“Uh oh, looks like grandpa’s got a tallboy in hand,” said my cousin, the brother of the bride to-be.
Having officiated three weddings for friends previously, I wasn’t nervous in the lead up to my cousin’s wedding ceremony until I saw the tuxedoed patriarch clutching a cold Miller Lite in row one. It was a bit early to start drinking, and I was positive that the reception’s bar wasn’t yet open.
Was he self-medicating for what the more progressive relatives feared would be a chilly reception to our family’s first lesbian wedding? Lines from SNL’s “Xanax for gay summer weddings” skit flashed through my head as the rest of the crowd began to filter in and take their seats.
I ducked behind a pillar at the front of the foyer to gather my thoughts and take a sip from a water bottle I’d stashed out of view. My opening lines contained a sideswipe at Catholic wedding tradition, followed by a somewhat defensive chronology of same sex marriage legality; my confidence was waning.
What was I worried about? Though I hadn’t let the wedding couple review the script ahead of time, I suspected they would like it. Plus, no one remembers the ceremony anyway, least of all the betrothed couple. I’d been sure to keep it under a half hour, it would garner some laughs, and the setting was gorgeous. After all, the officiant’s role is less referee than doula; everyone wants you to succeed, even if they don’t approve of your methods.
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My fears when officiating always straddle two rails. The first is textbook performance anxiety: will I lose my place or forget my lines? Will the microphones work? What other unanticipated, extremely embarrassing and visible, snafu would befall me? The second concern is something I have less agency over, and is much more complicated: looking a fool for what I represent.
More and more people choose non-religious ceremonies each year: the Knot’s annual study calculates a 50% drop in marriages within a religious institution in America over the past decade*, and Catholic weddings have dropped by over 60% over the past forty years**, even as the number of Catholics have grown. As an officiant, I’ve found myself uncomfortably wedged between religious, or at least traditional, families and their a-religious, non-traditional offspring. For many families, the officiant is a front and center reminder of the abandonment of tradition in one of the most sacred non-religious societal institutions: marriage. It highlights the schism between generations, and an open assault on what has historically been a proxy war over religion’s role in secular traditions. For example, just minutes before beginning the ceremony for my college roommate, his mother thrust a unity candle into my arms, entreating me to find a way to fit it into the ceremony somehow.
In the past, couples’ desires to have a wedding which more accurately represented their relationship or views toward religion took backseat to keeping the peace among family. For example, despite it being both of my parents’ second wedding, and occuring outside, on a boat, my father still went to great lengths to talk a liberal-leaning Catholic priest who’d never met my (quasi-presbyterian) mom into officiating their ceremony. It’s not clear if my grandparents were happy about this, but it certainly avoided the funeral which would have instead occurred had my Dad’s unemployed college roommate read quotes from Jerry Garcia.
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The sound of the ukulele strumming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” snapped me out of my thoughts, and I watched as the wedding party processed towards me. It was the stuff of millennial coffee table books: both bride and groom were female, the bridesmaids were co-ed, and practically everyone had hipstery suspenders, or beards, or both. It was Sunday, but only because it was Earth Day. A family of midwestern farmers sat side-by-side with Italian-Irish-Catholic aviators, in central Texas, where gay marriage had only been legal for one thousand days.
By the time I began, grandpa had presumably finished his drink, and it was out of sight. Over the course of the ceremony, the sound cut in and out, (despite rigorous sound checks, new batteries, and a backup hand microphone,) meaning many in the audience couldn’t even hear me, but the front rows were all family, who were all ears and encouraging looks. Some of my jokes didn’t land, but others made the couple laugh so hard I had to stop and regain composure.
Afterwards, many approached me to say that I did a great job. Some seemed to avoid me, while one gave an awkward non-compliment about how she, “was emotional all day, and was really glad my ceremony didn’t make her cry.” There were little more than rumblings about the non-traditionality of it all. What seemed to be less enthusiasm for wedding couple kisses likely had more to do with the sterile, cavernous venue. The most remotely homophobic thing I heard from our family was a half-hearted joke about how they’d expected the gay wedding attendees to have dressed better.
In the end, the most surprising thing to our older, more conservative parents’ generation at the wedding was how similar to a “wedding” it was: it was too chilly to be outside during the ceremony, the DJ was too loud (and bad), and they were the last table to be called up for the dinner buffet. To our generation, that was precisely the point; it’s just another wedding. During the toasts, each person mentioned how excited they were for the couple’s attempts to have a family of their own. The thought of their children’s generation’s nonchalance at this issue fills me with eager anticipation for a return to what weddings are supposed to be about: wondering what the guy drinking during the ceremony is going to say in his toast.