Friday, January 9, 2015

Wedding Crap: The Officiant

(See introduction and disclaimer to this series here, and other posts in the series here.)

What is the tradition? 

The wedding ceremony is "performed" by a qualified officiant - depending on the state, there may be specific words they have to say, but they generally give opening/closing words, perhaps a sermon or similar speech, lead the couple in their vows, and declare - by the power vested in them by the state of whatever - that they are now officially married. 

A qualified officiant, depending on the state, is usually a minister - of any denomination or religion, or judge or other court official. 

What is the origin of the tradition?

Technically, there are two wedding ceremonies happening simultaneously when a religious officiant performs the ceremony: the civil ceremony, which gets recorded on the legal wedding license, is what's recognized by the state, if the religious officiant is also recognized by the state. Thus a civil ceremony by itself also creates a marriage for legal purposes; a religious ceremony just adds additional (non-legally-required) elements on top of it.

So if it's about the state government recognizing the official as trustworthy to perform the civil requirements, it makes sense that government officials, like a judge or justice of the peace, would be deemed appropriate. Why would the state also recognize religious officials? It seems to be based on the control and involvement churches and states used to have with each other: the legal requirement, in some times and places, was having a ceremony in an officially-recognized church (source). As religions have been (fortunately) divided from state, the civil requirement took precedence, but the religious authority wasn't taken away.

Why do people still follow it?

Well, cause they have to, in order to receive the legal benefits of a government-recognized marriage. 

But I think a lot of people are thinking twice about this one, actually, perhaps as they may have less significant ties to formal religious institutions, and choosing to have friends or family members "ordained" as ministers in "religions" such as the Universal Life Church or other such online ordinations to perform their wedding ceremonies.

Why is that crap? 

I wrote about this somewhat in another post when we got out marriage license. 

First of all, I think the concept of a "religious" officiant has been completely diluted, now that many states allow online-ordained officiants, so they're basically acknowledging that these ceremonies are not taking place in a deep-seated, truly-held religious context. If you requirement allows virtually anyone in the world to meet the requirements, maybe you should just remove the requirement and allow anyone in the world to do it, eh?

But most of all - and I realize this is more of a quasi-political and philosophical stance on my part than the feminist-based rantings of most of this series, so hopefully it's still interesting to think about and dialogue even if you disagree! - I don't agree with the concept of the government authorizing anyone to "perform" or "form" the marriage of two people. 

You don't have to have an authorized person officiate the signing of a business contract or a house sale. The two parties put their agreement in writing, and unless intent or capacity is proved otherwise, the government respects the agreement of those two parties without having to be directly involved in its formation.

I view a marriage essentially the same way. It's a contract between two people. No one else can form that contract for us; it is only by our consent and signing that an agreement is created. I want the government to recognize our marriage contract, just like they recognize any other kind of contract, but I don't see what business it is of theirs to tell us that someone they've deemed appropriate must declare the contract to be.

What am I doing with this tradition?

Photo by Stephanie Kaloi

We asked a friend to get ordained as a Dudeist priest and officiate the wedding. Though legally fulfilling the role and requirements of an "officiant", in our program we referred to him as a "moderator". His purpose, beyond the legal requirements, was to facilitate transitions and lead the general flow of the ceremony. But it was certainly not his place to declare us married - that was our position to declare ourselves as agreeing to that.

Fortunately, Oregon marriage laws were amenable to our plan. You only have to have a judicial or religious official (and I called to confirm that online ordinations counted for the religious requirement) be present while the husband and wife declare their intent to be married. Basically a "super witness" as I thought of it. There are no specifics phrases they have to say, or parts to be performed of the ceremony. Their signature on the wedding license is merely stating that they were present at the ceremony, not avowing any other participation or specifics of the ceremony.

Though I liked how this went and the friend who was our officiant, I have to admit it was my second choice. My dream ceremony would have been a self-solemnizing ceremony in Colorado. From my research, currently the two states that allow self-solemnizing - i.e., no officiant, it basically operates as I've described I think it should, with the state just recognizing the stated intent of the two parties - are Colorado and Pennsylvania. The latter due to its Quaker roots (Quakers recognize everyone as equals, rather than ministers having more authority or power than lay people), the former I have no idea why, but I'm glad it exists!

How did/will you handle this tradition?

I would love to have a lively debate and conversation in the comments! Please join in!

Dissenting opinions (from the post itself or other commenters) are welcome, but I reserve the right to delete any comments that personally attack me or any other commenter.

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