My supervisor on the new job is getting married this week. As a modern career woman, she’s managing her own wedding; the chore seems only slightly less a challenge than the Invasion of Europe. Except that the weather will be better; I hope.
Weddings have always interested me. They can be the fulfillment of a fantasy, an assertion of wealth and power, or an honest celebration of new beginnings and old relationships. Or, all of the above. A wedding reflects who you are, or who you want to be, or merely who you want others to think you are.
In short, weddings can be minefields of hubris, illusion, neediness, and baggage.
And hope. But more on that later.
I vividly remember one wedding in San Francisco in the early ’80s. The happy couple possessed what some might daintily call “baggage,” both individually and collectively. And when the minister asked, “If anyone knows why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace,” there was a moment of complete silence.
And then the wedding party and both sides of the aisle burst out in maniacal laughter.
After the air cleared, the minister married the two of them anyway. They’re still together.
A minister of my acquaintance once walked out on a society wedding on rehearsal night when he learned that the bride and groom were spending $75,000. On flowers. He told them that God had little to do with what was going on there, so they had no need of his services.
I’ve attended numerous weddings; nothing unusual in that. But I’ve also seen a few weddings from behind the scenes. You see, my wife Rhumba has an interesting side vocation: she’s a priest of a tiny but legitimate Anglo-Catholic sect that, I guarantee, you have never heard of. She has a well-established Internet congregation, but no physical church.
And yet back in the ’90s, she’d perform a wedding ceremony for anyone in the vicinity of Santa Cruz, California who wanted a “church-style wedding,” but couldn’t get one.
The business directories were full of wedding officiants — a Brother Bob or a Mandala Starspirit and the like — who’d whip you up a nice secular wedding with a spiritual homily and any DIY touches you’d like. But in those days it was harder to find Christian clergy who’d marry you in a traditional Christian ceremony if you weren’t connected to a local church. Even on the then-primitive Internet, people had to hunt around. Rhumba knew this from her online ministry.
Somebody had to step in; so Rhumba took it on as another ministry. And there was demand; she put a couple of notices up on the Internet, and people began to call: residents, visitors, people who wanted to get married in Santa Cruz. Not a torrent, but… not a trickle, either.
She met them, she counseled them, and if they seemed prepared, she donned the cassock and the alb and the stole and married them: in a standard Methodist/Episcopal ceremony, or whatever Christian ceremony they preferred. In some venue they’d picked, or wherever she could arrange a space to do it. When she had to, she married them in the front yard. Payment was always optional, and “whatever you care to give.”
I often came along as a sort of general gofer. I found it all very interesting; but a couple of ceremonies stand out for me:
One stormy New Year’s Eve afternoon, Rhumba and I drove up the coast to a wind-blasted beach where two people hoped to be married. We were greeted by a sight worthy of a music video: a florist, waiting alone by the side of the road with bundles of wind-whipped flowers. Twenty yards further down the road: a wedding photographer, weighted down with cameras, bags, and a big fedora. And twenty yards past him: a man with a bagpipe. In a kilt.
The principals had organized the wedding by email from Quebec; among this pick-up squad of wedding workers, only Rhumba had even set eyes on the happy couple, the day before at their hotel in Santa Clara. They were Canadians who’d lived in Santa Cruz at some time in the past and had decided that for their spiritual satisfaction they must be married on this particular beach, at sundown, on New Year’s Eve. The groom was a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the happy couple was moving on after the wedding to his new post in British Columbia.
The wedding plans were unwise on several levels. On that beach the wind blows endlessly; squint, or you’ll get an eyeful of sand. And that December had been the rainiest in recent memory. It had rained that day. It would rain again. The question was, would it rain during the ceremony? For now, the rain held off.
The groom’s party arrived first; the groom and best man wore RCAF dress uniforms which strongly resembled high-end waiters’ uniforms. I stopped myself from saying so — but the best man said it for me. He confessed to me that, in the lobby of their hotel, another hotel guest had handed him a used drinks glass and walked away.
Eventually the parents and the bride’s party arrived. The bride stepped out of the van in ten or twenty yards of white satin which the keening wind immediately caught and spread wide, like the sails of a clipper ship. The wind almost knocked her backwards. But she fought her way forward to the groom’s side and then, well, we had a wedding. A Seventh-Day Adventist ceremony, performed in English by Rhumba and translated into French by the father of the bride.
And as Rhumba approached the final vows, the air went calm. And the clouds slid aside, and there on the horizon shone a crimson sun. The bride and groom raised their heads toward the light, like flowers. It turned their faces golden, and they smiled with wonder, and were married.
