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."

Trotter requires six or seven sessions of premarital counseling before he will perform a ceremony, a fairly standard prescription in many denominations. Beyond that, he said, "my only requirement is that one of them has to be a Christian."

He marks 1970 as the approximate start of a trend toward experimentation with the ritual of religious marriage. Since then, couples have seemed increasingly emboldened to take liberties with the vows, the venue and the choice of minister.

Previous generations of brides and grooms married in the neighborhood church they had always attended. But now, many congregations are shrinking, and families are more transient. Worshipers are gathering online and redefining their faith in more personal terms.

The Rev. James Green Somerville of First Baptist Church in the District said he has grown accustomed to taking "cold calls from people that I've never met," who wish to marry in his church even though they have never set foot inside it. "It seems to be much more about 'This is a beautiful place to get married' than 'This is my family's congregation; I grew up here,' " Somerville said. Somerville always asks callers why they have chosen his church. Often, he said, "their answers are that shallow: 'It's a beautiful place. I think it would look good in the pictures.' "

Somerville discourages people from writing their vows or filling the service with pop songs that might not age well in the wedding DVD two decades from now. "We've been getting people married in churches for centuries now," he said. "We've kind of worked out what has to happen in that ceremony."

The Rev. Barbara Eberle, a nondenominational minister based in Darnestown, is considerably less restrictive. Her Internet site invites couples to "make your ceremony express all that you hold within your hearts and souls."

Whether that ceremony invokes God's name or not "is irrelevant to me," Eberle said. "Not that I won't do a religious ceremony. I will. I am here to fulfill the needs of the couple." Eberle performs 50 to 60 weddings a year and describes her ministry, Pathways of Light, as "a ministry without judgment."

Last weekend, Eberle married TiTi McNeill and James Schumm at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. She's chief executive of an IT company; he's a DNA scientist. Neither wanted religion in the service. "We read her Web site," McNeill said of Eberle, "and I just liked the way she presented herself."

Another force competing with traditional denominations is the trend toward do-it-yourself ordination. The Universal Life Church of Modesto, Calif., has ordained from 18 million to 20 million people since 1962, chiefly for the purpose of officiating at weddings, said Andre Hensley, a director of the church. The Church of Spiritual Humanism, outside Philadelphia, has ordained more than 100,000 ministers since 2002.

"These are people who don't really fit into a regular traditional church, but they still have a sense of spirituality," said Richard Zorger, founder of the Church of Spiritual Humanism. "They want to have some kind of meaningful service, and meaningful, for them would be if their father or brother or college professor performs the service for them."

Hensley, of the Modesto church, said its rise correlates directly with the demise of the neighborhood church. "We've seen that since the '50s," he said.

Do-it-yourself clergy face less red tape in Maryland, where the courts will accept an ordination from any source on a marriage license, than in Virginia or D.C., where ministers must be approved by an officer of the court.

But ordination itself is not much more difficult than ordering a movie from Netflix. Zorger's church offers a Deluxe Clergy Pack for $89.95. Hensley's offers a Ministry-in-a-Box for $139. His church's Web site also offers, for $4.95, a Jedi Knight certificate.

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