Religious Rituals for Non-Religious Couples
As a Celebrant, I work with couples who hold many viewpoints on religion and spirituality. In explaining my work with new clients, I mention that to my way of thinking, Celebrants provide (to use a “political” term heard a few years ago) a “third way” in developing important life ceremonies and rites of passages. We work with people who may not be able to (or may not wish to) hold these important events in houses or worship, but they prefer to have a celebration that is not satisfied by a purely administrative ceremony, such as a justice of the peace. We represent everyone else–which, these days, is a vast proportion of the population. My couples come in all philosophical shapes and sizes…those who are of an interfaith perspective, some identify as “spiritual but not religious” or secular humanists, and many are nominally connected to the faith of their families of origin but do not practice.
Many couples will come to me with an awkwardness about how to “handle” religious traditions and faith matters in a respectful way, to honor their parents, all the while realizing that at least at this point in their lives they do not practice. I firmly believe that as Celebrants we are uniquely qualified to guide these delicate matters with sensitivity. I attempt to reassure couples that there are elegant options that we can show respect and honor to the faith tradition(s) of their families while not calling upon the Bride and Groom to feel inauthentic about the words and rituals of the ceremony.
First, there are often ways to couch rituals in terms of cultural connections as opposed to highly religious language. This is particularly effective with respect to Jewish customs like standing below a chuppah during the ceremony or the breaking at the glass at the end of the service. Many American Jews hold closely to the cultural and historical connections of their Judaism, with being observant (or perhaps nominally observant on High Holidays). As such, the descriptions of these rituals can reflect this orientation. Likewise, there are ways to draw parallels between certain religious ceremonies within a wedding and a more secularized approach to the concept. For example, a Jewish couple will include the signing of a Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, as part of a religious service, but a ceremonial signing of the marriage license can certainly resemble this kind of ritual. The familiar Christian unity candle can be referenced by leaning on the universal symbolism of light as a sign of goodness—and Godliness. I have been delighted how a number of my clever couples have used their wedding programs, which are often a rudimentary listing of the bridal party and order of the ceremony, to provide creative explanations of rituals or objects we are including in the wedding. I think this is particularly helpful for those who may be unfamiliar with a faith tradition.
Another beautiful way to negotiate this potentially ticklish situation is to involve an honored guest who is practicing the faith to lead that portion of the ceremony. It will most certainly provide a great deal of satisfaction on their part, without the bride or groom feeling as if they are overly stating their current commitments. In a recent ceremony joining a non-practicing Jewish groom and his non-practicing Protestant bride, the groom asked his beloved Grandfather, who observed, to read the traditional 7 Jewish blessings at the end of the ceremony. The Grandfather (who is now among my all-time favorite wedding guests) read the tradition blessings in Hebrew, followed by a modernized version blessings in English. What could be more inclusive than this?
At the end of the day, the goal of any wedding is to underscore the values and ideals that are shared between the couple and among the guests—but there are so many ways to do that with creativity, style, respect, and flourish, honoring the past and recognizing that the couple, as a new family, will have ideas and customs all their own.