Integrity

Bless me reader for I have sinned. It’s been a while since my last confession.

I had time to write but my mind was focused on other things (read work). My journal is full but my blog has been deprived of new posts. Time to fix that. Thankfully, I was bowled over with inspiration last night. So I write.

A person close to your humble blogger surprised me with a request: marry me! I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist a little clergy humour. I was asked to officiate a wedding. I was taken aback when I should have been well prepared. I fumbled for a response and failed to say something sensible. So here is my redux. A letter to a bride-to-be.

Dear Blushing-Bride-to-Be,

I was honoured by your request to officiate your wedding. I am dissatisfied with my awkward attempt to respond for which I am sorry. I hope I didn’t say anything to cause you to feel rejected. I am happy for you and I am deeply honoured that you asked. But you see, you caught me off-guard. I shouldn’t have been. It’s a request that’s been made before. I should have at least been open to the possibility that it might come. So here is my attempt to clarify and respond more thoughtfully.

Warning: This is going to be complicated so please bear with me.

The problem is, I haven’t been practicing in a church for two years. I haven’t officiated a single service since September 2018. In fact, your request came on the heels of another question that has been flitting about my psyche: I am considering returning my licence to officiate. If you read the rest of my blog, you will see where this is coming from. In it I am flirting with heresy and exploring where my heart is taking me which is often far afield of traditional Christianity. Thus I feel compelled to acknowledge these conflicts with my oath of office as a priest. I don’t feel comfortable presiding in official church services when my beliefs are no longer in line with that church.

When a priest is ordained, it is believed that they are made a priest permanently and cannot be unmade. Once a priest, always a priest. However, in episcopal (bishop led) churches, an ordained priest still needs permission from a bishop to officiate in a church within that diocese. This goes for marriages as well. Except that here it becomes more convoluted with the mingling of church and state regulations.

My licence to officiate in the diocese means that the diocese puts me forward to the government confirming that I am a priest-in-good-standing and may officiate a marriage. Thus I have been empowered by the diocese first and the government second to perform a marriage. But wait! It gets even more convoluted. If I were to officiate a service (any service including communion, funerals, and weddings) outside of my diocese which is the case for your request, I would have to be recommended to the diocese in which the wedding is to be celebrated by my diocese. That is, that bishop will give me temporary permission to perform the ceremony based on the recommendation from my bishop. That bishop will then apply on my behalf for a temporary legal license to marry. In practical terms, this means that I would have to ask my bishop to ask the bishop of your region to give me permission and they will apply on my behalf for a temporary license to marry.

Is that all clear?

This is not as difficult to accomplish as it might sound. It is done all the time. The key here is that I have to be a priest-in-good-standing. Which, of course, I am. For now. Were I to return my license to officiate in my diocese, I would no longer be a priest-in-good-standing. I would be a priest without a diocese. At that point I would no longer be beholden to my denomination. I could do whatever I want. I could even start an ego-church where I am the star of the show without the hassle being beholden to any sort of denominational discipline. But then I would have to get permission to marry from the government on my own which is not possible.

Sort of.

Section 20 indicates that in order to be licenced one must be ordained or appointed according to the rites of the religious body which he is a member, or is deemed to be ordained or appointed according to the rules of that body, is duly recognized by that religious body to perform marriages. The person must also be a resident of Ontario or have a parish or pastoral charge in Ontario. The Registrar General is also entitled to grant to someone who is not resident and has no parish or pastoral charge a temporary registration.

from toronto.ca

In other words, I could apply for a temporary license that lay people get when a friend asks them to officiate. It wouldn’t be backed by the support of the denomination but it would be legal. Essentially, I would function as a lay person, not a priest. In fact, I would be free to do whatever I want within the bounds of the regulations of the government. We even could call it a wedding blessed by Cthulhu if we so desired.

I wouldn’t. But I could.

And yet, this way I could maintain my integrity while also saying yes to your request (did you forget that this is a fake letter?). In this scenario, I would officiate in a way that would not go against my oaths to the church since I am no longer beholden to it. The bride and groom would have to be ok with having a legal marriage without it being officially religious. It would also push me to make a decision on returning my license; the consideration of which was only in the infancy stages of coming to fruition. In truth, it wouldn’t have much practical effect on my life. I haven’t officiated a service in two years, after all. Personally though, it would be one more step away from a life that I had once found so fulfilling which is a loss I won’t fully feel until the decision is made. It might cause trouble down the road were I to want to be reinstated but I doubt it. Nonetheless, the key here is that I could say yes without offending the bride and groom or my sense of integrity.

