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What’s wrong with Connecticut’s marriage officiant law?

I believe that Connecticut’s marriage officiant law is discriminatory to minority faiths and I’ve started a project to change it.

What is the current law?

Section 46b-22 of the Connecticut General Statutes defines who is allowed to solemnize a marriage:

  1. all judges and retired judges, either elected or appointed, including federal judges and judges of other states who may legally join persons in marriage in their jurisdictions,
  2. family support magistrates, family support referees, state referees and justices of the peace who are appointed in Connecticut, and
  3. all ordained or licensed members of the clergy, belonging to this state or any other state.

And though it’s only mentioned in annotations of the law, court precedent from the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors (the predecessor to the Connecticut Supreme Court) on an older version of this statute further requires that ordained clergy be “settled in the work of the ministry.” In short, what this means is such clergy must be doing the work of clergy (i.e. preaching, providing spiritual guidance, etc.).

The official stance of the Connecticut government is made clear in this 2007 New York Times article:

But Connecticut is one of a half-dozen places that do not recognize marriages performed by someone who became a minister for the sole purpose of marrying people. Such a minister “doesn’t meet the requirements of the state statutes,” said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Sipher, D. (2007, August 5). Great Wedding! But Was It Legal? Retrieved March 1, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/05/fashion/05marry.html

Even in the one non-standard carve out the law does recognize (the Baha’i Faith don’t have ordained clergy), state law recognized as valid the authority of “democratically elected councils called Spiritual Assemblies,” the governing bodies of the Baha’i faith, to decide who can solemnize marriages.

Where does that leave Heathens (and more generally Pagans)?

When we start trying to apply the current law to new religious movements like contemporary paganism is where it starts falling apart. Heathens and Pagans do not have a governing body because paganism as a new religious movement is not a monolithic structure. It is a grassroots religion where small groups and individuals organize themselves.

There’s no church structure or pope from which religious authority exists to recognize members of the clergy. A coven my choose to have a priest or priestess to lead ritual. A kindred may be entirely “lay led” and rotate who runs the blots each time. Those leading ritual may or may not have training from any local or national organization. So when pagans are looking for someone to officiate a wedding, who do they choose?

In Connecticut a religious officiant must be someone who is ordained. The Universal Life Church will happily ordain anyone who requests it. However, it’s likely that the popularity of the ULC ordinations and “mail order ministers” is why that 2007 NYT article points out that getting ordained for the sole purpose of solemnizing marriages in Connecticut is not valid.

So how then, when contemporary paganism has no tenets or scripture requiring ordination before leading a religious group, are we to know that the State will view people ordained through groups like The Troth, A Druid Fellowship, and Circle Sanctuary as if they’re being ordained for the sole purpose of solemnizing marriages?

This uncertainty puts Heathens and pagans at a disadvantage under the law that those of traditional monotheistic faiths don’t have.

What should the law on marriage officiants be?

I’m of the opinion that two people who want to become married should be able to do so with or without a ceremony. If the law is changed so the two people wishing to marry sign an affidavit that they want to get married of their own free will and meet all the requirements to do so, then all marriages will be treated equally under the law. Whether you’re an atheist, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Heathen, etc. everyone follows the exact same process with the same requirements under the law.

If an independent secular or religious celebration of that marriage is desired it can also be performed, but it does not need to be tied to legal reality of getting married.

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A Northeastern Heathen’s Pilgrimage

After returning home from a five day Heathen utopia, I have a lot to unpack even after all my things are put away.

When I first cautiously mentioned to my wife that there was something of a Heathen summer camp held every year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I perpetually have a sort of imposter syndrome when it comes to my religious practices. Do I practice enough? Do I know enough about my gods? Am I offering to enough gods? Will I say the right things during group ritual? Do I know enough of “the Lore” or the theological principles that underpin my faith? And if I’m being honest with myself, the answer to all of those questions is probably “no.”

However, my wife playfully gave me no choice and I resigned myself to adding another event to my calendar as part of my self-imposed goal of getting out and meeting Heathens and pagans in the community. So, I submitted my registration.

Off to Camp

On my way to the camp, I subconsciously added stops along my journey disguised as looking for “necessary” things I had neglected to bring. Though all this did was delay the inevitable.

