A Daunting Project
Late last winter Skinner House Books, the UUA’s in-house press put out a denomination-wide call for proposals for a wedding guide. In the brief call, they recommended my 1993 book In Memoriam: A Guide to Modern Funeral and Memorial Services as the sort of format they were seeking. (I was once told In Memoriam is Skinner House’s all time best-selling book. I was pleased it and I were mentioned in regards to the proposed wedding guide.) Colleagues asked me if I were going to submit a proposal for the wedding book, out of deference I suspected, or not to waste their time if a decision had already been made—that I might have an inside track. I told them I didn’t intend to submit. I was sincere, speculating, too, that Skinner House might want a new voice regarding the great rites of passage. (In addition to In Memoriam, in the last decade I produced four separate quote collections for the great rites of passage: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. Nevertheless, I did submit a proposal for a wedding guide, after receiving a personal request to do so from the acquisitions editor, whom I worked with on my previous six books. I literally dashed off the proposal.)
In June, my editor asked me to work up a more detailed proposal for the review of Skinner House’s Editorial Board. As she put it, my initial proposal was at the top of the pile of submissions. I was a little surprised, especially since I’d not thought much about the project for a couple of months. Of course, I was pleased, feeling for the first time enthusiasm for a UU wedding guide, thinking it would be an addition to my right of passage oeuvre—a capstone.
So in July, I spent considerable time working up a more detailed proposal. To do so, I was aware of the political shoals of our Association, meaning sensitivity to the various communities that always need to be addressed: same sex, neo-pagan, non-theist as well as theist, traditionalists, and non-traditionalist, humanist, feminist, and so on. I quickly realized that an inclusive UU guide to wedding ceremonies was a daunting project, particularly to please a scrupulous Editorial Board rife with UU political sensitivities.
As I strove to put together a proposal that might pass their review, I also focused on the institution of marriage itself, to get a handle on the meaning and purpose of a wedding ceremony leading to a legally binding marriage or that everything-but legal covenant between same sex persons, a Civil Union. Civil Union ceremonies also had to be put into the proposal equation. The whole project begged for inclusivity, clarity, relative simplicity yet expansiveness, poetic inspiration, and general marketability.
Whether or not my proposal results in a contract, I’m glad for the experience. It caused me to thoroughly explore what marriage was and is and even speculate what it might become. (If I do produce a wedding guide, I might shape the institution of marriage’s becoming.) Interestingly and not insignificantly, I did my work while spending the month with my 95 and 96 year old parents, married for 73 years. And of course Ellie and I have 44 years of marriage.
A treacherous aspect of speaking to marriage as a theme (as in this address) involves dramatic changes that have taken and continue to take place in American society. It’s easy to offend one component or another, including the intentionally single.
Demographics Reveal the Reality of the Institution of Marriage
Have you heard that the majority of Americans now live outside of so-called traditional marriage? A review of the statistics from the 2010 census is revelatory, as chronicled in a 2011 NYTimes article, from which I now extensively quote.
“Married couples represented just 48 percent of American households in 2010, slightly less than in 2000, but far below the 78 percent of households occupied by married couples in 1950.
“What is more, just a fifth of households were traditional families — married couples with children — down from about a quarter a decade ago, and from 43 percent in 1950, as the iconic image of the American family continues to break apart.
“In recent history, the marriage rate among Americans was at its highest in the 1950s, when the institution defined gender roles, family life and a person’s place in society. But as women moved into the work force, cohabitation lost its taboo label, and as society grew more secular, marriage lost some of its central authority….
‘Today, traditional patterns have been turned upside down. Women with college degrees are now more likely to marry than those with just high school diplomas, the reverse of several decades ago.
“Rising income inequality has divided American society, making college-educated people less likely to marry those without college degrees. Members of that educated group have struck a new path: they marry later and stay married. In contrast, women with only a high school diploma are increasingly opting not to marry the fathers of their children, whose fortunes have declined along with the country’s economic opportunities….
“Married couples may be half of all households, but that does not mean that only half of Americans will ever be married. The overwhelming majority of Americans — with some exceptions — do eventually marry (though increasingly, working-class people do not stay married).
“Households are changing in other ways. Americans are living longer than ever, so households now include a growing number of elderly singles. Other factors have been the large influx of immigrants, who tend to be single people in their 20s and 30s, and the growing number of young people who live together without being married.
“There are 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, in which married couples make up fewer than 50 percent of all households, up from just 6 states in 2000.
“In all, 41 states showed declines in traditional households of married couples with children. In 2000, married couples with children were fewer than 20 percent of all households in just one state, plus the District of Columbia. Now they are fewer than a fifth in 31 states.
“The biggest change for the decade was the jump in households headed by women without husbands — up by 18 percent in the decade. The next largest rise was in households whose occupants were not a family — up by about 16 percent.”
Wow! In 1950, seventy-eight percent of the adult population was married. Today it is forty-eight percent, though a greater percentage has been or will be married sometime. The safest pronouncement regarding marriage is, it’s an option; but it’s no longer normative. Yet as an option, particularly for the well-educated, so it seems, it answers particular personal needs and serves society.
Marriage’s Evolved Meaning
I’ve performed several hundred wedding ceremonies in my three and a half decades of liberal ministry. The larger portion by far involved couples outside the two congregations I’ve served. Unless, asked, I don’t formally counsel the couple; but in an initial interview, I frame the event for them by drawing on insights I’ve cobbled together through the years. I may, in the actual ceremony offer a few words formally known as an “admonishment:” that a declaration of marriage is a serious but not solemn undertaking, from the Roman Church though the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
I tell them that a marriage ceremony contains symbolic elements that connect to the medieval Catholic Church and cultures of Europe. I explain how the ceremony evolved into the generic Protestant outline I follow.
