Easter Sunday (these dates vary from year to year).
  • From 1st to 15th August, the Dormition of the Theotokos.
  • On the 29th August, the Beheading of St John the Baptist.
  • On the 14th September, the Elevation of the Holy Cross.

On the day of the Wedding

• The groom and the groomsmen should arrive at the church at least 15 minutes prior to the commencement of the Service.

• The bride and the bridal party should arrive at the church at least 5 minutes prior to the scheduled time of the Wedding.

• For this to occur, the bride must ensure that the family is mobilised from early in the morning, allowing ample time for the hairdresser, the beautician, and the dressmaker to complete their work at the house.

• The bride and her family must bear in mind that, before leaving the house to depart for the church, the photographers and videographers as well as the drivers of the hire cars require considerable time to carry out their professional services, as requested. At least half an hour.

• The bride and the groom and their families should bear in mind special events that might cause traffic delays on the way to the church, such as major sporting fixtures, public parades or processions in the city and the suburbs, and the usual weekend traffic ‘bottlenecks’.

• The custom of the bride arriving late at the church ‘to keep the groom waiting’ is not based on any religious tradition.

• Arriving late at the church is plainly inconsiderate of other weddings and christenings that have been arranged by other families on the same day – especially if hundreds of guests have been invited.

• Double-check who is responsible for the rings and the crowns. Without these, the wedding cannot commence.

• The Priest will not ‘rush’ the Service, even if the wedding has been delayed. However, if the Bride or the Groom is more than 15 minutes late then it is reasonable that only the parents and the very immediate family will congratulate the couple at the church. The remaining guests will have to do so at the reception.

• The Priest will want you to be happy on your very special day and he will go out of his way to make sure that everyone enjoys the Ceremony.

Marriage Documentation and Fees

The Wedding date should be reserved with the Church well in advance to ensure the couple’s preferred time (where possible).

Every Greek Orthodox Priest in Australia is also a registered Civil Celebrant. Consequently, he is authorised to conduct the Marriage in accordance with both State and Ecclesiastical law. However, he is permitted to perform the Civil Marriage only in conjunction with the Religious Service on the same day.

The ‘Notice of Intended Marriage’ for the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and the Application to the Archdiocese for the Church, must be completed in the presence of the Priest at least one calendar month before the set date of marriage – preferably, three months prior. The couple should, therefore, arrange to meet with him during afternoon Office Hours or, in special cases, by appointment.

The Parish Priest will give directions as to the necessary Documents, fees for the Archdiocese, as well as fees for the local Church. These will vary, according to the individual status and circumstances of the couple.

In all circumstances, both parties (whether Orthodox or not) must present to the Priest their Birth Certificate (if born in Australia) or their Passport (if born overseas) as well as their Baptismal Certificate.

Orthodox parties who have never been married before must obtain a Certificate of Celibacy or ‘Agamias’ (that they are not married) from their local Parish Priest. This must be signed by two witnesses (parents, brothers, sisters, cousins or friends) upon presenting the Baptismal Certificate of the party concerned.

The ‘Local Parish’ is where one has been residing for the previous two years or more.

Parties already married either in Australia or overseas are prohibited by State and Church law to re-marry without a Divorce.

If either or both parties are widowed, the Death Certificate of the deceased spouse must be provided.

When one or both parties are divorcing, they must firstly obtain a civil Divorce Certificate from a Court of Law (Decree Nissi – ‘Degree Absolute’). Following this, they must also apply for an ecclesiastical divorce in order for the previous marriage to be dissolved according to Church Law. For more information, please see the ‘Divorces’ section.

For persons entering a second or third marriage the Divorce from the previous marriage must have been issued by the State and by the Church at least one calendar month prior to the next marriage.

In case the Marriage Certificate is lost after the wedding, a copy can be obtained subsequently from the Archdiocese office. Contact us for more details.

The fee for the copy of the Marriage Certificate is $70. 

Divorce

An ecclesiastical divorce may be granted after a civil Decree Absolute has been given. However, the parish priest must exert every effort to reconcile the couple and avert the divorce. Should the priest fail to bring about reconciliation, he will convey the petition of the party seeking ecclesiastical divorce to the Spiritual Court of the Archdiocese. A copy of the Decree Absolute must accompany this petition and the fees for the Archdiocese. Such ecclesiastical divorce is necessary in the case of a second or third marriage, which are tolerated by our Church.

Fees:

  • Granting of Ecclesiastical Divorce $350.00.
  • If both parties require Divorce, fee is $350.00 each.
  • Copy of Ecclesiastical Divorce $150.00.