Arriving at camp was disorienting. I was handed a hefty packet containing the schedule of events and briefly shown a map where I was to pitch my tent (I had selected tenting over sleeping in a cabin). Then I was on my own.

I was left to discover on my own that I shouldn’t park my car next to my tent and should instead use the area that was not in anyway designated as parking. I was left to wonder where the showers were. I was left to guess where the playhouse, vé stead, and dining hall were that were mentioned in the schedule.

I probably could have gotten answers to all my questions from anyone, but I was already surrounded by dozens of people I didn’t know and, besides the man that checked me in, I couldn’t tell who had volunteered to “staff” the event. For someone who has trouble initiating conversation with strangers I did what I always do: retreat into the safety of my phone and hope I could figure things out by watching others.

I made my way down to the dining hall at dinner and plopped myself down at an empty table. Joining a table with others already in coversation was too much pressure for me, but I thought if one or two people joined me at a time, I would be comfortable enough introducing myself. When a couple of people did join, we made awkward conversation, being sure to hit all the hot button topics I was sure would put us at odds for the weekend.

After dinner I attended the Opening Ritual and Welcoming ceremony, followed by the first blót, to Nerthus. Then I crawled into my tent and went to sleep feeling ambivalent about the whole day.

Had I ended my tale here, you would get the impression that disliked my time at ECT. That is not the case at all, but I did feel it necessary to give an accurate portrayal of what the first day was like for one relatively inexperienced Heathen, because it lies in stark contrast to the rest of my experience.

The Rest of the Story

I spent the remaining time at camp going from workshop, to ritual, to meal, and back again. I attended blóts for Heimdall, Frigga, Skaði and Tyr. I was asperged with heavenly rosemary water for Eir, participated in a thunderstorm processional for Thor, and journeyed to the underworld for Hel. I participated in an ecstatic blót for Odin and very moving ritual for Loki that brought me both tears of sadness and the joy of laughter.

I learned that modern interpretations of “the Lore” have changed the understanding of the gods, giving them new mythology in the oral tradition of yore; I learned about matted hairstyles (deadlocks being just one popularization of an ancient practice), creating a non-profit church, why Viking penis honor is for losers, and laughed about the importance Heathen memes.

I marvelled at the talented musicians, poets, singers, and dancers. I gawked at (and spent too much on) a wealth of paintings, glasswork, fibre craft, pyrography, jewelry, and mead. I envied the skill of Kubb players, axe throwers, and hammer tossers.

I had emotional discussions with other Heathens, drank plenty of delicious meads passed around the fire, and had a moment holding a ceramic bowl in a field that was more powerful than I could have imagined.

Conclusion

My first trip to East Coast Thing mirrors my first ritual experience. In both cases I went into it not having any expectations, just pushing myself to try something new. And after the newness and awkwardness wore off, something profound happened.

During a round table discussion this weekend, the moderator called his trip to East Coast Thing a pilgrimage. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but I definitely do now and I will continue making that pilgrimage in the coming years.

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Heathenry Unitarian Universalism

Setting a Goal

My Unitarian Universalist church has several lay-led services each year. I was asked to speak during a recent Sunday service on Resolutions. My speech, with some minor editing, is produced below.

I set a goal for myself last year. Well two goals actually, but I’ll start with this one. Of course, I didn’t set them for January 1st, because as an Elder Millennial I considered it edgy to reject the #NewYearNewMe resolution setting culture. This goal came up more organically shortly after my birthday.

After finding a new spiritual community online and having a helpful conversation with our minister, I decided that I was going to really live the 4th UU principle. That’s the one about “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

My goal was to explore my faith in a way I hadn’t in a very long time.

You see, I had been going through what St. John of the Cross called a Dark Night. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle described the dark night of the soul as, “a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness.” It could be equated to a spiritual depression.

After rejecting Catholicism as a teen, I spent some years exploring a number of different Neopagan paths trying to figure out what I really believed. Several years ago, I found an online community of people who were reviving belief in the gods of ancient Northern European peoples. The term most often used is Heathenry. I found it incredibly fascinating learning about the methods of reconstructing the beliefs and practices of ancient peoples using language, lore, and archeological research.

