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 @gmail.com.