Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Wedding Bells, or Conches, or Lions!
Cultural trends sometimes pop up in odd locations. The “wedding/celebrations” section of the Sunday New York Times is one of them. There was a time, not too long ago, when most of the weddings seemed to take place in the well heeled parishes and synagogues of New York City and prosperous nearby Westchester and Fairfield counties. Presiding over these weddings were the rectors, priests, pastors, and rabbis of these mainline congregations. Not anymore!
As I perused this past “Sunday Style” section (maybe I was thinking about Valentine’s Day), I noted the following people officiating: former mayor David Dinkins, a justice of the peace in Greenwich, Connecticut (a wedding for a gay couple), a minister of the Church of Religious Science in Hawaii, a retired New York state judge, a registrar of the high court in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a “friend who became an officiant for the occasion through American Marriage Ministries” (an internet ordination service), a Hindu priest, another justice of the peace in Greenwich for another gay couple, a minister of the Community of Christ, and a rabbi.
While I recognize that this is hardly a scientific sample a few observations are jarring. First, not a single one of the weddings listed took place inside a formal house of worship. Hotels, homes, resorts, beaches, and civic buildings seemed to be the venues of choice. While there is nothing wrong with this, it is interesting that none of the couples exchanged their vows in a setting that communicates a sense of religious tradition or of communal continuity across time. The weddings, it seems, are about individuals, “me, my family and my friends.”
Second, not a single Catholic or Mainline Protestant clergy person is represented in the list. As one of those mainline clergy who used to preside at a number of weddings every year, I don’t necessarily view this trend, if it is one, with deep regret. Most ministers will tell you that weddings are not one of their favorite activities. But the absence of clergy from the old establishment is striking, particularly in the society pages of an old, establishment newspaper like The Times.
Third, the notices remind us of the increasing religious diversity all around us. On these two pages I found Christians, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, spiritualists and, presumably, atheists. It gets even more interesting when you read the articles and notice how couples are blending multiple religious and spiritual traditions on their own. Piraye and Nicolas were married by a judge at the New York Public Library, but will also share in “a celebration incorporating Turkish – presumably Muslim – wedding traditions in Istanbul.” Randy and Jeremy were married in the Greenwich town hall, but also held a commitment ceremony at a resort in Key West “that incorporated readings by friends and family members, with Jeremy stepping on a glass in the Jewish tradition.” Carla and Habib were married in a New York hotel, but will also take part in “a Masai wedding ceremony at the Whistling Thorn Camp in Tanzania, which is to be conducted by two Masai elders.” Jessica and Greg were married on the beach in Hawaii. Jessica “danced the hula and chanted in Hawaiian, blew from a conch shell in four directions, then used the shell to gather water from the ocean, with which the couple were then instructed to wash each others’ hands. . . . After the couple exchanged leis, they put their foreheads together and breathed deeply in and out, absorbing each other’s aloha.”
I would be the first to admit that the more traditional wedding practices of just a few years ago did not necessarily reflect deeper faith, stronger religious observance, or a greater homogeneity of spiritual interest and commitment. And I would be the last to try to berate people into having more traditional weddings in more traditional locations. But it is one more reminder, at least anecdotally, that the cultural milieu in which most of our churches operate is vastly transformed from what it was not so long ago – far less overtly or dominantly Christian, less institutional, less accountable to formal religious authority and more responsive to individual seeking, less communal, at least symbolically, and more private.
All of this has, of course, been noted by observers of culture for a number of years. But it is enormously challenging for religious leaders who are trained in the midst of one cultural context only to discover, not many years later, that they must help shape a mission, a ministry, and a witness for a radically different context. Tony Campolo used to poke fun at us in the old Mainline, suggesting that we tend to sit around saying, “When the fifties come back, we’ll be ready!” Ouch. Sadly, there’s probably more than a little truth to that.
As one who was trained amid the religious and cultural residue of the fifties and sixties that still shaped much theological education in the 1970’s, I am comforted by many of my students who remind me that they never knew the fifties and thus have no crippling sense of nostalgia for a world that can’t be and probably never quite was! Perhaps today’s students, firmly post-modern and post-establishment, will not be constantly struggling to unhinge themselves from assumptions that once seemed so culturally normative. Their response to the Times’ Style section would probably be, “So?” This isn’t to suggest that their ministries will be easy. But at least they know a bit more clearly what they’re getting into, which is more like Paul in the Areopagus in Athens than anything I imagined at my ordination in 1975. Meanwhile, if this means fewer weddings for people who chose your church because it will look so good in the pictures, all the better!
John H. Thomas