Every Sunday, when I am done with church services for the day, I settle onto the couch with a big cup of coffee and the New York Times. Like many NYT-lovers, I read my favorite section first: Sunday Styles, and I inevitably turn to the weddings. I love the Vows column, quirky stories of love and romantic proposals, but mostly I read the weddings to see which of my clergy friends might be officiating at the weddings listed in the announcements. I usually spot one or two people I know among the 20 or so wedding listings. But that is not as many as there used to be.
I have noticed, in my own years casually tracking this, that the number of Episcopal - or really any - ordained clergy officiating weddings has plummeted. And by ordained, I mean formed, educated, and upheld by a religious community and the Holy Spirit to bear the sacraments, stories, and traditions of the faith. Instead, it seems that those who pay $25 online and fill out a form have become more and more likely to be the officiant at any random wedding.
And it is not just me who has noticed. This week, the Living Church published an article about the Episcopal Church's continued decline in membership, and what caught my eye was that in 2010, only about 11,000 marriages were performed by Episcopal clergy. That's out of about 2 million weddings in the US. Extrapolating these facts through mainline Christian denominations (because statistics are very hard to come by), it is clear that secular wedding officiants are becoming much more popular than clergy in the wedding department.
Beyond this, online officiants are using the title "Reverend" or "Pastor", and claiming themselves truly ordained, even though they represent no faith tradition and have no training or education, have been affirmed by no community. Some websites even promote how calling oneself "Reverend" confers respect (and premium parking places!) and encourages people to claim it for themselves.
As a priest, I don't know if I should laugh or cry. I am beyond concerned that the title bestowed on me at my ordination - after years of preparation, education, formation, and experience in the Christian faith - should be so casually appropriated by those who simply want to be 'respected.'
Beyond this, I also see how as Christian clergy, we have largely removed ourselves from the celebration of life passages for those who are not in our pews. As fewer and fewer people come to church, or are raised in the Christian faith, they have lost touch with a grounding in relationship with God, and if we are honest, those of us who are still here have lost touch with them, too. In this, we have retreated from a mission field that is deep and wide, and truly needs our presence.
There is no question that many couples prefer not to have a 'religious' ceremony, and want a friend or family member to officiate their wedding. But I wonder if this is sometimes a choice made of necessity, since they don't see a lot of other options (if they are not already members of a church).
I have never met two people planning a wedding who were not aware of the deep meaning of this life-changing event, and who were not open to discussions of how their union is tied to what is larger than themselves. I believe that if more couples felt the option of discussing these questions with a clergy person, even if they were not church members, they might really want their union officiated by someone who can welcome them into a larger community through their union - a community of those who believe in the power of love to overcome anything, a community that vows with the couple to uphold the bonds of marriage.
As clergy, we have the opportunity to welcome marrying couples into true faith, not just in terms of what they think they understand about the church, but in terms of what we understand about God's love of us, of all of us, and our love for one another. We bear an understanding and a chance to articulate that love in a way that binds us together through life, death, and beyond, that others need even if they don't know it yet.
And a $25 form on the Internet will never be able to convey this.
Evangelism has lots of meanings and venues in the world today, and I think this is one of them. Christian clergy have the chance to evangelize those preparing for marriage in ways that speak to them, and draw them into a conversation that is deeper, broader, and bigger than all of us. This is what we are here for - to represent the church and the love of God to those who need it. I hope we will begin to re-claim this, for the sake of love everywhere.