By Michel Clasquin-Johnson
Department of Religious Studies & Arabic
University of South Africa
This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared in the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 15/45 (2016).
Marriage has been in the news with the rapid acceptance of equal rights for homosexuals to get married. The debate has not been on marriage as a (hopefully) lifelong partnership, though. It has centred on the specific act of getting married. There has been another change. It is not about “who gets married to whom?”, but about “who declares them married?”. There is an increasing trend of people choosing to be married by a friend, a mentor, or a colleague who became a minister for a day. Websites have appeared that give legal cover to the occasion by ordaining them. Welcome to the world of online ordination.
The wedding as ritual entrance-point into marriage is a rite of passage in almost all cultures. In contemporary western society the legal requirement is that a duly appointed official oversees the transition. Unless you have physically appeared in front of a state-sanctioned official, filled in the paperwork and declared your transition in front of witnesses, you are not married.
In most European countries that trace their legal system to the Code Napoléon, the state itself supplies the official. Those who are religious are free to hold a religious ceremony that, for all its spiritual meaning, does not carry any legal weight. In other countries, the state has completely abdicated to religious interests. Israel is the most prominent example.
In countries with an Anglophone heritage, secular marriage officials exist, and it is possible to enter into an entirely secular marriage by engaging the services of a justice of the peace or another government official. In some California counties, it is even possible to be deputized as a Deputy Marriage Commissioner just for the day of the wedding.
But the Anglophone state has also outsourced the wedding ceremony to religious professionals, giving the “church wedding” an equal legal status with the “city hall wedding”. There are countries where Humanist organisations have obtained the authority to conduct weddings: In Scotland, the number of such weddings now rivals those of traditional church weddings.
If the state is to outsource the wedding ceremony to religion, the question arises “which officials from which religion(s)?” Historically the state has restricted the organizations it was willing to empower in this regard. To use another example from South Africa, the Marriage Act states that only duly recognized office-bearers from “Christian, Jewish or Mohammedan [sic] … or any Indian religion” qualify.
However, the state has allowed the religious organizations themselves to select the candidates. If a Catholic priest wishes to register as a wedding officer, the state does not ask if he is a good, pious priest. As long as the Catholic Church certifies that he is indeed a priest by their standards, the state will acquiesce.
This is a key factor in the rise of online ordination. The contemporary Anglophone state is not inclined to dabble in theology Nowhere is this more clear than in the USA, where a court once refused to consider the religious bona fides, or otherwise, of the Church of Body Modification. Other societies, even other western societies, have no problem with declaring a specific organisation to be fraudulent, as can be seen in the German government’s long-running battle with Scientology.
Thus it becomes possible for any group of people to declare itself a church, to ordain whomever they see fit, and to have those new ordainees request the state to acknowledge their status. Add to this the immense reach of the Internet and we have the new phenomenon of online ordination.
No comprehensive history of online ordination has ever been written, but the phenomenon itself predates the Internet. The incorporation of the Universal Life Church in 1962 marks the beginning. For decades, the ULC operated by posting advertisements in popular magazines, alongside the “sea-monkeys” and “x-ray specs”. With the rise of the Internet, however, it went online, which was reported to have happened around the year 1999, and soon spawned a variety of imitators.
Just how widespread is online ordination? My research initially found thirty-six websites where one could apply. There is some duplication: The Universal Life Church, for one, has a number of branches.
In terms of the number of people affected by online ordination, the Universal Life Church claims that the organization has ordained 18 million people since 1962. To put that number in perspective, if 15 million of those ministers had actually officiated at just one wedding, then 30 million people have been married under the auspices of this organisation. If all 45 million of them were to gather one Sunday, they would be the second-largest religious group in the USA, beaten only by the Catholic Church.
The ULC may be the oldest and best-known online ordination organisation, but it is not the only one. On its website, American Marriage Ministries claims to have ordained 25000 ministers since 2009 and numbers claimed by other organisations are in the same category of thousands rather than millions.
The vast majority of organisations offering online ordination employ Christian language and imagery in their presentation. The Protestant term “minister” seems almost universally used, even if the imagery and terminology otherwise veers towards the Catholic.
Other religions are also getting into the act, however. The Satanic Chapel, for example, offers online ordination via the ULC. The Esoteric Theological Seminary ordains ministers according to broadly New Age/Esoteric teachings.
