Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Dear Glenn, In the unknown words of a 7th Cavalry sergeant as they rode toward the Little Bighorn, “This is not a good idea.” Religious people generally do not want a non-believer representing their beliefs in a ceremony, even if he is accurate and respectful. They would consider that a condescension, an impropriety, or even blasphemy. So if you don’t want the families to be upset, you will have to leave them with the impression that you believe what you are saying. If you don’t want to overtly pretend that you believe it, you will have to slyly dance around the truth with carefully worded equivocation, ambiguity, hedging, and evasion. In other words, deceit. Not a good thing to include in a wedding. The couple’s “very religious families” will very likely notice the odd pussyfooting and soft-pedaling of whatever religious ideas you mention, even if they are exactly the ideas that the couple shares. The deception will not be about your friends; it will be about you. After the ceremony, you’ll probably be approached by several in-laws curious about your ordainment, your religious affiliation and whatever else they would consider your qualifications for performing the ceremony. They may pose straight-forward questions about your beliefs. Unless your tongue is as slippery as an eel, you’ll either have to lie like a rug or reveal the disingenuous attempt to placate the families with someone who got “ordained” as a joke.
I am an open and outgoing atheist. Years ago, as a joke, I got an online ordainment just to be able to tell people I can perform weddings. — but now one of my friends is taking me up on that claim. She and her husband-to-be are only moderately religious and are fully aware of my religious status — but they have one request: in order to avoid as much drama with their very religious families, they want me to bring religion in at least superficially. Since this is their day, I am willing to accommodate their wishes as long as I don’t have to openly lie to their families. I am interested in hearing how other people would address this situation.
That insult would probably be more upsetting to them than if the couple chose to have a ceremony with no religion included at all.
Your friend has complimented you by asking you to preside over the event, but she is also asking you to have a low standard for what honesty is. We should encourage each other to have high standards for our integrity. All the clever weasel-wording we can do won’t change the fact that intentional deception, passive or active, is lying.
I suggest that you respond to your friend’s compliment by offering to act in some other capacity to help their wedding be a happy and drama-free experience for everyone. Perhaps you could be the facilitator-expediter, the person who goes around before and during the wedding making sure all sorts of problems are solved before they’re even problems. It’s not as flashy as being in the spotlight, but it would be a wonderful gift.
If the bride and groom want to please their families by having religious material in their ceremony, they should ask someone to officiate who shares those beliefs, and who can adjust to their liking what he or she mentions without any kind of misrepresentation. That way no one is fooled, no one has to lie, and no upsetting truth eventually surfaces.
One other issue: Regardless of the content of the ceremony, if you all decide to go ahead with this, double check that the laws in your state actually permit you to legally perform a marriage. In spite of whatever the online ordination website claimed years ago, laws that regulate such things vary widely from state to state. Secular Celebrants or Humanist Officiants are gaining recognition for such authority, but they may be required to have some kind of certification.
I wish your friends a successful wedding, a long and happy marriage, and I wish you a friendship with them that cultivates the best in all three of you.