The path to an honest ceremony

Customs, values, mores and traditions… they all change over time. If we didn’t expand our horizons, we’d still be living in caves. For some people the tradition of marrying in a house of worship is absolutely the way they want and need for their wedding ceremony. And that is great, if that is who you are. But people do change, and what about those who no longer connect to their faith tradition, or those who are secular?

We are a diverse society, and although it seems to trouble some people, I believe it gives our country strength and is what makes us great. Within that diversity is religion. I love thinking about, learning about, and discussing religion, but for some reason it is one of the most sensitive topics. I’m always perplexed how, in some circles, you’re ‘not supposed to talk about it.’

Frequently, couples I work with tell me they consider themselves a part of a religious tradition, but do not follow the dogma or strictures of their faith. Other say they believe in God but not the institutions that seek to represent Him. And there are many other ways people identify themselves, using terms such as non-practicing, secular, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, humanist or secular humanist. I’ve heard it many times: ‘we’re not getting married in the church because we don’t attend and we’d feel like hypocrites.’ That is straightforward and sincere, but not always an easy decision.

This is why I often find myself referencing the famous quote from the Dalia Lama who said: ‘My religion is very simple, my religion is kindness’

In 2014 the Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that 22.8% of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, and that atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the U.S. population. Similar findings came from the 2014 General Social Survey, which found 21% of Americans had no religion, with 3% being atheist and 5% being agnostic. Considering the number of Americans (321.4 MILLION) that’s a lot of people, but for comparison, remember that Christians make up 83%of Americans.

So, to my point today: What do couples do if they are not taking their vows within a faith tradition? Some go to a courthouse, and in most states Judges and Justices of the Peace (here in PA they are called Magisterial District Judges), can perform weddings.

It differs widely state to state. Some states have a licensing system and others do not (PA does not license officiants). Massachusetts offers a license for a day, and in California you can get deputized for a day, so anyone can legally perform a wedding ceremony. In Florida, a notary can perform a ceremony!

Some counties and states accept the on-line, internet ordination – click a button and become a minister (I do NOT recommend you do this!). Just remember when you choose someone who has never performed a wedding ceremony, that is exactly what you are getting.

And here’s something else that happens: some couples simply go ahead and have a religious ceremony, even when they don’t believe, or it isn’t what they wanted.

I try not to write about myself in the column, but I’m very proud to have studied at one of the world’s leading education programs for the study of ceremony, the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, headquartered in the U.S. in Montclair, NJ. No matter how someone becomes legal to officiate, having training and experience makes a difference. Like almost everything, you do get what you pay for, and I am always distressed when I see those on-line wedding budget guidelines undervaluing the officiant. Geez – we’re pretty important, in fact you can’t get married without us.

I am especially passionate about creating ceremonies that span a range from traditional, to spiritual, to completely secular. Interfaith weddings are a bit of my specialty, too.

I even have couples who identify as religious, yet still don’t want their wedding ceremony to be about their faith, but focusing more on them.

All these reasons are why Celebrants like myself have been growing in number. And like most clergy, I, too, feel called to do this work.

No matter what your beliefs, we all need to respect one another. My only exception to this is when someone’s beliefs infringe on another’s rights.

Everyone deserves a ceremony that accurately reflects who they truly are. Life’s milestones deserve your careful attention. Wherever your path has led you, I hope you can celebrate it with clarity and honestly.


Once more thank you Lisa Rhinehart for the use of your gorgeous photography!



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