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On Whether to Offer an “Interfaith” Wedding

From time to time pastors of our churches are invited to preside at interfaith weddings — wedding ceremonies where one of the couple may be Christian, while the other is of another faith tradition or no faith tradition at all. Some pastors and congregations have chosen to establish a policy of presiding or offering weddings only for members of their local congregations or only for professing Christians. Others see no difficulty proceeding to offer a ceremony. Is there any official guidance in such situations?

The answer is "Yes" . . . mostly. The ritual of The United Methodist Church, including our wedding ritual, is provided in The United Methodist Hymnal, The United Methodist Book of Worship, Mil Voces Para Celebrar, and Come, Let Us Worship. In all instances, the ritual is essentially the same, including the ritual instructions — although typically The United Methodist Book of Worship contains the most complete version of these instructions. The ritual instructions do provide official guidance about our services.

In The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 864, we read:
"This service of Christian marriage is provided for couples who wish to solemnize their marriage in a service of Christian worship, parallel in its structure to the Sunday service, which includes the proclamation of the Word with prayer and praise. Christian marriage is proclaimed as a sacred covenant reflecting Christ's covenant with the church. Everything about the service is designed to witness that this is a Christian marriage."1

This instruction is repeated, nearly verbatim, in The United Methodist Book of Worship, which also adds, at the end:
"In the case of couples who are not church members or are not prepared to make the Christian commitment expressed in our services, adaptations may be made at the discretion of the pastor."2

The fundamental principle is that Christian weddings are just that — celebrations of congregational worship by disciples of Jesus Christ in which the marriage covenant is offered and blessed in the context of Christian discipleship in the baptismal covenant. For this reason, unless some adaptations are made, the ritual as we have it is simply not appropriate for people who are not Christians seeking intentionally to live out the baptismal covenant. Churches and pastors who limit the weddings they will bless to those in which both members of the couple are committed Christians are thus within their rights to do so.

But since the "fuller instruction" in The United Methodist Book of Worship authorizes pastors to make appropriate adaptations for the benefit of those who "are not prepared to make the Christian commitment expressed in our services," then pastors who are willing to preside over and offer a blessing at an "adapted" service are also free to do so — provided that the adaptations are within the limits of the Discipline (see paragraphs 341.6 and 2702 of The Book of Discipline 2004).

Let me venture a bit of further guidance — a rule of thumb, as it were. Since only the General Conference may speak with authority on matters pertaining to our ritual, what I am proposing here cannot be called "official"; but it may, perhaps, be helpful. If one member of the couple is a baptized Christian, it would be appropriate for that person to profess all of the language in our ritual, including vows in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If the other member of the couple is not a baptized Christian, it would be inappropriate to expect that person to make vows in the name of a God to whom the person neither has nor seeks a covenant bond. Because one person of the couple is not a Christian or does not intend to practice the Christian faith should not limit the possibility of the other to make vows in the context of Christian discipleship in a ceremony in one of our churches. Finally, given that our ritual is so clearly a Christian ritual in its form, language, and intent, if neither member of the couple has a Christian commitment, or if neither is truly seeking a celebration and blessing of the marriage in the context of Christian discipleship and the baptismal covenant, the pastor may properly suggest that the couple seek a religious ceremony in another tradition to which one of the couple may have a connection or a civil marriage at which appropriate religious leaders may participate to offer prayers of blessing while a civil official presides. There is nothing (apart from the Disciplinary issue mentioned above) that would preclude such a civil ceremony from being held in the sanctuary of the church; but it would not, in this case, be a "church wedding." Should either or both members of the couple subsequently claim the Christian faith and choose to have a specifically Christian celebration and blessing of their wedding, "A Service for the Recognition or the Blessing of a Civil Marriage" (from The United Methodist Book of Worship, 133) may be offered at that time.

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