For Better or Worse: The Rise of the Professional Wedding Celebrant

From the website of "awesome marriage celebrant" Josh Withers

“Morning Joe” co-anchors Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough made headlines when they announced their recent engagement. A second wave of headlines revealed a proposition they’d received from someone who’d offered to officiate: none other than President Donald Trump. (These two shining stars of the MSNBC firmament have since said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the President’s offer.)

Mr. Scarborough described to CBS News the White House luncheon at which the President pitched his matrimonial services. Son-in-law Jared Kushner jumped right in and offered to upstage his old man: “Hey, you know what? I’ve got my license. I could marry you.”

The President was not amused. “Why would you marry them?” he asked. “They could have the President of the United States marry them.”

Presidents have long had authority to preside at civil marriage ceremonies. So have governors, mayors and judges. It’s a familiar feature of secular democracy: an optional, non-ecclesiastical pathway to wedded bliss.

But Presidential sons-in-law? What legal authority could Mr. Kushner—a man who’s never held elected office—possibly have?

It was likely not a civil ceremony Mr. Kushner was proposing. It was a religious one.

Welcome to the strange new world of wedding celebrants.

When I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister more than 30 years ago, the only wedding officiants were public officials and members of the clergy. Couples seeking a religious ceremony had to sidle up to someone like me and ask if I’d be willing to oblige. As long as one or both of them professed Christian faith, I was generally willing. Still am. I’ve found that couples I marry may go on to become church members: a win-win for everyone. Even if they don’t, I count it a privilege to know them.

I’ve noticed fewer non-member couples are approaching me about weddings these days. I believe the celebrant trend—whether Uncle Harry with his resonant voice, or the professional handing out business cards at the bridal show—is a large part of the reason why. As the ranks of the spiritual-but-not-religious have grown, celebrants have emerged to fill a practical need: a made-to-order ceremony that includes as much or as little God-talk as their clients desire. (Many of them do funerals, too.)

While I’d like to think most couples are comfortable enough with Christian faith to welcome the traditional liturgy I provide, the reality is that a great many people aren’t. For them, celebrants fill a real need.

Andrea, a single mother from my congregation who had been barely supporting herself as a housecleaner, became a celebrant some years ago. She’s now laid aside her mop and bucket and performs ceremonies—mostly weddings—full-time. Her beach weddings are much in demand in this oceanfront community. She does many more weddings than I do, for locals and tourists alike.

Some celebrants—like Mr. Kushner, presumably—become credentialed to perform a one-off ceremony for a friend or relative. Those who seek to make a living at it are more likely to get some training, such as the $2,400 “gold standard” webinar series offered by the Celebrant Foundation and Institute.

Most professional celebrants charge their clients a hefty fee: from $500-$1,300, according to the Foundation. This is significantly more than the honorarium most parish clergy receive. And it rarely includes premarital counseling, which most parish clergy provide gratis.

Yet, few states—my own home state of New Jersey being a notable exception—have legal machinery in place to license celebrants. That means most who aspire to this work—unless they’re already a government official—have to get themselves an ordination somewhere.

My ordination required a bachelor’s degree, a three-year Master of Divinity degree and passing grades on five grueling denominational exams. For aspiring celebrants there’s a much easier route: an online ordination from the Universal Life Church or one of its imitators.

The Universal Life Church has been around for longer than there’s been an Internet: since 1959, to be exact. In the early years, it was an open secret that many customers tried to use their mail-order ordinations as a tax dodge. The organization presents itself as an international community of free-thinking clergy, but in reality they’re little more than a website. “We do not have tests of loyalty, religious rings to kiss, nor do we require payment,” their website snarkily proclaims. True, you can get a Universal Life ordination for free by filling out a web form, but if you want an actual ordination certificate, suitable for framing, it will set you back $8.99.

Unlike diploma mills, ordination mills like the Universal Life Church have long been immune from prosecution under fraud laws. The reason is the First Amendment to the Constitution. Because “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” government regulation of ordinations is legally impossible. Besides, the Universal Life Church is perfectly transparent about its no-drama route to becoming a man or woman of the cloth. They make no fraudulent claims. Their only doctrinal standard is to “do only that which is right”—a comfortably elastic credo few would find difficulty in affirming.

Until more states follow New Jersey’s example and start licensing celebrants, the cross-your-fingers-and-hit-enter routine of the ordination-mill website will continue to be a necessary step on the road to this new profession. Without state licensing, celebrants must add a certain “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” to their claim that they are, in fact, clergy for purposes of the law.

How do I feel about celebrants, as a member of the traditional clergy? For a time, I was privately troubled by this development. I had a sneaking fear that celebrants were somehow drawing people away from the church. But I’ve become reconciled to their presence on the American religious landscape. Much as we mainstream clergy would like the spiritual-but-not-religious to return to the fold, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

In their 1985 bestseller, Habits of the Heart, sociologists Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen famously interview a nurse named Sheila Larson, who practices her own eclectic, self-made faith. Bellah and Madsen name it Sheilaism: “Just my own little voice… It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.”

And where would a modern-day Sheila turn, as she contemplates her own march down the aisle? Why, to a celebrant, of course: a compliant fee-for-service provider who will, like the DJ who hauls in the PA system, take her “own little voice” and amplify it so others can hear whatever she cares to say.

“By the authority vested in me” hardly matters anymore. Selfies with the bride, anyone?