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Striving for Inclusive, Pain-Free Ceremonies

26thJun Good ceremonies are inclusive and embrace everyone.

If you’ve noticed my silence around here, it’s for several reasons, one of which is that it’s wedding season! At the time of writing, I’ve got five weddings planned for this season, from May through September. (The first one in May was a happy surprise and the first one I’ve had the pleasure to solemnize since our victory in federal court back in January.)

But this weekend, I attended a wedding I wasn’t officiating, and while I don’t like to compare my own work to those of other officiants, the contrast was stark enough to make one thing in particular very clear to me.

This wedding, which was for a family member, was different in one very obvious respect: It was religious, officiated by a Southern Baptist minister. In some ways, I’ve been kind of spoiled because my primary exposure to wedding texts is my own — I don’t have much opportunity these days to go to religious weddings.

Even though I’m personally non-religious and left religion over five years ago, I didn’t think this would bother me. After all, I witnessed my own father — also a Southern Baptist minister — perform such ceremonies, including my own wedding. Why would this one really be different?

It surprised me to find that I really was bothered by the ceremony and how extremely narrow its vision of marriage was — and how directly it was tied to a specific Christian view, one that espouses narrow gender roles and a direct analogy between husbands and wives and Christ and the church. Again, none of these details surprised me — I grew up with them, despite my later rejection of them — but it hit home to me that this wasn’t a vision of marriage that I felt comfortable with.

In a forthcoming book chapter for an anthology of secular writings, I make a case for why secular ceremonies are important, especially for those who want to see a more secular society or want more secular options to be freely available to more people, secular or not. One of the points I make in that is that being raised religious — and in particular, being raised by a member of the clergy — gave me an appreciation for how ceremonies help create a sense of shared meaning among its participants.

In the context of a religious group like a church congregation, this makes perfect sense. When I was a member of Baptist churches, it was eminently clear to me what the meaning of baptism ceremonies was — it was about an individual expressing their desire to become part of the community (here, through a public declaration of faith) and about the community welcoming them into the fold. I always felt a thrill from these ceremonies because I knew that all involved had the same expectation of what meaning was being created. In this way, they were inclusive — as long as you were a part of the community, at least.

This is what good ceremonies should do. My argument for secular ceremonies is thus very simple: They should help create a shared meaning that is accessible outside of religion or any conception of deity.

But that isn’t what happened with the wedding I attended this weekend. Now, granted, it did meet the requirements of the couple, who attend the church where this particular Southern Baptist minister preaches, and I’m fairly certain that it expresses the view of marriage that they hold, as odious as it might seem to me.

That view of ceremony — expressing the views of those for whom the ceremony is intended — is one that may be true for some. In this view, weddings are about a projection of meaning:¬†This is what I believe, and you believe it as well, great. If not, then too bad because you’re on our train now.

I don’t find this to be a particularly compelling approach to ceremonies, in no small part because it leaves too much room for exclusion and pain. An effective ceremony draws as many in as possible; it does not erect boundaries so closely that many cannot refuge within its walls.

Do those who plan such ceremonies to mark their own life moments have the right to project meaning rather than try to find a more inclusive meaning to create through the ceremony? Of course. But I think it does a disservice both to their celebration and to the heart of the ceremony itself.

After all, if you want others to share in your making of meaning, you’d better be sure that what you’re celebrating means something to them, too.

Image by Christiana Rivers via Unsplash

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About Galen
Galen is a certified Secular Celebrant with the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The views expressed on this site do not necessarily represent those of CFI. (For more information about Galen, click here.)
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