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More Couples Opt for Weddings without Clergy
05 Nov, 2016

More couples opt for weddings without clergy  - BY JOANNE KLIMOVICH HARROP /

When it came to planning her wedding to Brian Paull, Megan Walsh knew one person who had to be involved in the ceremony — her grandfather, Joseph Walsh Sr. So the couple asked Walsh to officiate the ceremony, which included several family members. Her father walked her down the aisle; both mothers and her grandmother read the Celtic handfasting ceremony, and her other grandfather did a reading. Having a family member or friend officiate a wedding ceremony is a growing trend. According to The Knot Real Weddings Study, 40 percent of couples got married by a family member or close friend in 2015, compared to 29 percent of couples in 2009. “It meant so much to us to have our grandparents and parents are part of our day,” says Walsh Paull of Plum. “Growing up, when we would go to my grandfather's church for special occasions, he was normally a large part of the service, whether he was speaking, singing or had some other form of involvement. When we planned our wedding, we wanted it to be as personal to us as possible and not necessarily just what was ‘traditional.’ ” And it was anything but traditional. Because they were getting married on a cruise to the Bahamas in 2014, they decided to have a sand ceremony rather than a unity candle. But when they tried to pour out the sand, it was packed so tightly it wouldn't come out. “My grandfather did a fabulous job,” Walsh Paull says. “He improvised perfectly by saying ‘What that shows me is, just like the sand, Brian and Megan are going to stick together.’ ”

 Alexandra Stunden and Kyle Jacobson of Swissvale plan to ask her aunt, Laurel Walker, an ordained minister, to marry them in fall 2017 at a destination wedding in St. Pete Beach, Fla. “Couples should do what they want,” Stunden says. “A wedding is a spiritual bond between two souls, and the two people getting married should do what makes them happy. And if their family and friends love them, they will accept how the couple wants to be joined together.” And that doesn't have to mean a religious ceremony.

Pew Research Center says 23 percent of U.S. adults identify as “none” when it comes to religion. And 33 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they do not believe in God. The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing a slight decrease in weddings. According to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, in 2014, there were 1,276 Catholic marriages and 533 interfaith, compared to 1,201 and 567 in 2015. This is a trend Rachel Sylvester, associate editor at The Knot, has been seeing in the past six years — a continual uptick in the number of couples who had a close family member or friend officiate their ceremony, from a grandparent to a sibling, high-school teacher or longtime coach, instead of a clergy member. Some brides have used the same officiant who performed their parents' wedding, Sylvester says. “More and more to-be-weds are taking this route since it's an easy way to personalize your ceremony, plus it makes your wedding feel that much more special when you share a meaningful relationship with your officiant,” Sylvester says. “Couples are shifting away from saying ‘I do' in traditional religious institutions, which could explain the increase in the number of nonclergy officiants.” Sylvester says it's doubtful that family issues will arise, because “who can say no to a ceremony that's uniquely your own?” she says.

Her advice is to be up front with your family from the beginning about your wedding-day plans to avoid any unexpected conflict. That's what Bridget Coyne did. She told her parents she didn't want a religious wedding because she had left the Catholic Church. She asked her godfather, Michael Bartley of Greenfield, to perform the ceremony between her and Isaac Slyder in May at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland. The couple had earlier been married by Judge Hugh McGough of the municipal court in Squirrel Hill. McGough had presided over Allegheny County's first wedding of a same-sex couple, which was important to Coyne. “It was such an honor to have Judge McGough marry us, and then so special to have Michael perform a ceremony,” says Coyne of Squirrel Hill, who grew up in Ligonier. “I think more couples are choosing this route because of the ‘nones.'” She chose the song “More Than a Feeling,” by Boston for her to walk down the aisle, which she says she wouldn't have been allowed to do in some churches. “It was such a beautiful ceremony,” Coyne says. “My message is, a wedding needs to reflect the values and personality of the couple, not the parents or the friends or anyone else in the family. It's about the two of you.” Bartley says he was thrilled to be her ceremonial officiant, even though she didn't want much God in the ceremony. “Actually, not withstanding I'm a church-going Catholic, I truly respect her decision and that of so many other young people,” Bartley says. “Who am I to judge the generation that taught us to quit sweeping skeletons under the rug, to come out of the closet and to be transparent about life and religion and diversity and inclusion? It's no wonder this younger generation refuses to label people, to love and respect people for the way God made them. I think we can learn a whole lot about honesty from the young folks. I'm convinced God is OK with that.”

In Pennsylvania, there are two types of marriage licenses issued — a self-uniting marriage license and a traditional marriage license. A self-uniting marriage license does not require an officiant to solemnize the marriage. A traditional marriage license requires an officiant as defined under Pennsylvania law in the Department of Court Records, which includes any ordained minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation, judges and justices of peace and mayors of cities and boroughs. If you choose to be married by someone other than the officiants authorized by Pennsylvania law, the burden of proof regarding the legality of your marriage will be on you should future issues arise. Rules vary from state to state, so check if an online ordination is considered a legal way to become an officiant.

Ashley Moss Kurkiewicz, owner of Hello Productions, a wedding-planner company with locations in Lawrenceville and Raleigh, N.C., says when the ceremony is outside of a religious setting, she recommends the couple choose someone who is responsible and comfortable with public speaking. She also suggests the officiant attend the rehearsal to go over the details. She's experienced this trend first-hand when her husband, Justin, officiated at the wedding of her sister in 2015. There also is what's called a Quaker ceremony, which The Knot defines as a silent ceremony where there is no officiant, no giving away of the bride. A wedding certificate is signed and there is a period of silence. That's the kind of wedding Matt Reese of Munhall was part of when his younger brother, Joshua Fackler-Reese and sister-in-law Emily Fackler-Reese got married in 2015 in central Pennsylvania. “My brother does not like conformity,” Matt Reese says. “He and my sister-in-law have their own beliefs and wanted a Quaker wedding.” They had a courthouse wedding, and then Reese conducted another ceremony, so he didn't have to get ordained online. He incorporated the couple's love of meditation and love of life into the ceremony. “It wasn't traditional, but they aren't traditional people,” Reese says. “It was perfect for them. It's up to the couple to decide the ceremony.” Reese, who married Aire Plichta Reese in a Catholic Church wedding in September 2015, says being Catholic is part of their life but may not be for everyone. “The way I see it, love is love, and the way they want to celebrate is up to them,” says Matt Reese, who walked his sister, Jessica Karayusuf, down the aisle at her wedding in September 2014 at the National Aviary on the North Side. “People have different ways of doing things now. I try to stay out of any religious or political debates.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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