Here’s the first thing I do when I open the Sunday New York Times.
I turn to the Styles section, and I read the wedding announcements.
Here’s why: I have been keeping track of how many of those weddings are not being performed by clergy, but by friends of the couple who have received instant ordination from some online ordination business.
Sometimes, those would-be clerics become Universal Life ministers. Or, in one case, a minister of the Church of the Latter Day Dude. That is a reference to the Coen brothers classic, The Big Lebowski. (Best line in the film: John Goodman’s Jewish character explaining why he doesn’t bowl on Saturday: “I don’t roll on Shabbos!”)
According to my calculations, over the last six months, 1/4 to 1/3 of the weddings are being done by these fake ministers.
OK, I get it. Those couples want someone who knows them to help them tie the knot.
But I get something else as well.
According to the recent Pew study of American religion, the fastest growing American “religious group” is the unaffiliated, or the “nones.” There are now more unaffiliated Americans than either main line Protestants or Catholics. If the “nones” were a religious denomination, they would be the second largest in America — just after evangelical Christians.
22.8% of the U.S. population are “nones.” Which is approximately the same percentage of New York Times weddings that are done by instant clergy.
What can we learn from this?
First, it testifies to the ease that too many people expect out of religion.
The Universal Life ministry program boasts that “utilizing the ULC’s instant online ordination platform, anyone who feels so-called can become a minister within seconds.”
And to think of those five years of post-graduate study that I spent at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — learning from the greatest minds of the Jewish world; teaching in religious schools, doing youth work, serving small congregations — all part of my apprenticeship.
Would you hire an attorney who attended a one day online law school?
Would you let an online-trained physician take out your kid’s tonsils?
You wouldn’t even have an uncertified plumber unclog your toilet.
Second, it shows that most people think that the clergy role is simply dispensing rituals. The media helps in this collusion; how often do you see clergy on television or movies involved with teaching, or social activism (with the exception of “Selma”)?
People forget that behind every life cycle ritual, there are hours of preparation, teaching, and counseling.
Yes, your first cousin can “do” your wedding.
But a wedding is not a marriage. And marriages really do need pre-marital counseling — which, I suspect, couples that are married by instant ministers are probably not getting (though, to be sure, there are competent secular therapists who can do this important work).
Third, real clergy engage in real religion. In whatever they do, they bring a religious, cultural, and historical tradition with them, and they embody those elements. Real clergy represent religious institutions – institutions where families are created, shaped, educated, shown the possibilities of holiness. Institutions where the name of God is invoked, and the image of God is strengthened. Institutions that engage in world repair, charity, and transformation.
By contrast, instant ministers will give you instant religion — no questions asked.
I can imagine how “beautiful” and “meaningful” those “performed by a friend of the couple” weddings must be.
But think of what those couples are missing. They are missing the life wisdom of a religious tradition that has been honed and refined, over the course of millennia, that will help them make their life journey meaningful. They are missing the inherited poetry and power of an inherited ritual that has been done countless times in the past, and which has been crafted for eternity.
That is what is at stake — a deep connection to something bigger than me, bigger than my family, bigger than even my community. And that’s what clergy do. They connect — themselves to their people; people to each other; people to the transcendent.
Rabbi Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezrich was a great Hasidic leader of the eighteenth century. He was known as the magid (the preacher) of Mezrich, and he was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. He started his career as a teacher in a tiny school.
After he became a well known rabbi, some of his disciples approached his old students, and they asked about him.
This is what the students said:
“He pushed us and pulled us. He asked us questions and listened to us. He waited until each one of us told him his own story about what it was like to go out of Egypt and to cross the Reed Sea. And he waited until each one of us told him his own story of what it was like to stand at Mt. Sinai and accept the Torah.” (From Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)
That is the job of a rabbi — and any minister.
To push and pull.
To ask questions.
And to get people to experience their story within the larger story of faith.
When you, or your loved one gets married — expect nothing less.