If we are to parse the various statements on the websites and construct a composite statement, we arrive at something like this: Marriage itself is a sacred action, and the state has wrongly restricted the act of marrying two people to those who have spent years being indoctrinated in seminaries and licensed by their churches, without taking account of the spiritual state of the individual or his/her relationship to God and the wedding couple.
No organisation would phrase it in those exact words, but this is the common thread one sees on their websites. Online ordination is a political act, a small rebellion against the status quo. But not too political, not too rebellious. The wedding conducted by a minister ordained online stays within the traditional church wedding paradigm even as it rejects where that paradigm originated.
Regionalism does not appear to be a useful way to categorise online ordination. It is a peculiarly Anglophone development. My research showed no evidence of online ordination in Continental Europe or Scandinavia, nor, for that matter, in Asia. More specifically, while there are organisations active in Canada and the United Kingdom, the vast majority are based in the USA, to such an extent that we can regard online ordination as an American innovation that has been exported to other Anglophone countries.
I suggest that the main reason for this lies in the constitutional shelter given to any religious claim by the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which makes American courts unusually reticent to label any organized belief system a fraud, and the byzantine complexity of the American legal system. Indeed, a number of organisations explicitly state on their websites in which US states their credentials are recognised.
Online ordination organisations do not all require the same level of commitment from their ordainees. In fact, every one requires a certain level of commitment. These may be minimal (clicking “I agree” in an application form), or they may require the applicant to subscribe to doctrinal statements and undertake not to use their status, for example, to officiate at gay weddings. Some offer ministerial training, although this is typically offered after ordination, not before.
All online ordination organisations, without exception, charge a fee for their services. Just how much they charge, and where in the process it occurs, varies. The one extreme is provided by the Church of the Latter-Day Dude (an organisation that bases its philosophy on the film “The Big Lebowski”) which supplies a personalised digital certificate in TIFF format for free. During the course of my research, I obtained such a certificate. At no stage was I asked whether I even liked the film.
A modest fee of USD10 is asked for a printed certificate with an embossed seal, while more comprehensive packs are available for 22 and 35 dollars, respectively.
A more common approach is that the newly ordained minister receives an email confirming his or her new status, while any further proof one’s new status, such as certificates, ID cards and Letters of Good Standing, must then be purchased. Some online ordination organisations also sell ministerial robes, marriage certificate templates and other accoutrements.
The financial demands of online ordination have caused many to describe the whole phenomenon as a “scam”. Indeed, online ordination organisations can be seen to use the term to describe their competitors. However, it matters little whether such organisations are scams or not. Even if they are, that still leaves us with the question why there is a demand for their services.
While there are other duties and benefits of the ordained minister it is the wedding that stands central. Yet in all the countries where online ordination can be found, alternatives exist. Or, if there is some residual respect for a religious tradition on the part of either of both partners, it is not that hard to find a suitably liberal-minded minister who will agree to conduct a wedding for homosexual, interfaith or essentially secular couples
To be married by someone who was ordained online is not a last resort but a deliberate, positive choice. While it may be an insignificant historical happenstance in its own right, it points to the larger socio-historical development.
For two and a half thousand years, western thought has been characterised by Aristotelian logic. Of course, it predated Aristotle but it remains a handy label. In this mode of thought, something is either A or it is not-A.
This kind of thinking has ramifications beyond formal epistemology. Western legal systems rely on whether a person can distinguish between “right” and “wrong”. Our educational systems rigorously distinguish between “graduates” and “dropouts”, never considering whether the dropout may also have learnt something worthwhile, or whether a graduate gained anything from four years of study. In politics, you are either “conservative” or “liberal”. And in terms of weddings, one either is a minister or one is not. If you are not a minister, you cannot conduct a valid marriage ceremony. We live in the civilization that Aristotle built.
But there are increasing signs that this philosophy is losing its grip on the western mind. An increasing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Philosophies from Asia (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.), which never subscribed to Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle to begin with, increasingly make their presence felt in the west.
In a world in transition to a looser, multivalued one in which identities are fluid and redefinable, online ordination makes perfect sense. The online ordination minister both is and is not a minister in the traditional sense – at the moment of the wedding.
Taking a leaf from the “spiritual but not religious” terminology, we might describe those married by an online ordination minister as “married but not wed”. They have honoured history by having an authority figure declare them married in front of a congregation of sorts. But not too much of an authority figure. The online ordination minister slips in and out of the ministerial role in a way the traditional minister never can.
Demand for online ordination remains high and is even set to grow because of residual religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Perhaps the time has come for scholars of religion to investigate this fascinating phenomenon on the fringe of the religious world.