On Faith

More Couples Choose to Wed Their Way

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Catholic priests are performing half as many marriages today as in 1970, the year Cynthia Gonzalez was born. And she is part of the reason.

Gonzalez is a sales manager who lives in Columbia Heights. She grew up Catholic. But when the time came to marry, she chose a ceremony that reconciled her faith to that of her fiance, Vasu Muthyala, an Indian American federal prosecutor.

The wedding, held June 24 on the grounds of Glenview Mansion in Rockville, became a mostly Hindu affair with sprinklings of American nuptial tradition -- bridesmaids and groomsmen wedding costumes cut to Western tastes from Indian fabrics. Daddy walked her down the aisle, following her custom. The groom rode in on a horse, following his.

"My family has been amazing," Gonzalez said, speaking a few days before the ceremony. "They're kind of rolling with the punches, wearing outfits that they wouldn't otherwise wear, sitting through a ceremony in Sanskrit that they won't understand."

While clergy still perform most weddings, the ceremonies are straying ever farther from tradition, reflecting a "do-it-yourself" attitude toward religious nuptials. The minister may be an old friend, a professor or Dad, ordained online for the occasion. The setting may be a picturesque church chosen purely for aesthetics, a beach on the Eastern Shore or a mountaintop. The religious heritage may be the bride's, the groom's or some interfaith stew cooked up by both families.

John Zielke and Jessica Briddle of Alexandria asked the groom's father to read the vows at their wedding, held June 24 at Top of the Town in Arlington. She's a public relations consultant. He's launching a bicycle taxi service. Like many couples today, they are only vaguely religious.

"I think he's a Lutheran, and I'm a Baptist, technically," Briddle said before the ceremony. "We don't attend church, so we don't have a minister, and we didn't want to be married by someone who wasn't connected to us in some way."

Because the groom's father is neither a minister nor a justice of the peace, the couple plans to visit a magistrate at some point, in their jeans, to make it legal.

They chose a ceremony without religious content. But they arranged for an uncle to bless the food at the reception, mostly for the sake of relatives who otherwise might have taken offense. Briddle thinks the concession "took the air out of the issue."

Decades of statistics point to a societal retreat from the church wedding. Catholic marriage ceremonies have been in decline for 35 years -- from 426,000 marriages nationwide in 1970 to 212,456 in 2005, according to church data -- even as the number of Catholics continues to grow. Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, have tracked a shift from religious to civil marriages. And a growing network of interfaith and nondenominational ministers offers couples the freedom to wed on their own terms.

In response, some clergy in mainline denominations are trying to accommodate a more expansive view of the marriage ritual: conducting weddings outside of church, catering to interfaith couples, even permitting subtle changes in centuries-old vows.

The Rev. Frank Trotter of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, a Gothic cathedral on Nebraska Avenue in the District, has presided over weddings on Sugarloaf Mountain and at Rehoboth Beach, and he has crafted a variety of interfaith ceremonies that "show the diversity of God's love."

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Going to the Chapel?
A growing percentage of marriage ceremonies in the area are civil ceremonies, although Virginia stopped collecting data after 1995.
Going to the Chapel?
SOURCE: Maryland, Virginia and District departments of health | GRAPHIC: Marianne Seregi, The Washington Post - July 2, 2006
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