The Wedding As Public Shared Celebration

This past weekend, I attended an ‘inter-faith’ wedding, staged in a beautiful, rural, upstate New York location–on a farm. It was an emotional and moving experience. I didn’t just attend the wedding; I also ‘officiated’; that is, I ‘performed’ the wedding ceremony. I read out a brief opening address, and with a co-officiant, shepherded the couple–two good friends of ours, who had granted us this privilege–through the various steps: beautiful, moving songs–including a favorite lullaby–sung by the bride’s mother and childhood friend, a secular version of the Jewish blessings of the wine and the seven blessings, and the exchange of vows and rings and the declaration–‘by the powers vested in me by the state of New York’–as husband and wife.  (My authority to solemnize my friends’ wedding is drawn from my, ahem, ordainment as a minister in the Universal Life Church.¹) And then, finally, the smashing of the glass, the loud, ringing ‘Mazel Tov!’

(I was a little nervous, a little afflicted by stage fright as the wedding began; my worst fears were confirmed as I began by mispronouncing the groom’s name, and then stumbled over my attempt to recover, blurting out, in a painfully tongue-tied moment, that that mispronouncement would only be ‘the first of my errors.’  Fortunately, my refusal to be fazed by a wildly fluttering chuppah stood me in good stead, and the ceremony moved on smoothly from that point thereafter. Many guests at the wedding offered their kind reassurances afterwards that I hadn’t screwed up things too badly.)

From there on, it was kisses and hugs and cocktails and dinner and toasts and dancing and Hava Nagila. (I would have danced and frolicked a bit longer, a bit more uninhibitedly, if I had not been afflicted by a slightly sprained ankle.)

Marriage is a notion with a contested history and meaning. It is the subject of political disputes and legal wrangles; it is a term still up for bitter and emotional definition and contestation. Who may get married? To whom? And how? And so on. Those debates are fascinating–most of us will have engaged in them at some time or other. (I’ve done so on this blog.) On Saturday, I sidestepped the debates, but I still remained engaged by the concept.

As I watched my good friends get married, a familiar thought occurred to me: a wedding, which signals the beginning of a marriage and a married life for two persons, is most fundamentally a public, participatory act, a celebration of a loving relationship in the company of those important to them. This thought most animated my opening remarks; certainly the sharing of the relationship, the calling together of friends and family to celebrate with each other was what my friends sought to place front and center in their ceremony and the doings afterward. They succeeded.

If only those who seek to legislate on this matter could be similarly inclined.


1. Apparently, the authority of Universal Life Church ministers to solemnize marriages in New York State is a matter of some legal dispute, a rather dismaying fact that has only now come to my attention.

3 thoughts on “The Wedding As Public Shared Celebration

  1. There are an awful lot of marriages in jeopardy if ULC authority is voided in New York. Mine included.

    Bloody protectionism racket on the part of religious and civil officiants if you ask me. When I was shopping for an officiant, I learned that in NYS, only a clergyperson, ship’s captain, justice of the peace, or mayor or retired mayor of a city or town could legally perform marriages. Since justices of the peace are not allowed to accept compensation for marriages they perform outside of courthouses, none of them will do it outside of a courthouse. Which leaves the irreligious with few options, and those exorbitantly priced.

    As long as there are witnesses to affirm that pledges of marriage were made, an officiant shouldn’t even be a legal requirement (as in Pennsylvania, where one can obtain a “self-uniting” marriage license — apparently this is due to the state’s Quaker traditions, but I think it’s a good idea regardless of religion).

    Anyway, I was tickled to see that M and J chose you and Jack to bring them into married life!

    1. Stella,

      Definitely a protection racket. I think New York’s restrictions would not stand in the Supreme Court, but I doubt it will ever go far. I think M and J are safe so long as they don’t get married, and so long as no one challenges their marriage.

  2. I looked a little bit more into the case law contesting the legality of a marraige conducted by a minister of the ULC, and it certainly looks like there is room for doubt. A case in 1989, Ranieri v. Ranieri, NYS Supreme Court, Appellate Division (2nd Dept) held that the ULC ministers were not actual ministers under NYS law, basically finding the licensing practice of the ULC to be too cavalier. A more recent case in the NYS Supreme Court, Appelate Division (3rd Dept), which was not constrained by the holding in the 2nd Dept, found that the question of a ULC minister’s capacity to perform a marraige in NYS was a question of fact, and that more information was needed about the current practices of the ULC. Not able to get a quick decision on summary judgment, the parties may have been pushed to settle.

    Basically, the issue will only come up in the case of a divorce, and if the couple held themselves out as a married for a while, they may be “estopped” from later contesting the validity of the marraige. It should be noted that there is no common law marraige in NY from what I can tell, and so you operate at your own risk legally by getting married by a minister of the ULC. M & J, I don’t doubt that you will have a joyous and happy marraige, BUT, my advice would be to get married again in City Hall. I’ll be there with flowers!

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