The few times I ever imagined my future wedding as I grew up in suburban north Texas, I imagined it taking place in the church I was raised in, the altar strewn with pretty flowers and the minister who baptized as a child me officiating. This vague idea of what my wedding might be like never quite left me, even as I left organized religion as a young adult. Weddings were a church thing. Churches have ministers. Ministers do weddings. Seemed pretty simple.
But as I attended more and more church weddings as an adult, the more I realized that there would be no way I could have one of my own: it’s not exactly fair to ask a Christian minister to, you know, leave all those Jesus-y parts out. They do tend to like to get in a bit of that where they can.
My husband, Patrick, was raised Catholic. I was a Methodist. While we both spent our youth as devout practitioners of our respective faiths, we don’t currently attend church and don’t have any plans to. We are happily lapsed, though we both look fondly back on our days as Bible-beating teenagers. I, for one, credit the church for giving me moral guidance and an amazing social circle when I was in school. I’d do it the same way all over again. But it’s not who I am or what I believe today.
For some folks, marriage and religion are inextricably intertwined, so the choice is obvious: your religious leaders are the ones you turn to when it’s time to get hitched. But having a non-religious ceremony was, for us, as important as having a religious one is to other folks. The closest thing Patrick and I had to a sage leader we looked to for guidance every week was our favorite bartender — his was actually the first name that got tossed around, half seriously, when we began thinking of officiants.
And then, it came to us — to Patrick, actually. Why not ask our favorite editor and shared mentor in journalism, storied Dallas journalist Robert Wilonsky, to get ordained online and officiate the ceremony? We sent him a cryptic text: did he have time to get a drink soon? He sussed us out almost immediately and agreed before we even had a chance to ply him with whiskey.
We could have gone other directions, of course. I looked into local Unitarian Universalist ministers and considered the courthouse route. But while those seemed like fine options, they didn’t have the level of personalization that I wanted for what would be one of the most important days of my life with Patrick. Wilonsky had it all: he knew us both before we were together, he’s a man we respect as a person and as a professional, and as an added bonus, has a booming voice that adds gravitas to just about anything — including a Tiki-themed wedding at a rock bar.
Asking someone to officiate your wedding is no small thing. It’s an incredible and important responsibility, and no doubt somewhat intimidating when it’s not part of your day job. But Wilonsky was great — we met with him in the weeks before the wedding and laid out the general plan for the ceremony, which Patrick and I wrote ourselves.
I’d been to enough weddings to know how they usually go, but it was still scary to sit down with a blank piece of paper and think, “Okay, this starts with a processional and then … what?” We obviously wouldn’t be having communion or a blessing or sermon — all things I was used to seeing as basic parts of wedding ceremonies.
Building our own ceremony gave us an opportunity to lay out the parts of a public hitching that were the most important to us, as opposed to adhering to a plan set out decades, or even hundreds of years, ago by somebody else. It’s not that we ended up doing anything completely crazy, but we did get to create a malleable program that reflected our needs and allowed us to honor our friends and family.
Did it look notably different than a traditional church ceremony, apart from the fact that a bar obviously isn’t a church? Perhaps not: there was one officiant, one couple, attendants and both music and readings. But because we weren’t starting with someone else’s very specific idea of what a wedding should be and should include, we didn’t have to, for example, work around the fact that I didn’t want to be given away. We wrote our own vows instead of reciting traditional ones — mine included a reference to The Wire that I’m particularly proud of, brag brag brag — and we did a kind of recessional interlude that allowed Patrick and I to listen to and enjoy the close-out song of our ceremony from within the ceremony itself, rather than hoofing it out of the place before the second verse.
I’d imagine a flexible religious officiant would accommodate and advise on any of these things; mainly, I just love to go to a wedding where it feels like the bride and groom (or bride and bride or groom and groom) are doing more than filling in the blanks. Having a wedding is both an intensely private and very public thing to do; it’s at once a personal contract with another human and a public declaration of a couple’s intent to participate in society in a particular way.
As the concept of marriage itself becomes, happily if slowly, more inclusive of divergent ideas and constructions — with the spread of legal gay marriage, especially — it was a particular pleasure to craft our own ceremony and see it officiated by a person dear to us. And Patrick and I did get to include our favorite bartender, even if he didn’t officiate — he served us our official unity cocktail.
Contact the author of this post at Andrea.Grimes@Gmail.com.