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When Clare and Daniel Berard got married in late August at Camp Hoffman in South Kingstown, there was only one choice for who would officiate their wedding: Clare’s step mom Mary Hawk. Mary officiated two of her children’s weddings as well as the weddings of Clare’s sisters and approached the day in a very professional manner, Clare said, sitting down the couple to make sure the ceremony was exactly what they wanted and conveyed who they are as a couple.

Having a friend or family member officiant your wedding in Rhode Island got a lot easier this year when Gov. Dan McKee signed a law over the summer allowing anyone over 18 to officiate a legally-binding ceremony with or without religious affiliation.

Amber Collins of South Kingstown says she is ordained “by Dudism, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the Church of Universal Life.” This has qualified her to officiate some marriages in Rhode Island.

Now she may not need those instant online, easy-to-get, credentials.  

The State of Rhode Island has said “I do” in giving marriage officiant rights to anyone over 18 year-old wanting to legally marry a couple.

With a swift stroke of his pen this summer, Gov. Dan McKee put the final stamp on the law making anyone over that age the state’s legal witness by simply giving the state a small sum and getting official permission a few weeks later.

Indeed, there were always certain people by law permitted, such as judges or other state and local officials, ordained clergy after years of study or even those getting mail-order or instant online ordination. The Rhode Island General Assembly also granted special permission to certain individuals.

But this increasing use of civil - rather than religious - ceremonies is drawing concern and criticism of some local religious leaders. Other clergy see it as a continued expansion of the civil involvement into the religious realm of marriage.

However, the law also responded in part, say officials, not only to mail-order or instant online ordinations that qualify anyone, but as well to religious bans on gay marriages and the new law makes it easier for those marriage ceremonies to occur.


Marriage as an Institution

For much of human history, couples —mostly traditional woman-and-man kind — were brought together for practical reasons, not because they fell in love. In time, of course, many marriage partners came to feel deep mutual love and devotion, according to The Week magazine’s exploration of the origins of marriage.

But the idea of romantic love, as a motivating force for marriage, only goes as far back as the Middle Ages, it said.

Much evidence suggests that marriage is about 4,350 years old and for thousands of years earlier, many anthropologists say.

The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies uniting one woman and one man dates from about 2350 B.C., in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution, according to the magazine.

Marriage’s primary purpose was to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs.

As the Roman Catholic Church became a powerful institution in Europe, the blessings of a priest became a necessary step for a marriage to be legally recognized and religion soon became an enduring part of the institution of marriage.

Skip ahead to the 20th Century in the United States, women’s rights, the repeal of laws forbidding interracial marriages, the disregard and later repeal of laws pertaining to birth control all shifted meanings and understandings about the institution.

With these came a return to a more secular imprint on marriage, including who could actually marry couples. More and more civil ceremonies began to occur, especially among Roman Catholics whose religion held strictly to disapproval of divorces and refusal to allow participation in all sacramental rites.


The Old and New Law in RI

Some of that influence now is waning. Recent surveys of Rhode Islanders show that a little less than half (41%) of those asked about their religion identified as Roman Catholic. Other religions took smaller percentages in the balance.

Under existing state law today, scores of people holding current jobs in state, local or federal government and some who formerly held them, are permitted to be “officiants” — someone representing the state for the legal commitment or “contract” of a couple in  marriage.

In addition, the list also included all “ordained” clergy or elders in “good standing.”

Further, the state legislature permits special enactments of law to allow anyone to perform a marriage, but these are far fewer in number and done only during the legislative session.

Under the new law taking effect in January, any person 18 years or older can “solemnize a particular marriage on a particular date and in a particular city or town.”  The person pays the state $25 for applications by mail, facsimile or hand-delivered and $20 for online applications.

A certificate of designation is supposed to be issued within 21 days and expires after the marriage vows are done and paperwork signed, according to the measure.


Online Ordinations

However, as a way to fit within the current law that has some restrictions, want-to-be officiants have gone to online sites that offer ordination certificates. Since the U.S. Constitution establishes religion as a personal belief, there are no firm legal requirements defining religion.

Take Collins, for instance, ordained in “Dudism” and Church of Universal Life. “All one has to do is pay a fee to be ordained in either of these, pretty much. It takes a few clicks and a credit card number,” she said.

Collins said that she has performed a few weddings and a funeral.  “Ceremonies like weddings, child dedications and funerals are meaningful. A lot of religions use and require certain language for ceremonies which feels empty to many and to others (it) reminds them of religious trauma they have experienced,” she said.

