Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Occupation: Celebrant

When I was visiting a nearby university town the other day, I ran into one of the local bookstores to buy an Utne magazine. I've been an on-and-off reader of Utne ever since its beginnings as The Utne Reader; although for about the past decade I've been off far more than on, because to me the publication seemed to have lost its identity as a kind of Reader's Digest of the alternative press.

But every year or so I check in to see what's going on. And the current issue is pretty good; the cover story is about the infantilization of the workplace, and there's also an eye-opening article about the Bush administration's problem with truth decay in the form of government censorship.

To tell you the truth, though, upon my first cursory skim-through the thing that caught my eye was an advertisement for an organization teaching classes in how to become a...celebrant.

What is a celebrant? Well, it's the secular world's solution for people who want to ritually recognize various touchstones in their lives but who don't want such events laden with religious complications. A celebrant is an equal-opportunity ritual facilitator who can help people design meaningful rituals and then officiate at them.

It's easy, I suppose, for church folks to roll their eyes at this sort of thing. But I can also sympathize with people who, in our ritually impoverished society, long for some kind of ritual action that celebrates, or mourns, or validates, their experience in this life without theologizing or dogmatic hoop-jumping.

If my family's beloved pet dies, and we feel the need to mourn that passing, why isn't there more willingness within the Christian community to help do that? Why does the conversation degenerate into frowny-faced debates on whether animals have souls or the worthiness of invoking God's name in connection with a dead dog? Why does someone wanting some sort of ritual marking the sadness and closure of a divorce have to justify that? Why do Christians have to turn everything into a thing?

It's interesting that, in the church-estranged circles I hang out in, when I tell new acquaintances I'm a lay minister, very often I'm asked if I'm willing to officiate, off the books, at various life events. I may get my union card revoked for saying this, but -- if I can bring some type of ritual affirmation or comfort to someone, and even invoke God's presence and help in a way that doesn't involve slamming the person(s) involved into a metaphorical wall and shaking them down for evidence of theological correctitude -- I'd do it. I'm happy to say a few words over the deceased Fluffy, or invoke God's blessings on someone's new house, or celebrate someone's biological transition into cronedom (or, as a friend of mine likes to call it, crowndom). I'd like to think I have more street cred, albeit grounded in my own Christian formation, to help people in this way than someone with a mail-order "celebrant" diploma. And I'd do it for free.


P.S. an after-thought said...

Your posting made me think of the was children will sometimes have a funeral for a pet. And why not? These days churches have blessing of the animals day; ours did, but I was away. Somebody brought a cow. We had a pastoral candidate who, when asked what unique attribute he had to offer, stated that he would do a blessing of the animals.

Anyway, I say: bless your friends, formally or informally.

Sally said...

excellent anf thought provoking post :-)

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying here, and even sympathize with it sort of.
Except that the "street cred" that you give yourself is not grounded in the church, (even though you might be), but instead grounded only in each individual's ideas of what they think the church should be or should be doing (there's a big difference).

So in this way, by deciding ourselves what "we" will or "we" won't bless is really not any different from the mail-order diploma.
It is not any human person who does the blessing - it is God who blesses. (as my priest once told me, we are the recipient's of God's grace, not the dispensers of it).

What each individual thinks the church is or what they think the church should be doing is often very different from the reality of what it actually is and the purpose for which it exists.

The church exists for the worship of God - period - and not for the salving of our own pet issues or problems or concerns.

I just think that when we invoke God's name or blessing on anything WE decide WE want to do, we must remember that we are on very dangerous ground.

My 2 cents - oops, looks more like 4 cents. Sorry.

Auntie Knickers said...

I don't see any problem with what you might do for friends or azquaintances. And after all, in my state Notary Publics can marry people! But it does give me pause when I see so many wedding announcements (I read them in the NYTimes religiously every Sunday before church!) where "an interfaith minister" performs the ceremony. I am guessing these are slightly more God-invoking forms of "celebrants." And here's my problem with that -- when problems come up, where is the interfaith minister? Has he or she even done any premarital counseling to avoid big problems coming up? When other, less "celebratable" life events happen, where is the interfaith minister? My guess is, off doing another wedding. If anyone has evidence to the contrary I'd like to be proved wrong. Now, I and my spouse were married by a Navy chaplain (we were in the Army at the time). We did see him again 10 years later at my cousin's wedding. But, we knew that we could go to any chaplain if need be, while we were in the service, and then afterwards we found a church. But what I wish for my daughters is that when they are married, they will have a pastor to perform the wedding -- a pastor in the truest sense. So, those are the thoughts you provoked in me! (Some denoms do have divorce rituals in their prayer books, I think. Maybe mine is one of them.)

LutheranChik said...

I would disagree, because the Judeo-Christian heritage has a rich tradition of individuals -- any individual -- invoking God's presence, blessing and/or help in any situation. We are all called to be agents of God's shalom, God's active healing/reconciling/renewing presence in the world. I can't imagine why you'd find this idea in any way threatening or blasphemous. It's our job, as Christ's hands and voice and heart in the world. And as Bonhoeffer might put it, if actively loving/helping my neighbor puts me in some sort of violation of "the rules," that's a risk worth taking.

LutheranChik said...

Oops, Auntie K -- my response was aimed at "Anonymous," not at you.

I agree with you that people miss out in not availing themselves of real pastors who can render them trained spiritual and other assistance. But...sometimes you have to meet people where they are. And in my experience sharing my own story as someone active in a church home often sparks an interest. I often see myself as being a kind of accessible bridge between the church and the church-alienated.

P.S. an after-thought said...

Where I have problems with "blessing" is when a politician (The President especially,) says "God Bless America."

I know that language is Biblical, in the sense that LChik mentions in her comment, but I've always thought it is like ordering God to do something. Maybe God doesn't want to do that.

Regarding "rent-a-pastors" and weddings: This has been on my mind because my son and his girlfriend are trying to plan their wedding. They are hoping for an outdoor wedding, which is actually more complicated than a church wedding. The bride's mother and father attend different churches. Neither pastor/priest will do a wedding outside of the church building. But they are going to one of these men for pre-marital counseling for a stiff fee.

They could get a pastor we know well to do the wedding, but then it would be a breeze-in-to-do-the-wedding situation, since he has moved far away.

Auntie Knickers said...

I agree that meeting people where they are is a good thing. As the clergy in Barbara Pym's novels are always saying, it gives you the opportunity to "say a word" and who knows when or where it will bear fruit? My former church (we moved many miles away) and pastor were very open to celebrating weddings for people who "walked in off the street" -- often because a different church in the neighborhood had refused them or set up impossible conditions. You'd be surprised how many of those couples ended up being pillars of the church!

Kelly Fryer said...

LC said: "We are all called to be agents of God's shalom, God's active healing/reconciling/renewing presence in the world. I can't imagine why you'd find this idea in any way threatening or blasphemous. It's our job, as Christ's hands and voice and heart in the world. And as Bonhoeffer might put it, if actively loving/helping my neighbor puts me in some sort of violation of "the rules," that's a risk worth taking."


You go, LC. Bless away!!