For many years I have subscribed to the Sunday New York Times. Each week The Times reports on a number of weddings that occurred recently. And one thing that seems to be unique to this paper is that it always names the person who officiated at the marriage.

Back in the 1980s, I tracked this information. Nearly all of the weddings were performed by a specific religious denomination. By far the most prominent groups were Roman Catholic, Jewish and Episcopalian. Other denominations lagged far behind. Probably this reflected the higher social status of those persons whose prominence merited a spot in The Times.

This year, I again resumed my practice of examining the identity of those who officiated at the weddings reported in the paper. The differences were astounding. By far the overwhelming numbers of ceremonies were secular in nature. On one Sunday, fewer than half of the marriages were religious.

Two organizations were predominant: Universal Life Ministries and American Life Ministries. These two secular organizations provided ministerial leadership for nearly half of the ceremonies reported. Several other marriages were same-sex weddings.

Universal Life and American Life Ministries proclaim to be secular and will provide you with a free, legal ordination certificate when you apply online. For a small fee you may also ask for sample marriage ceremonies, with an “official” wedding stole to provide you with a prominent vestment for the event. Most of these ministers whom I read about were friends or family members of the couple being married. Apparently all of these events were joyously celebrated, without the blessing of clergy.

Polls and surveys have been reporting for decades on the decline of church attendance. Evidently these ceremonies reported above bear this out. While it may not be too obvious yet here in the South, from what I see and hear, the Sunday attendance at IHOP may rival the presence in the pews, and those at restaurants are not likely going to church after breakfast.

I don’t believe that these data suggest that the Church is dying out. Christianity has been around for over 2,000 years, and Judaism even longer. Churches are adapting to the challenges of secularism and changing culture. When I retired 20 years ago from full-time pastoral ministry, I said that I was glad I wasn’t just starting out. Worship formats were rapidly changing, churches were utilizing social media in creative ways, and pastors were becoming entrepreneurs instead of theologians. The times are certainly changing. While the Church is not vanishing from our American culture, it is probably not exerting nearly as much influence as it did even 50 years ago.

Couples who are getting married

may turn to Universal Life Ministries, but they are still choosing a ceremony that has some ritual and reflects modern secular values. A couple of years ago I performed a wedding for friends. They were not active in any church, but both held deep spiritual values. There were about 75 people in attendance, with the service held in the function room of a local restaurant. Most attending were not “church persons,” but they came together in a palpable spirit of love and joy. Such positive energy made this one of the most blessed weddings I have ever performed. Incidentally, it was a same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, another wedding I attended, but did not perform, was quite traditional, but not stuffy. It was held in the chapel of Harvard University, performed by the noted chaplain of the school, Dr. Peter Gomes.

My friends who were being married had conferred with Gomes and selected the marriage ceremony straight out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It began with the familiar words, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together to unite this man and this woman in the estate of holy matrimony,” and even included what might seem archaic — “If anyone can show just cause why they may not be married, speak now or forever after hold your peace.” But again, the spirit of faith and joy, generated by the marvelous atmosphere of Harvard Chapel and the dignified recital by Gomes, made this a most significant ceremony.

As the 21st century moves on, I suspect that churches will develop more secular types of services that will give Universal Life Ministries a run for its money. Indeed, churches themselves are becoming more secular. After all, they are part of the world, and will work to make their outreach more relevant to the needs of contemporary society.

Harry Bronkar is a retired Baptist minister living in Seven Lakes. Contact him at hbronkar

(8) comments

Keith Miller

Mr Thomashoff...nothing long winded...just noting your uncanny ability to know someone's thoughts and interpret for all to see and understand...according to Thomashoff. An example is Mr Misegades's comments, with your psychic / telepathic abilities, you and only you interpret his comments for all to read. As far as "well wishes"...please flatter yourself, not sure the vast majority would agree with you.

Keith Miller

Mr Thomashoff…Are you o.k. with forcing others, by law, to live by your non-religious beliefs ?

Jim Tomashoff

Yes, because my "non-religious" beliefs do not interfere with how others choose to live their lives. If you're a woman who believes abortion is morally wrong, don't have one. If you believe gay marriage is wrong, don't marry someone of the same gender. By contrast, presumably you have no problem with imposing laws that would ban and criminalize abortions before the fetus achieves viability because you believe that is the morally correct thing to do, notwithstanding the views on abortion of any given woman. And that same reasoning would apply for god knows how many other "social" issues. If you want to live in a society that imposes religious based laws on the government's interpretation of scripture, buy a one-way ticket to Tehran. The vast majority of Americans will not be sad to see you go.

Keith Miller

Mr Thomashoff...I knew better than to ask you a question, but thought I would try one more time. While you and I will "most likely" not agree on very much...we can agree on one thing...and that is your ability to be able to read someone's mind and the astonishing and uncanny ability to tell that individual what he or she is thinking...and then translate their thoughts into your thoughts and explain to them or others how and why they should think like you...simply amazing !!! You should have you own psychic tv or internet show. If not, someone with you telepathic abilities, should be traveling the world teaching the talent that you have to those who would like to be like you...come to think of it you should be traveling the universe and if not, what a waste. But on the other hand we lowly people who do not think as you here in Pinehurst and surrounding areas would be so lost not to have you here to read our minds and tell us what we are thinking or how to think !!

I ask you a simple question...and the answer "yes" would have sufficed without you presuming to tell me "what I think". And it wouldn't do me any good to move away, because you would already be there, because you live there already in your own mind. Must be crowded in there with all that knowledge and psychic / telepathic abilities. You take care of yourself, the universe needs you.

Jim Tomashoff

Mr. Miller, you asked me a "when did you stop beating your wife" question. Your question was designed to try to make me seem arbitrary and unthinking. I am neither. I also note that notwithstanding your extremely long-winded description of my supposed ability regarding mind reading, you did not challenge, let alone refute my basic assumptions regarding you views on the social issues of abortion rights and gay marriage. That said, I do appreciate your well wishes and do indeed hope that the universe, in some way, "needs" me, something I would never on my own, assert.

Patricia Punch

Kent, I totally agree with you on that one. It wasn't Adam and Adam or Eve and Eve, it was Adam and Eve. It makes me sick. I was brought up in a Catholic household and this was not an acceptable practice in our church

Jim Tomashoff

Patricia, you are certainly entitled to your religious beliefs. But are you o.k. with forcing others, by law, to live by your religious beliefs?

Kent Misegades

Same-sex marriage is a sin according to my Bible. NC voters strongly agreed to amend our state constitution some years ago to protect the sanctity of marriage, which is only between one man and one woman before God. Everything else is just some form of union proclamation with little real meaning.

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