As a celebrant, one of the questions that people are quick to ask, usually with a concerned expression playing about their features is 'How long will the ceremony last?'' Often in much the same tone they'd ask ''But is it terminal, doctor?'' As marriage ceremonies are what I lovingly create for a living, no-one wants to give offence by implying they would rather chew their own leg off than endure listening to endless syrupy ranting or obscure poetry. It's OK - I understand. More than that, I agree.
If anyone reading this is an ageing geek, they may remember an early encounter that Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect had in Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy with a race called the Vogons. It had been deemed necessary to destroy the Earth to make way for an inter-galactic by-pass and the Vogons were despatched to do the job. They were particularly feared across the galaxy because on capturing prisoners they would torture them with recitations of bad poetry. I have yet to perform a Vogon wedding, but would be prepared to give it a go for research purposes. (I also have to resist the urge on occasion not to channel Peter Cook's minister in The Princess Bride, by starting a sermon on ''Mawwage...'' Anyone for a Princess Bride wedding? I'm learning to love my inner geek.)
Wedding ceremonies have had a bad rap for exceeding the limits of human endurance, but that's more historical, in the same way that it used to be frowned upon to invite your kids to your wedding. Assuming, that is you're having a civil ceremony and have some say in the matter. Religious weddings, as I understand it, are still likely to feature some additional content.
As a society, we have a pretty short attention span. If a webpage doesn't load in the blink of an eye, we're upgrading our computer; if the consumption of a cup of coffee isn't immortalised on Facebook by the time the cup is returned to the saucer, it's old news. Modern marriage ceremonies can adapt to this and should take both the audience and environmental factors into account as well. For instance, a beach wedding on a 38 degree day should be over before more than a third of the guests faint or throw themselves fully clothed into the ocean.
Generally speaking, men have a lower tolerance for ceremonies than women, so I tend to use the groomsmen as a barometer. Warning signs are eyes that are more glazed than the icing on the wedding cake or Homer Simpson-esque salivation while glancing at the bar. As a general rule of thumb, I would say that a glass of champagne poured at the start of the ceremony should not have the opportunity to warm by more than two degrees. That's an Australian rule - in England the beer shouldn't cool by more than two degrees.
Some people adopt an 'it's not the length that matters, it's what you do with it' approach; a belief that as long as everyone's having a good time, what does it matter? The problem is, who is the arbiter? I'm pretty sure that the bride's mum who is creating a personal tissue mountain is actually having a way better time than the boyfriend of the groom's sister's flat mate, who is much more concerned about the footy scores than about what Paul may or may not have said to the Corinthians.
To get down to brass tacks, I would say that due respect can be paid to the institution of marriage in a ceremony that is entertaining, moving and enjoyable in all the right places in around 15-20 minutes. Anything less could imply unseemly haste and make guests wonder if their investment in getting their suit dry cleaned was worthwhile; anything much longer will cause more foot-shuffling than a pre-school performance of Riverdance.