A Progressive, Multi-Faith Defense of the Spiritual Side of Marriage

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper

In most weddings, the spiritual and the actual get acquainted in rivalry. The wannabe marrieds make an appointment with the clergy and rarely know what to expect. Clergy who have been around a while do know what to expect. We expect the rivalry between the wedding and the wedding, the clergy and the caterer, the florist, the restaurant, the budget and what finally has to be called the God part of the promises about to be made.

The competition between the clergy and the caterer has only just begun when the couple announces that they are happy to pay you $200. To do the wedding service. Why? “The florist budget is way over what they had hoped to pay.” The competition continues when the first question the couple asks about the service is “how long is it.” It comes into its finale when the couple tells you exactly what date and time the service will be “because the restaurant has been booked already.” The drama – with this exaggerated and fictional version of a married wannabe couple – concludes when told they want a “service” in which we refrain from mentioning God.

Sometimes this appointment is over and sometimes it has just begun. Why would any clergy person want to perform a religious service without mentioning God, get paid less than the florist, be disrespected regarding the timing, or be paid as an after thought? Since marriage is the place we move after romantic consumerism, where we imagine there is always something better, the clergy person will want to know if the couple intends a sacrament or a service or something smaller.

What do I mean besides romantic consumerism? It is the decision to stop shopping romantically. It is to promise to live while with someone forever, while knowing there will always be someone better. There will always be someone better! Someone with better teeth or less difficult parents or family may show up. Someone with more money or fewer doubts and debts may come along. Still in the sacramental kind of marriage we stop shopping. We love our partner into the best they can be while they love us, without conditions, into being the best we can be. Married people help each other become the best by sticking with them through thick and thin, what the old vows call “better or worse, richer or poorer, sicker or in health.” Here I speak to the couple that wants to enjoy the services of a spiritual guide before, during and after the wedding and suggest ways they might have their cake and eat it too. They need not promise to believe in God so much as to trust in unconditionality. One name for God need not preside. In fact, many couples sense the sacred in their own love and want to hold it in front of the ultimate and what little they know about it. My son plays ultimate Frisbee. Many people play penultimate marriage. I want to work with those ready to promise the ultimate, before what little God they know or sense. That means Jews and Christians and Muslims – as well as those who identify with None of the above or say they are spiritual but not religious. I am less interested in which God they know or that God’s name than I am in the sacred nature of the promises that are going to be made. Unconditional love is one name for God. I use that understanding in my wedding services. Thus I do many multi faith and post faith weddings with joy and gladness in the couple’s commitment to play ultimate marriage.

Let’s start with the cost. What it means to “marry” someone and not be either the bride or the groom is pre-marital counseling, the service itself and the follow up. I usually do four pre-marital sessions and used to do many more. I blame the time famine, which both couples and clergy experience. The first one is a get acquainted, in which I focus on the longevity of their parents’ marriage or marriages, their experience of any divorce that might have occurred, whether they covet a similar or different partnership than their parents and whether they think their parents are happy and fulfilled. If time, I also get to the grandparents. My objective is to teach the couple to each other: what history is written on their psyche? What pattern are they trying to break or fulfill? In the second session, I focus on more objective matters like race, class origin, class current, religious background, and ethnic orientation. If time, I also focus on previous partners, how the break ups occurred, how hurt they were, if they were the dumper or the dumped. Again, my objective is to teach the couple to each other. If there are obvious differences in any of these objective areas, I zoom in on them and show the couple, as individuals, how the other person sees things. I want them well educated in each other’s patterns before they walk down any aisle. Before the third session, I give an assignment. “What will be your biggest problem in five years? How will it be connected to your histories? During the third session, we discuss their prophecies. By then, we have bonded and are having a good time. The session is not designed to resolve the coming problem so much as to name it and to forecast it. When it shows up at breakfast, no one will be surprised. (Often these sessions have to be done by phone or email rather than in person, another result of the time famine.)

The fourth session focuses on the service. I have already handed out a template for it. The couple then chooses input into the categories – or throws it out and comes in with their own. My template is absurdly simple, with ten liturgically connected parts. They are: A welcome, a blessing by the family, a blessing by the gathered community, some music, a reading or two or three, the promises, the vows, the rings, the announcement, the Kiss. It often takes longer at the rehearsal to deal with the entrances and the exits than it does with the template service. Why? Because the drama and narrative arc of the wedding is in the coming in as one person and the leaving as another. The drama of the liturgy is about the farewell of the parents, the blessing of the community, the crescendo of the intimacy of saying “I will” in response to the promises and “I do” in the vows and then putting a ring on fingers as a symbol of these promised vows, which ring almost requires a kiss, a bodily union in front of those gathered.. The language matters less than the liturgy and the motion towards each other. Some couples like to do a ring warming ceremony, where the ring is passed through the community/congregation and touched and blessed. Others like a Unity Candle, in which a flame of recognition is given to the liturgical processional and recessional. If you add these two to my simple template, the service can go as long as 30 minutes. Without them, this template gives you a simple and sophisticated 22-minute service. Note I am telling you about the time at the end of session four, not at the beginning. The time of the service is less important than its quality, elegance and simplicity.

