Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Minister for a Day - Online Ordination and the Place of Religion in the 21st Century

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Minister for a Day - Online Ordination and the Place of Religion in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Tom Hanks can officiate your wedding! The Bridge of Spies star told Extra that it cost him less than $40 to become ordained to officiate Allison Williams' wedding to Ricky Van Veen earlier this month. "Here's what I did," Hanks recalled. "I studied the ministry for over $35. And if you want to call me the Right Reverend Tom Hanks, I think you should". "I'm for rent," the funnyman, 59, joked. "If you can afford the honorarium, I'll be there for ya"1.

Marriage has been in the news lately with the rapid public acceptance of equal rights for homosexual persons to get married and the promulgation of enabling legislation in a number of countries. The debate has not been on marriage as a (hopefully) lifelong partnership between two people, though. It has centred on the specific act of getting married. Almost unnoticed in the commotion there has been another change happening in that act, though. It is not about "who gets married to whom?", but about "who declares them married?".

Even in supposedly traditional religious circles, we see exceptions and innovations in this regard: Reiss2, for example, reports on a wedding officiated by a Rabbi and two Catholic Priests. In 2010, Chelsea Clinton, daughter of ex-President Bill Clinton and Current presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was married in a ceremony co-officiated by a Methodist minister and a rabbi3. The wedding was denounced in 2016 by Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, himself a secular Jew, as a sign of the decline of Reform Judaism:

Assimilation is taking place on a vast scale. They're not even tracking this properly in their communities. It's evidenced by the fact that a man who calls himself a Reform rabbi stands there with a priest and officiates at the wedding of the daughter of Hillary Clinton and no one condemns it and so it gets legitimized4.

Beyond the bounds of religious tradition, however, more radical events are occurring. There is an increasing trend of people choosing to be married by a friend, a mentor, or a colleague who became a minister for a day. Websites have appeared that give legal cover to the occasion by ordaining such individuals. Welcome to the world of online ordination.

The wedding as ritual entrance-point into marriage is a rite of passage in almost all cultures5, and in contemporary western society the custom, and legal requirement, is that a duly appointed official represents the state and oversees the transition of two people from being isolated individuals to being legally united. This custom has become so deeply engrained in western society that it seems to be beyond questioning. Unless you have physically appeared in front of a state-sanctioned official, filled in the paperwork and declared your transition in front of witnesses, you are not married, merely "living together", "co-habiting", or "shacking up". The wedding ceremony brings about a qualitative shiftin the way two people are expected to interact, and in how the rest of society will see them.

But who is this state-sanctioned official? In most European countries that trace their legal system to the Code Napoléon, the state itself supplies the official. The actual position of the marriage officer in non-wedding situations varies: he or she may be a judge, a specialized municipal official, or a notary public, depending on the country involved. Those who are religious are free to hold a supplementary religious ceremony that, for all its spiritual meaning, does not carry much legal weight. In the Netherlands, for example,

Only a civil marriage is legally valid. A church ceremony alone is insufficient. A wedding in the Church cannot take place before a civil wedding with the registrar6.

In other countries, the pendulum has swung the other way and the state has completely abdicated the wedding ceremony to religious interests. Israel is the most prominent example here7. But even in Israel, the state needs to make provision for the recognition of marriages contracted outside its borders, which has led to a lucrative wedding industry on the island of Cyprus where non-religious and interreligious Israeli (and Lebanese) couples flock to get married8. …

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