Except…

Except that in conversation with my long-suffering wife, she saw it as an affront to my integrity. She claimed to love that part of me. She loves that I am willing to do the hard things in order to live honestly. I’ve always seen it as a bit of a burden myself, but the thought that I would celebrate a non-religious wedding seemed impossible to imagine for her. She even said she didn’t like that I was thinking this way. It seemed anathema to the very soul of the man she married. Ouch. My response (inevitably insensitive but honest): I told you I’ve been going through a lot, it’s all in my blog.

She has precedent to back her up. In fact, I have said no to someone in a very similar position. The couple were similarly connected to me and I said no to the request that came from the groom. Sort of. I said that I am required as a priest-in-good-standing to preside at a Christian wedding using the liturgy my church provides. In order for me to marry them, they would have to be willing to say the vows provided which include reference to God as understood in the Christian tradition. If either are uncomfortable with that, I cannot perform the service. He decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate. In fact, they elected to go for a justice of the peace.

I did feel bad, though.

In fact, things got complicated the day before that wedding to which I was still invited. The officiant couldn’t make it, so I offered to do the service if they needed me as an emergency measure. That seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time since the circumstances were exceptional. Luckily, it did get worked out and I didn’t do the service but I have felt conflicted about it ever since.

I wish I could have said yes from the beginning. It was such a privilege to be asked and so deflating to say no. The reasons seem so trivial in light of the weight of the request. I said no because I didn’t feel I could honestly function in my capacity as a priest-in-good-standing. I still think it was the right thing to do but I wish it wasn’t. I wish I could have just ignored the voice inside telling me to play by the rules and just do it. But I didn’t.

Things have changed since that time. I am no longer a parish priest. If I return my license, I am no longer bound by the same restrictions. I do not have to use a particular liturgy. I do not have to demand vows under God. I could even allow vows under Cthulhu, if we were all so inclined which I’m sure none of us are.

Is it that simple? Or does my beloved have a point? How can I say one thing a couple of years ago while saying a totally different thing today and still be the same person of integrity? I tried to explain that I was bound by church regulations, not personal beliefs. My integrity was grounded in my sense of obedience to the church since I had made vows before God. But if I no longer feel bound to the policies of the church, I can make a choice based in what my integrity is now grounded.

Which is what exactly?

A good question to which I have no clear answer.

The only thing I can say now is that I am bound by love. I am not a non-Christian, merely a heretical one. It was you who once suggested I “fake it til I make it.” I got tired of faking it. That is to say, I am still drawn to the soul of the faith. I still believe in love of neighbour. I still try to love God even if I don’t really get what that means. I also love you, dear blushing-bride-to-be. If you want me to do the service, how can I reject such an honour? How can I agree to it?

I do not feel conflicted presiding at a service that brings two consenting adults who love each other into a covenant that confirms that love. Neither of you are active church goers. I believe you still see yourself as a Christian, though probably closer to my brand than the traditional one. I’m fairly certain your glowing-groom-to-be has little time for religion (who does these days?). Does that mean I shouldn’t perform a service that would allow you to include the form of spirituality that fits with your beliefs?

Others might not see the distinction and assume I’m performing a legitimate Christian rite like any other wedding. Worse still if it offends others’ Christian beliefs in that I appear like an official clergyperson when I am not. I wouldn’t be representing a church, only the state. As you well know, I have never been one to worry too much about what others understand of my own overactive sense of integrity. If I don’t think it’s wrong, why should I care if others do?

This was supposed to be a letter to the bride but as is my way, I made it about me. I’m sorry. Here’s the conclusion:

Having said all this and you having read (and hopefully understood) it, here is my answer to your request: I will not officiate an official Christian wedding but I will officiate a non-official Christian wedding. That is to say, if you are ok with working out a service together that is not officially sanctioned by a Christian denomination but still potentially Christian(lite), I can still do it. It will still be legally binding if not sacramentally. I wouldn’t wear my collar or robes, for example. I wouldn’t use an official prayer book. We could have scripture and your vows could be as spiritual as you want them to be. The difference may seem trivial to some but it isn’t to me. It would have to be understood that I am functioning as an acquaintance with a temporary license from the government, not a permanent license from the church. If we do this, I would have to follow through with giving up my license as a priest-in-good-standing in this diocese. I am willing follow through with that process if you still want me involved. I leave it in your hands.

Yours in Cthulhu,

Johannes Ponticus

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