Secular Pronouncements


Good news for atheists wanting to preside over weddings in Indiana: you no longer have to get ordained in a fake internet church before you can sign the papers!

I'm thrilled by this development for a variety of reasons, which I will tick off with bullet points:

  • Contrary to popular belief, weddings have not always been the province of the church. Prior to the middle ages, in fact, weddings in the Roman Empire and its successor states were civil events. In ancient Judaism, there was no priestly role at all: the wedding was consummated--made official--in the marriage bed. Only with the decline of literacy did marriage come into the church, and it did so literally through the back door. Typically the only person in town who could read and write, and thus keep records, was the parish priest. This led to the back door of the church being a place where announcements were made, contracts sealed, and any other business else requiring a notary was conducted. Once marriage vows had been taken at that back door, though, it made sense to go on in and have a service blessing the couple. Thus began the evolution of the church wedding. But to reiterate: it's a historical accident that this contractual relationship, which continued to have civil status, ever took on religious connotations; and requiring that weddings be performed by clergy (giving rise to internet ordination mills) a needless, and ultimately unconstitutional, intrusion of the state into the religious status of couples.
  • Of all the duties clergy are expected to perform, weddings are the most odious. Balancing the expectations of the bride, her family, the photographer, the wedding planner, and (sorry guys, but your interests almost always come last here) the groom and his family with the desire of any pastor to maintain theological integrity can be a nightmare. While I will admit to having some wonderful times preparing couples for marriage and performing their ceremonies, I've also got stories I could tell you that would make your toes curl. Some of them are funny. Mostly they just remind me how relieved I am not to have this job anymore, and what an improvement it would be if churches could push these events back onto the street.
  • In the last two years, I attended two weddings and officiated at a third. None of them took place in a church. The two I attended were officiated by friends of the couples being married, and the one I performed was for friends. Not being tied to a church, or to a book of ritual, meant the entire ceremony could be built around the couple. With a friend presiding, the entire service could be personalized far better than in almost every wedding I performed while a minister, when I typically met the couple for the first time when they came in for their first premarital counseling session. Having a friend perform a wedding, whether or not he or she is ordained, makes vastly more sense than going to a perfect stranger, however well qualified, however well-respected by the bride's or groom's parents; and for couples who have no church affiliation (as the vast majority of young adults do not) it makes even more sense to choose a place of beauty that has significance for the couple, however lovely their parents' home church may be. I found all the services to be moving, and believe the couples will have far more indelible memories of the occasion than if they had shopped around for a church building and met with the pastor a handful of times before having their service, signing the papers, and never entering that building or meeting that pastor again.
  • For the friend a couple chooses to preside, the requirement of ordination in some made-up Universal Life Church is not only a silly thing to require of an agnostic or atheist, but cheapens the meaning of ordination for those of us who devoted many years of our lives to achieve it. It took me a full decade to become a United Methodist elder, a struggle that ultimately cost me a marriage and, I must admit, my faith in both the church and its doctrines. That someone can fill out a form, click a button, and be placed on a par with me and my fellow legitimate ordinands is appalling. Let's do away with this requirement and put these sham religions out of business.
  • Desanctifying the institution of marriage and wresting it from the clutches of religion can only help in the struggle to place committed same-gender relationships on a par with those of mixed-gender couples. Nearly all the resistance to marriage equality comes from conservative Christians, acting as if they have a monopoly on the ceremony and the institution it symbolizes. Once the requirement of ordination is removed from the equation, the notion that one segment of the population should be able to define marriage for the entire nation will lose what power it still has.
And now a story: in 2000, I moved into the Peace House, an intentional community of United Methodist activists located in northeast Portland. The house parents of this place (there really is no term that better describes their roles) were, and still are, John and Pat Schwiebert. John, like me, is a United Methodist elder, while Pat is a layperson, a registered nurse, and the only straight member of Portland's Metropolitan Community Church. The house has served as an AIDS hospice, and John and Pat have been active for decades in the movement to ordain sexual minorities in, and bring marriage equality to, the United Methodist Church. Soon after I moved into the Peace House, John told me that Pat would be performing a same-gender wedding. "Is that legal?" I blurted out before realizing two things: 1) Since the marriage would not be recognized in Oregon anyway, it made no difference whether the officiant was ordained or not; 2) as a layperson, Pat was at no risk of being put on trial by the United Methodist Church which continues to forbid its clergy (like John and me) to perform any kind of union ceremony for a same-gender couple. This made Pat the perfect person to preside over this wedding.

Fourteen years later, marriage equality has finally come to Oregon, though with the ordination requirement still on the books, gay couples are in many cases having to turn to justices-of-the-peace, pastors of churches other than their own, or friends willing to be "ordained" by an online "church." In this most unchurched of states, it's high time we follow the example set by Indiana, and get weddings out of the church and back where they belong: in the community that will support the couple in their life together.

One final note: in two and a half weeks, Amy and I will be solemnizing our "mountain marriage" at a spot we just picked out on the Leif Erickson Drive, a trail through Portland's Forest Park. For our officiant, we chose a friend and fellow improviser, Scott Simon. We've asked our closest friends and relatives (including the Schwieberts) to be present. No papers will be signed, and nothing will be entered into county records, but in every other respect, but we will be making promises to each other and sealing them with rings and a kiss. Nine days later, we'll have an all-day reception on our patio. This is the kind of wedding that's only possible apart from a church: uniquely personalized, significant to us in ways it could be to no other couple, honoring our individual and mutual identities.

Here's hoping more and more weddings will break the bonds of religious expectations, and take place wherever they mean the most to the people being married, presided over by someone who knows them far better than any cleric ever can.

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