October and November are the busiest time of year for one of my areas of work – performing wedding bleesings. Not the blessings themselves – the peak for those is from May to September – but around now couples make contact and we begin the preparation process.
There’s a lot of confusion about peoples’ options in weddings and I get asked a lot of similar questions. Although my website (www.inter-faith.net) tries to answer these, I thought it might help to explain a little more and post this here where a few more people can find it.
In the UK, the only people who can legally register a marriage are a Civil Registrar or Anglican Priest. Some other Christian churches and other Faiths, which are referred to in the UK as “non-conformist” have someone from their congregation who trains as an “authorised person” and is licensed in a limited capacity to perform the Registration following a spiritual blessing in their particular place of worship.
It is important to separate in your mind the process of registering the marriage in the eyes of the law (which provides various legal benefits, not the least of which is a protocol for dealing with a person’s affairs when they die and to give rights to both parties if they divorce), from the wedding blessing which is a ceremony in which the blessing of God (however God is defined) is sought on the relationship.
There is no specific qualification to perform a spiritual blessing ceremony. Fairly obviously, each Church and each Faith group has its own ‘rules’ as to who can perform them on their own premises and seek the blessing of their particular definition of God. In the Roman Catholic church, for example, this would be the local Parish priest and his seniors but probably not his peers unless they had special permission to do so.
Many denominations believe that while God can communicate with anyone, the Priest has a particular role as ‘interlocutor’ – interpreting and channelling God’s will to the lay-person. (Only a few groups explicitly disagree with this philosophy – the Quakers being the most well known.) This is why, in most churches, only a Priest is considered ‘qualified’ to perform a blessing ceremony. I personally, feel considerable affinity with the Quakers in this respect – I cannot see why there needs to be someone between anyone and their sense of Spirit or God.
What is my qualification to perform spiritual blessing ceremonies? I trained five years ago as an Interfaith Minister, through what was then called the New Seminary, based in Oxford. It has subsequently been renamed the Interfaith Seminary and relocated to London. Our training lasted two years, in the first of which we study comparative theology (ie look at the different major Faiths (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc)) and then in the second year we focus on three dimensions of public service – spiritual counselling, celebration (incl weddings) and social change.
The idea behind ‘interfaith’ in the wedding context, is that over 90% of the population say they believe in something ‘spiritual’ (generally meaning a God of some kind), but 87% of them don’t feel that they belong in a particular church or Faith group. Our job is to help them find a way of expressing what they DO believe in, and a celebration that allows them to seek spiritual support in their relationship and that allows their friends and families (who probably have a range of different beliefs too) to draw on their own sense of Spirit as well to bless the couple.
Because a spiritual blessing has no legal content, it can take any form. Most churches and Faith groups have an established “traditional” ceremony, that most couples will have performed for them. Clearly, a church that has carefully defined beliefs, and an established way of doing things, that reflect their particular concept of God, are not going to simply let anyone come in and have a blessing. Besides, if you didn’t believe in their structure, why would you want to, and why would a civil registration not be sufficient?
On the other hand, an inter-faith blessing has no prescribed format, no rules over what can and can’t be done, and no constraints over where it can be performed. In preparing a ceremony with a couple, I spend as much time as necessary getting to understand their beliefs and their needs (especially in a spiritual sense) and then helping them to find a creative way of enabling them to express them. We look at the kinds of people that will be among their guests and try to identify ways of allowing these people to be grounded, to prepare themselves to seek spiritual guidance, and to channel that towards the couple for the future.
I hope that’s a helpful explanation, but am always happy to answer any specifics anyone has.