You can be a ‘reverend,’ too

All it takes is your name, email, state and country. Click “Get Ordained Instantly” and join the ranks of “ordained ministers,” such as Conan O’Brian, Lady Gaga, and my favorite, Reverend Billy Gibbons, long-bearded guitarist of ZZ Top.

Wish I’d known, 40 years ago. I could have saved years of graduate study, thousands of dollars in educational expense, and the four-year examination process required by my denomination. I could have used all that time and money for guitar lessons and practice. Maybe, today, I could play as well as Reverend Billy!

Admittedly, I’m conflicted about this. The First Amendment allows anyone to start their own church, with anyone it chooses as ministers. As an American, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

On the other hand, I’ve devoted my life to Christ and his church and worked hard to prepare for that life of service. I would never consult an attorney or a physician whose credentials had been acquired so easily.

A colleague once told me that, as a joke, he got his two draft horses “ordained” online. Given that, how meaningful can such an “ordination” be? What does it actually signify?

I get that not everyone is “into” church. Traditionally, a church wedding was an actual worship service within an intentional religious community to which the couple actively belonged. Nowadays, a wedding is more a series of consumer choices, reflecting the couple’s individual preferences. Hence, the desire to have a friend or relative officiate, rather than the pastor of an established congregation whom the couple does not personally know.

But for the nonreligious, there have always been justices, judges, and mayors who can legally “tie the knot.” Many are unaware that weddings performed by online ministers may or may not be legal in Pennsylvania. In York County, for example, a marriage performed by an online minister was ruled by the court to be invalid, and a number of Pennsylvania counties now distribute with their marriage licenses the following disclaimer, “You are advised to consult an attorney concerning the legality of such marriages.” Potentially at risk are matters of insurance, taxes, community property, etc.

I think the courts will eventually recognize all marriages solemnized by online ministers, but for the moment, this is a legal gray area. Let the buyer beware.

Instead, I recommend the qualified and properly credentialed ministers in our community, who serve actual, visible, human congregations, and are trained in how to help couples get through troubled times. A wedding is a day. A marriage is a lifetime.

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Finding Faith is written by area pastors. This week’s column comes from Rev. Bruce Wallace, a retired minister serving as Assisting Elder of the State College District, United Methodist Church.