“I feel called to be a minister to all those who need the services of a minister, but who prefer not to go through a bureaucratic religious institution,” she added.

Collins said that she appreciates the activist sentiment about religious privilege, ”which is similar to that of the Satanists, but less scary and more funny.”

“While I believe in God myself and pray regularly, separation of church and state is foundational to my understanding of American life and this is a way for me to play my small role in supporting that separation.”

She explained that the term “Dudism” has the core tenet that “the Dude abides.”

“It’s both comical and sincere, and could be considered a bizarre offshoot of Buddhism,” she said, noting that people ordained in Dudism are called “Dudist Priests, which is funny because it sounds like Judas Priest which is a heavy metal band. I love the simplicity.”

Her credits also list “the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” She described it as “more of a joke than Dudism. It’s a whimsical response by some atheists and agnostics who chafe at the privileges given to religion and also, legally, a religion.”

Tiffaney Konkin of North Kingstown got an online ordination in 2017 complete with “a little card, certificates, a badge,” she said.

“A colleague was contemplating doing a surprise Christmas Eve wedding, and we were joking around and I googled how to get ordained. I used Universal Life Church. It’s an online “church” that seems to be specifically set up for this. I think it took about two minutes, and it was free,” she said.

However, she said she is not marketing herself as a wedding officiant or seeking out opportunities because of having young children needing her attention and her wanting to avoid large gatherings until the pandemic eases more.


Views About Change

Clay Berry has been pastor of Wakefield Baptist Church for over 20 years.

“Seems to me we’ve been on this trajectory with weddings for quite a while. I have been getting fewer and fewer requests for weddings, I think, because more people are interested in secular options,” he said.

“Historically, marriage has always been a civil arrangement — contract — and officiants have served as representatives of the state. In New England, Protestants initially resisted church blessings for fear of endangering the church state wall of separation,” he said.

“Church weddings gained ground, however, as Christians sought the blessing of God for their unions. Eventually, a church wedding became the socially acceptable norm. Now, it seems, the trend is reversing,” he added.

Others, such as the Rev. Robert Travis, pastor the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Wakefield, oppose the instant ordination online of people just to officiate ceremonies.

“I have a lot of thoughts about this and am offended by the people who think they can just officiate at a wedding with an ‘online’ ordination,” he said.  “Maybe it’s better if people don’t insult the ordination process by simply getting up there without any credentials whatsoever,” he added.

Travis noted “The state idea of marriage and the church’s are very different and so I’m not sure why the state wants to make it easier and lighter for people to enter into this legal relationship.”

On the other hand, the Rev. Marcel Taillon of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic parish in Narragansett sees the law change as insignificant.

“I think it is a non-story as people have long already applied for a solemnized certificate for a day and paid a fee,” he said.

Rabbi Ethan Adler of Congregation Beth David in Narragansett said he thinks that most people will stick to ordained clergy in established religious communities.

“There may be some folks who would want a relative or friend instead, but my thought is that this would be a small number,” he said, adding, “So, in short, I do not predict a significant increase in secularization.”

The Rev. Jan Gregory-Charpentier, pastor of Kingston Congregational Church, said nearby Massachusetts has had a similar law and “I never found the one-day wedding officiant license to interfere or compete with my role as a religious officiant.”

In addition, the relaxed permissions also have something to do with increasing numbers of self-designated LGBTQ individuals wanting ease of access to legal ceremonies, say those familiar with this law.

Proponents of the new law said that current law’s designation that the state legislature can give select individual permissions provided an opportunity for lawmakers to deny a special act to perform a marriage because they are opponents of gay marriage.

Gregory-Charpentier said, “As a United Church of Christ pastor, I can and have solemnized LGBTQ marriages for couples who want a sacred service in the Christian tradition.”

The pastor added that anyone wanting “their friend, parent, neighbor or sibling to  officiate at their wedding, I wish joy and peace.”

Tiffany Konkin said that getting her online ordination certificate was simply a way to marry a friend when Konkin didn’t meet the criteria of the existing law to perform the ceremony.

Bringing a customized and personal connection is important, she added.

“I would definitely do it again. I didn’t love the person who married my husband and I, so being able to do this for my best friend was incredible.  We spent time looking up quotes and readings that resonated with them,” she said.

“I do not preach. I have a lot of respect for true ministers and reverends. The idea of preaching under an internet ordination feels a little disrespectful to people who have studied and made this their life work,” she said. 

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer, at southcountylife@gmail.com.

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