Holy matrimony’s ritual has changed from the ceremony that joined me to my late wife in 1973. Our marriage lasted more than 40 years. After her death, I didn’t think of marrying again. Five years later I stood before a makeshift altar with my bride-to-be, staring at the marriage officiant’s bare feet while she stumbled through the vows.
I could sense that my fiancé wasn’t happy. When the officiant doubled back on the wording we had written (to include God and several other more traditional vows), then repeated what she’d already said, Karen’s eyes glinted dangerously.
We were supposed to lovingly gaze into each other’s faces, but I kept cutting my eyes to the lady’s feet and my fiancé was glaring and preparing to pounce on this almost do-it-yourself wedding planner.
My experience was zero in the ways wedding ceremonies had evolved. I was naïve enough to think the vows were repeated in front of a minister or justice of the peace. I also still thought physical exams and blood tests were required of the couple.
Not so today. In fact, many people are married by officiants. What are the requirements for being legally authorized to perform weddings?
In Tennessee code states that “all regular ministers, preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis and other spiritual leaders of every religious belief, more than 18 years of age, having care of souls, and all members of the county legislative bodies” can duly conduct marriages. The list of elected or appointed officials with legal authority to wed two people is long, even including certain bankruptcy judges.
But the clincher is a section about ordination: To perform a wedding, a person “must be ordained or otherwise designated in conformity with the customs of a church, temple or other religious group or organization…”
I speculate it is this language that gave rise to the healthy cottage industry of marriage officiants in Appalachia and across the country. The meaning of the words “other religious group or other organization” could legally be argued ad infinitum, and it has been in Tennessee. There have been several state attorney general opinions about who can legally solemnize marriages.
However, the overarching understanding seems to be that if a couple has a ceremony, lives together and thinks they’re married, the state will typically treat them as such, whether the ritual was conducted by a Methodist minister, a justice of the peace or, in our case, a shoeless officiant who couldn’t read the vows correctly.
What else is required of an officiant? They must be knowledgeable about the legal paperwork requirements of marriage and file said documents with the appropriate county offices in a timely manner. A marriage license is still required. If they take their responsibility seriously, officiants can ease the pressure from betrothed couples, making certain all the forms are filled out and the wedding protocols are observed.
Why do couples opt to be wedded by an officiant? In our case, I was a widower, and Karen had been previously married. We did not want or need hoopla. A short, meaningful ceremony was enough. The officiant route seemed perfect. Karen did research and contacted someone who proved to be very helpful during the pre-ceremony process.
This is how we wound up standing before an arch decorated in frills, hearts and loving sayings, while dozens of scented candles burned, smack dab in the middle of the officiant’s living room. Everywhere we looked – on coffee tables, walls and bookcases – the motif was marriage. White and red. Cupids, praying hands, valentine hearts, delicate fabrics, ribbons and bows, plastic flowers, dishes, coffee mugs, mirrors… The house was a celebration of matrimonial tradition.
I squeezed Karen’s hand as the officiant stumbled through the vows. This would be a marriage to remember as long as we lived.
As we drove away on our honeymoon, we shed tears of laughter. Karen is from Florida, and I am teaching her to be an Appalachian redneck. I told her our ceremony would go down in family history as “Steve and Karen’s Walmart wedding.”
Not only did we get hitched, the officiant proudly presented us with gifts: a bridal beer bottle opener and a Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a heart.