Some couples write their own vows, which is fine. Honesty of spiritual commitment is crucial. Others use the ‘for better for worse” frame of the Old English and find it very satisfying. During my introduction I often ask the blessing of the God beyond God, the one whom no one can name, the one whom some call Allah, and others, Jesus, whom some call Ruach and others Yahweh, whom some call Spirit or Energy or Force or Creator, whom others cannot comprehend, nevertheless, Thou beyond human captivity or naming, draw near. Since no one can name God and at a wedding, we are often with a fully mixed and ecumenical community, why bother naming God? Because we refuse to capture God in any one name does not mean that the divine cannot be spoken. The strongest response I get to my weddings is gratitude for the opening prayer. People do not like to leave God out so much as they refuse to bring a God too small in. Thus, the request to “keep God out of it.” I get the consent of the couple to have this opening prayer. I also get their consent to bless their marriage at the end with these words, “In so much as you and you (named) have consented together before God and this entire company to the art and act of holy matrimony, I now pronounce you husband and wife or husband and husband or wife and wife or partner and partner.” Pluralism is all in a good wedding service. Session four negotiates this pluralism. If at the beginning of our sessions, I were to ask for this “permission” to include God, usually the couple would say no. We don’t know each other well enough. I will, however, at the first meeting suggest that I want to include God in the service and will do so unapologetically. If after these four sessions, the couple refuses my insertion of God language, as described, I, of course, will honor their request. What I want most of all is to be heard – which is also what most people want.

So back to the clergy paycheck. I have now done five sessions with the couple, may also do the rehearsal and potentially the dinner, then the wedding and potentially the celebration. I will have a minimum of ten hours work, assuming that there are no glitches. What’s a good example of a glitch? The couple realizes in the last session that she wants to get a full set of new dishes and he thinks what they have is just fine. He wants to put out a gift registry that sends money to an international Aid organization. This couple missed a big beat in the session on class and spiritual differences. We had to schedule two more sessions. I invited each of them to talk to their parents alone, then together, about how they might have become a person who did or didn’t want matching dishes. This process brought the parents into the service as advisors – and moved all four parents very much. They were honored to be asked an intimate, psychological, spiritual, moral question. It also increased my time on the phone, email and in session with the couple. Every service takes a different amount of time to prepare it. Customizing is the point.


One of my recent ones was with a Hindu bride, also head of the New York City Taxi drivers, and an Ecuadoran taxi driver. The Hindu service was one night, the Catholic service a second night and our service the third. Our service was a blend.

Another was with a Palestinian refugee and a Jewish Princess. These are their words for themselves. Her parents were divorced twice so she has a biological mother and father as well as two stepmothers and two stepfathers. His father is a non-observant Moslem. Nevertheless his father is requiring that she convert to Islam so as not to embarrass the family. She has agreed, then disagreed, then agreed. We all bow all the time to all sorts of things, so please keep your holier-than-thou hat off. As we have struggled with the difficulty and hypocrisy of this requirement, we have had to ask the question of the First Commandment. The First Commandment for Jews and Christians is to love God above all. To what do we bow down if we are unbelievers or sort of believers or Jews whose fathers have the biggest Christmas tree in Westchester? We bow down to the God beyond God or the center that is deeper than the well. The groom in this situation has told his father that he will also be converting to Judaism, if he maintains his requirement that she convert to Islam. I can’t wait for this wedding.

Another example of “doing a wedding” or “marrying someone” took me by air to Miami, air to Guatemala City, van to Lake Atitlan, and by boat to Casa Del Mundo, a boutique eco hotel sketched into the mountains on the Lake. The hotel shared its space with Mayan carvings in the rock walls. Frances, Chinese-American and Catholic, was marrying Jacob, African American and Unitarian. Their parents were all still married, which is remarkable in and of itself. About half are and about half are not. Oddly, both parental couples were married 41 years. This wedding started off like so many, saying; “let’s leave God out of it. “ It ended in prayers and a ring warming ceremony, where guests warmed the ring with prayers in their own words.

When I asked the couple why we had to go so far to get them married, at lakeside, at sunset, they said, “Because it was neither of our homes.” They weren’t “sticking it to their parents” so much as reaching for a new kind of home, one that was not either’s. I noted that they rarely sat with their parents during the ten meals we enjoyed in the hotel dining room. I wondered (as a parent myself of their age offspring) what the parents felt about that. In fact, now that I often marry my kids’ peers at far away places, I find myself strangely warmed by their unique independence and reach. I think we raised them to be globals and need not be surprised when they turn out that way.

Each wedding is different to a progressive religious person – and each has its own way of including God.

A Summary of Last New Year’s I did a wedding of in Cuernavaca .

It was the first Lesbian wedding in Mexico to make the society page of El Pais. I will tell how the mother of one of the brides got it placed there. It had to do with interviewing all 100 of the staff people for the three-day event about their attitudes towards gender and orientation. Then there was the silver sculptures in the great tree, the dance floor built over the swimming pool, and the sprinklers that were on automatic and sprayed all the guests at promptly 11 p.m.

Multi Faith

If you really need a rabbi and a Christian minister, go for it. Each will say yes, if you just do one thing. Have a Justice of the Peace sign off on the wedding first. Then have the ceremony; that way neither tradition is compromised spiritually and can feel free to be themselves.

“It’s not Gay Marriage, Stupid, it’s marriage.

Now that Gay marriage is blessedly legal in New York State, I do many more services for same sex couples. I rejoice in these services, have been doing them extra-legally for nearly 40 years. I don’t think there is that much difference between a straight marriage and a gay marriage.

What a Good Wedding Usually Costs – noting that all categories are optional, based on the couple’s budget, the size of the wedding guest list and the life history of the couple. If their parents are dead, that matters. If their ex wife wants to come, that may or may not be ok.

1. Officiant. $1000. For the full package of pre marital counseling, along with a promise to stick with the couple after the service if indeed difficulties do arise. My promise is to stick – and to set up a situation where difficulties will NOT arise. Again the pre marital counseling is optional but the couple is wise to get it.

2. Musician or Sound Person. Music lifts a person spiritually. 50 – 250. Is a good range.

3. Custodial, door person, set up and take down. Depends on the facility but is the last thing a couple being married wants to think about.


55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844