Monday, July 8, 2013
Pastorgraphs: “Without Benefit of Clergy”
July 8, 2013
Pastorgraphs: “Without Benefit of Clergy”
The first wedding I performed after being ordained in 1968 was a modest hastily called home wedding in a cotton field. The couple seemed very young, quite naive, and very nervous. The bride wore a nice dress, but she obviously did not have the money for a bridal gown. She was no less beautiful as all brides are on that special day. The groom on the other hand wore his best (are you ready for this) T-shirt. I kid you not! At least, it appeared to have been ironed.
There was something exhilarating about having the power to pronounce a couple “husband and wife”. They were not legally married until I signed the wedding license and returned it to the County Clerk. Back in the days of Ozzie and Harriet, weddings were a church-state partnership; a religious and civil event. Today, in our increasingly secular world, marriage is almost exclusively a civil matter. That is not a conclusion of what marriage ought to be; just a realization and admission of what weddings and marriage have become.
Despite the desire to get the first wedding under my professional belt, I still recall feeling as though I was helping perpetrate a fraud of sorts. The young couple did not attend my church, or any church. After that day, I never saw them again. While I was honored to be asked to perform the ceremony, gain the experience of conducting the ceremony without a hitch (pun intended), and certainly did not refuse the modest honorarium, I was then (and remained until my last wedding) uncomfortable – something I will attempt to express in what follows.
Early in my ministry, I participated in the myth that starting a marriage with a wedding in church would magically increase the odds of success. But like many clergy, I knew that when the couple walked out of the church, the odds they would ever be back for worship and service were slim to none.
I will resist the urge to preach a sermon here on how God was involved in bringing couples together (Adam and Eve, Sarah and Abraham, Jacob and Rachel, Ruth and Boaz, and Joseph and Mary). As a theologian, I could make a strong case for the role of The Divine in bringing couples together, working out problems great and small, and blessing the union with God-given children. Even with God’s help, marriage is never easy. Without God’s help, a successful marriage is dang near impossible.
Over the past 45 years, I must have performed 100 or more weddings. Some were very elaborate. One almost got called off at the rehearsal dinner when the bride and her mother-in-law-to-be got into a shouting match over some silly detail. I wonder how that marriage worked out? I wonder how all of them worked out! But since my contact with the majority was so short, I will never know. Many I am sure failed. A few, I know, have prevailed.
I know the difference between a wedding and a marriage. A wedding is a social event culminating in a legal agreement. Marriage is a committed relationship meant to last a lifetime. Marriage has always been a civil matter. Clergy cannot start or end a marriage; that is a power of the state. But in a perfect world, marriage would be both a civil and sacred bond. The sacred part is not finding a pretty church and clergy to sprinkle wedding dust on your marriage for one day; it is a lifetime of making God a partner in the marriage and family. Even then, it is not easy.
Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “Without Benefit of Clergy” in his 1899 story of a couple living together without benefit of either moral commitment or the civil bond of matrimony. It was a more polite term for “shacking up”. Today, clergy are either not involved at all in weddings, or are being used to perpetuate a myth in all but a few cases where the couple honestly makes the spiritual bond as important as the secular.
If it sounds like I am opposed to religious weddings, I am not. I am for weddings where the couple does not make a farce of the sacred element of their bond by using the church and pastor for one day. Couples would be better served in spending their time and money planning their marriage than their wedding, and realizing the important role God plays in helping the marriage succeed. Otherwise, save yourself $26,000, the average cost of a formal wedding today, and find a nice Justice of the Peace. But don’t ask your clergy to solemnize your vows if you are not as committed to working on the spiritual parts of your marriage as much as the secular.
Bless you, all, Bill Jenkins
From the Quote Garden:
“Newlyweds become oldyweds,
oldyweds are the reasons that families work.”
Christ United Methodist Ministry Center
“Christ in the Heart of San Diego”
3295 Meade Avenue - San Diego, CA 92116 - (619) 284-9205