I never neglect to mention that a wedding ceremony is a public event, with the invited guests serving as proxy representatives for all of society. Society has a vested interested in committed relationships for the sake of its own survival. In this regard, a marriage is foundational, a conservative element in our larger society. So the words spoken on the couple’s behalf, as well as the words they say, have additional importance for the perpetuation of society.
Early on as a minister, I fell under the influence of an analysis called the Natural History of a Marriage. In the light of this analysis, I sometimes caution the couple, in a loving way, of course, that they may be getting married for a cluster of wrong reason... In the throes of peer, family, and cultural influences, as well as the intoxication of early love, neither has a true sense of the other, yet. So one day, when the proverbial honeymoon is over, one or both will wake up one morning, and find they married a figurative stranger. Then, whether its seven months or seven years, the real work of creating a deep relationship will begin. Here, I toss in a little of Martin Buber’s notion of an I/Thou, subject/subject relationship, when each part of the equation accepts the other in her and his fullness of being—as subject (or complete person) and not an object. When this occurs, the Eternal Thou—God—is realized.
In more recent years I might tell a couple not to expect each partner to first and forever fill all the needs of the other. The mere expectation is a recipe for failure. No one person can fulfill another person’s needs. Here I interject what Joseph Campbell called the myth of marriage, that the myth exists outside each partner; and a marriage succeeds when the couple first commit to the myth they share before committing to one another.
Anecdotally, the ceremonies I perform generally result in enduring marriages, perhaps because they are among those with college degrees, who have chosen to postpone marriage for career or in anticipation of just the right spouse. Only a few that I know of have led to divorce. This probably measures the relatively mature and thoughtful persons who seek me out, wanting to begin their life together with the sort of a personally meaningful ceremony properly conceived as a religious ceremony.
From what I understand, the state’s involvement in issuing so-called marriage licenses resulted largely from nineteenth century lobbying by evangelical Protestants, eager to impose their moralism on society. Through the nineteenth century a preponderance of marriages were what we now call common law. …
Same sex marriage continues to be a controversial issue in the so-called, ongoing culture wars. I come to Gay Marriage with some experience, as well as wide ranging knowledge of the evolution and meaning of marriage.
I favor same sex marriage as a matter of civil rights, including equal opportunity and protection, under the Constitution. Btu even more I favor it for intimate, relational, and social reasons, which my longtime companion Ecclesiastes has helped inform.
My standard wedding meal blessing draws from Ecclesiastes, an ancient Old Testament work: “Enjoy life with the one whom you love all the days of your life. Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might. Eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a merry heart, because your God has already approved what you do.” [adapted]
Long ago I adapted the word “wife” to the phrase “the one whom you love,” to include the woman as well as the man. Now, as I’ve come to realize that love, straight or gay, comes from the same impulses and has the same results, I’ve expanded my public intentions in saying “Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of your life.” If the one you love is of the same sex, I simply and emphatically say, “Yes and yes.”
A public ceremony (wedding) and a civil contract (license) together give a love relationship meaning and imprimatur, plus legal status, no less or more for a same sex couple, as for a heterosexual couple.
My Expression of Marriage’s Meaning
Eight years ago I had the distinct honor of presiding over my daughter’s wedding in California. I wrote the following “Introduction” for the occasion, something of a summary of my understanding of marriage’s meaning.
Katie and Mike, this is your day.
You are about to declare your marriage to one another and to the world. This is the day you’ve been arcing toward throughout your separate lives from the days you were born.
Today, before your families and friends, you will declare that you are married, that you are, indeed, from this day onward husband and wife—a relationship that is honored for its steadfastness and respected for its integrity.
There is no relationship like a marriage in which there is a giving of self—freely and gladly— and in which there is taking from the other –in desire or in need—as the occasion demands.
What allows such a relationship to succeed is not so much desires fulfilled or needs met, but a commitment to the marriage itself, which is greater than desire and need. Your marriage will be outside of either of you, but possible only through both of you.
A marriage is a sacred undertaking. It is the means to a new courage, a more resilient strength to make a larger world out your singular worlds, a sanctuary of comfort and peace, and a mutuality of desire fulfilled. A marriage is a sacred undertaking born and reborn through the changes of your lives together.
Your marriage is a commitment to fashion a cup of meaning that holds children in its midst, seeking their nurture, that they may mature into capable and confident human beings.
Mike and Katie, this is your day.
Perched as you are on the threshold of your marriage, take pause to appreciate the declaration you are making. Know the hope you have within you—a reasonable hope. Imagine the richness that converges for you and opens to an even greater richness you may together create—richness expanding out of richness.
As you pause and appreciate, make a silent, solemn, sincere vow that you shall keep your individualism, while not violating the individualism of your partner in your life together. Let your personalities be greater than before, because you choose to be wife and husband to one another. Thus you will grow in love, because you will continue to grow individually.
Katie and Mike, this is your day.
We,—your parents, your families, your friends,—we give you our enthusiasm and support for what you are undertaking. We give you our love, of course; and when you seek the wisdom of our days, we will offer you our counsel. Don’t hesitate, ever, to call on us.
We are implicated with you in the sacredness of your marriage. You extend, continue, and complete us. We are more than witnesses, we are participants in this great occasion.
Mike and Katie, this is your day.
We give you our blessings, as well as our hopes on this momentous day