They came three thousand miles for a moment in the sun, and by grit and guts and meteorology, they got it. I just hope that, in the long run, it was helpful.
And yet, that wasn’t Rhumba’s most memorable wedding ceremony:
He delivered bottled water; she worked in a deli. Together they had hardly a dime to their name. But they wanted to marry, and they wanted a wedding. Relatives and friends scraped up about $500 and set about making it happen. Somebody’s mother in Oregon became the spider in the web, firing off endless phone calls to mobilize volunteers, seek out cheap venues, organize a potluck reception. And find a minister.
It was a simple ceremony in a simple building: an quaint former one-room schoolhouse in a public park (very affordable). Their relatives and their many friends were there. The bride and groom dressed simply; Rhumba performed the ceremony with aplomb. The deed was done, and all cheered and threw appropriate things.
Then all the guests, every one of them, set to tearing down chairs and rearranging the hall for the reception. Potluck food and dishes appeared from nowhere. Food was served; toasts were given and returned. Modest presents were presented. And when all was said and done and celebrated, the guests again rose as one to stow the chairs and tables, clean the hall, and put everything back in shape. The best man and the groom’s father competed for the privilege of paying Rhumba.
If a wedding ceremony launches a couple into new life, how better to launch them than with the massed support of their friends and relatives: not simply as passive well-wishers, but as active supporters working to make the dream happen? What greater affirmation of love and support could you desire?
And yet, even that wasn’t Rhumba’s most memorable ceremony. There were a number of others. Before it was legal, or accepted, she married same-sex couples – a lot of them – in the name of love. Which is the name of God. As I’ve said, somebody had to do it.
And not many did. It was the ’90s, remember? Any mainstream clergy who performed a same-sex wedding ceremony would shortly lose their jobs, and maybe their collars. Sure, same-sex couples could put together DIY ceremonies. But the religious among them wanted what their own churches wouldn’t give them: a wedding confirming their bond, conducted in their faith tradition by a real priest. Rhumba, master of all liturgy, could do whatever they needed.
And Rhumba’s bishop, up in the Pacific Northwest, sent nothing but encouragement and support. And love and kisses from his husband.
So Rhumba married same-sex couples on the same terms as the hets: in whatever location was available, with whatever service they desired. I particularly remember a ceremony in the City Hall plaza (surprisingly affordable): a Roman Catholic service complete with mass and two gigantic and supportive extended families. The happy couple were slim and nervous — and grinning like fools. I believe they were both Asian. You could see a new world cresting the horizon.
Her same-sex couples were mainly young and of modest means; one or two were middle-aged and comfortable. But they all had one thing in common, one thing that was not so prominent in “straight” ceremonies:
Hope. That unspoken hope, hanging in the air, made those ceremonies stand out from all the others. It was the hope that some day their bond would be legal in the eyes of man as well as God. Because the eyes of God grant you grace; but the eyes of man grant you joint health insurance, joint child custody, primacy over your partner’s relatives. And the respect and acknowledgment that a lasting bond between two people deserves, from everyone.
And for many of them, all these years later, that hope came true. Most churches still lag in their acceptance of true same-sex marriage. But civil marriages are forging ahead in many states. More states will come along soon, and more churches — eventually. Sometimes you just have to wait for a generation to turn.
As for Rhumba, she got out of the marriage ministry after a couple of years. The Internet matured — perhaps society as well — and there were suddenly online directories and sites and packages that made alternate weddings of any sort much easier to stage.
I would like to think that at least a few of the same-sex couples that Rhumba married all those years ago still remember those ceremonies as their “real” weddings. We surely thought so.
But what’s the moral of this story: that weddings are crazy? Well, of course they can be, especially if you get caught up in the symbolism and the trapping and forget the reality behind them. But when love is uppermost, even the most lavish wedding — or the simplest — cannot fail.
And there’s another matter: back in the ’90s, same-sex marriage was impossible. And then it wasn’t. I can’t help but think that Rhumba, and all the others out there who married the people who couldn’t be married, helped move society’s mind by just doing it and doing it and doing it. Until same-sex marriage became so mainstream that it was impossible to deny.
They say that lasting change comes from the bottom up; from a lifetime of observation, I would agree. And we live in a world of unacknowledged needs. So when you see one of them, and the thought occurs that “somebody has to do it,” consider that “somebody” might be you. And that by doing so, you, and ten thousand like you, just might be shaping the future.