Monday, July 13, 2009

Some More Thoughts on a Book About Weddings

Recently, I read the book One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead. I reviewed the book in greater detail here. You can also follow this link to find a list of books that I have read in 2009.

One Perfect Day combines insightful analysis with off-the-wall anecdotes. One incident Mead describes features a group of wedding industry professionals who have gone out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant that is part of a national chain. Fueled by tequila, margaritas, and cerveza, they are presented with a piñata in the shape of a bride in white. They are then encouraged to strike the piñata while screaming the names of their most frustrating customers. According to Mead’s observations, the group of professionals became an unruly mob finding a cathartic release from their repressed anger. In another incident, a bride asks a wedding “expert” for sartorial advice. She has planned a morning ceremony and an evening reception. The wedding “expert” advises that she has no choice but to purchase two different wedding gowns, a long one for the morning and a short one for the evening. There is no other option. I wrote more about of Mead’s book, but in that review I did not reflect on one important part of the book.

Chapter Six of One Perfect Day is entitled “God and the Details.” This chapter introduces a number of wedding officiants who characterize different approaches to the ceremony itself. First, Mead introduces Joyce Gioia, a kind of New Age type, who explains that she specializes in interfaith weddings. However her ceremonies often gloss over the traditions from which couples come as she layers the wedding with a healthy dose of general New Age spirituality, sometimes referring to the wisdom of “ancient sages” who go completely unnamed.

Next we are introduced to Reverend Bob, who earned his title, “Reverend,” by filling out an on-line form on the website of the Universal Life Church. (Provided you have an internet connection and can type your name, you too can be ordained as a Minister, Rabbi, Lama, Swami, High Priestess, Demi-God, Apostle, Martyr(?), Saint, Angel, or hundreds of other religious titles in the Universal Life Church—no qualifications required, no questions asked.) Rev. Bob often doubles as the DJ at the weddings he performs and his web-site also declares that he is available for hire as a magician offering “The Best of Magic, Prestidigitation, and Illusion.” While it may seem easy to chuckle at Reverend Bob, something he does say is very illuminating. He explains that he is willing to serve those not served by organized religion, “the lost souls that flee to church edifices and then are kicked away because they are not a member of the church or they have been married and divorced.” Since 40% of the American public are unchurched, he is filling the supply-side of a large sector of the market.

We might contrast Joyce Gioia and Reverend Bob with Jody Vickery (presumably male) who is a campus minister in Georgia. Vickery is full of pent up rage at contemporary weddings. He writes, “I hate being a religious decoration at the narcissistic cleavage conventions we call weddings,” and disparages the bride as “a bundle of nerves, [who] sweats off her makeup and frets about her gown, which is always a size and a half too small.” However, when pushed, Vickery does admit to once performing a cowboy-themed wedding where the groom wore a ten gallon hat and chaps over his pants and bales of hay were brought into the sanctuary.

Vickery is not alone in his concerns. Mead also makes mention of a Catholic investigation into the ritual of the Unity Candle and the church's inability to make symbolic sense of the ritual. A dissertation written about the practice of lighting a Unity Candle was unable to find evidence that the practice existed before the 1960s. A popular theory holds that the Unity Candle grew in popularity after one was shown on an episode of The Young and the Restless in the 1970s. That Catholic report has nothing on a report issued by the Liturgical Commission of the Episcopalian Diocese of New York that declared the following wedding practices as unacceptable: guests with cameras, the reading of secular poetry or prose, toddler ring bearers, elaborate floral displays, and the presence of professional wedding planners (“We suggest that they be forbidden to attend rehearsals.”) The Liturgical Commission went on to insist that weddings not be performed during Lent or Advent except in cases of serious and pressing pastoral need, that the wording of marriage vows may not be changed, that the word “God” may not be taken out of the ceremony or altered, and that only sacred music and church-approved hymns may be included.

The final character in this chapter is Karen Klatt, a second career minister in rural Wisconsin who attempts to create cash flow for her small town church by advertising the church as a place for weddings, playing on the cuteness of the chapel and the charming bucolic surrounds.

While this chapter asks many questions about weddings, it also asks many important questions about religion in our day and age. Here are some of the questions this chapter presents:
Is religion a business where the customer is always right? Or do religious bodies and congregations play a more social role in which they stand for certain “timeless” values that they seek to institutionalize, even when doing so does not make good business sense?

Are clergy and religious professionals in the “service industry”? Or, do they function as professionals? A doctor will not prescribe you drugs to treat a disease she knows you don’t have. Should clergy and religious professionals be obliged to provide a person with services that violate their own professional standards?

Are religious services for the individual and should they be designed to meet individualistic needs? Or, do religious services seek to convey a larger, enduring social meaning? Do individual desires trump a responsibility to something that is more communal?
Fortunately (I think), I practice as a minister in a denominational context (Unitarian Universalism) that does not make rules about whether secular poetry can be read at a wedding or whether toddlers can serve as ring bearers. Many of the weddings that I perform are for couples that might very well seek out a figure like Joyce Gioia or, to a lesser extent, Reverend Bob. (Or they may just seek out a Justice of the Peace.) And yet with weddings, as with so many other aspects of ministry, there is often a need to set boundaries and appeal to my responsibilities to my profession rather than submit to requests to please other people. With few guidelines coming down from on high, I am left to navigate through competing claims when I face these tensions.