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.