However, this particular community was toxic. Not toxic in the white nationalist way of falsely using Norse runes and faux worship of the “white” gods of the Germanic people, which is a real problem for Heathens. Instead, this group acted like the gatekeepers of doing things the right way and, in their opinion, group worship was the only right way to interact with the divine.

As life got busy and my participation in this toxic community continued, I let thoughts of my spiritual well-being fall to the side. I convinced myself that since the divine didn’t appear to be directly influencing the affairs on earth, whether or not they exist was of no consequence to me. My spiritual growth had come to a standstill.

Then, my apathetic agnosticism turned into a jaded atheism. I would roll my eyes anytime someone described a personal spiritual belief.

It was a continual downward spiral of tolerance of others beliefs over acceptance. And, my other UU Principles were being compromised. It didn’t feel good at all.

Luckily, the toxicity of the Heathen community I was in caused it to collapse on itself. I had already been drifting away from it, but I’m glad it’s gone.

I found a new community that was vastly different from the last. They were incredibly helpful, providing resources and fresh reconstructions of how worship could be. Best of all, this new community encouraged new people and actively rejected the idea that group worship was the only way the ancient Northern European peoples communicated with their gods.

And so I started. It was a small ritual, with just a tea light candle, a dish, and some sunflower seeds as offering. My words were clunky, it felt weird, but afterwards I was excited. Not because I felt any spiritual movement, but instead I had finally done the thing I had spent years thinking about but feeling unworthy of.

When I set the intention to align myself with the 4th Principle, I began to feel like myself again. I began praying and leaving offerings for divine beings I wasn’t totally sure I believed in, but most of all, I felt free to search for my truth and meaning.

I mentioned earlier that I had a second goal. When I finally put my faith into practice, I also set a goal to get out of my shell and be a larger part of the communities around me. Initially it started with a desire to represent Heathenry in my corner of the Pagan Community. Then I joined leadership here at church.

I tried and failed to represent Heathenry by being present at a Pagan Pride Day. However, I succeeded on my second attempt at Pagan Pride Day Rhode Island. I also joined the newly formed Pagan Study Group here.

What really struck me about setting that first goal, to commit to living the 4th Principle, was how it led me to learning about the others:
– Joining leadership showed me how the democratic process we use here works, but also how it might be oppressing others.
– Coming to terms with my own beliefs, let me better accept the beliefs of others rather than just tolerate them
– Being part of a minority within a religious minority, let me expand my compassion for marginalized people through a better understanding

I feel I should explain that last one: I’m a straight, white, cis-gender male, so I live in a bubble of privilege. And when you are part of the status quo, one of the only ways to learn what it’s like living in the margins is through the direct experience of marginalized people.

Paganism is a minority religious movement whose members emphasis a duality of male/female divine spirit, earth centered spirituality, and a celebration of the 8 holidays of the wheel of the year. So when I found myself as a Heathen polytheist, an even smaller minority within Paganism, whose religious beliefs and practices didn’t align with any of those things, I started to experience a small piece of what a lack of representation meant to people who live their entire lives in the margins. How the language of the over culture, even one that is already a minority, can make marginalized people feel othered.

My quest for understanding has given me a much different perspective on our UU Principles and the world at large. This journey is not one I had resolved to participate in, but is nonetheless rooted in an important Unitarian Universalist tradition.

And if a millennial can embrace tradition, maybe it’s a tradition worth living.

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Still Wandering

I started this blog years ago with the intent of chronicling my spiritual journey. With a flourish, I typed up a self-important post regaling my readers (of whom there were none) the glorious history of my religious beliefs: from Catholic, to agnostic, to “Neopagan agnostic.” Towards the end I state the the following:

My specific views on a “higher power” could be called panentheistic. I view “God/Diety/the Devine” as the eternal force, rather than an anthropomorphized man-like entity, that exists behind the universe. It has both traditionally male and female characteristics. I also see every god or goddess believed in to be a human representation of some aspect of “the Devine” though my Christian roots compel me to call this eternal force “God.”

Sigh.

I now cringe at the text I wrote in 2010. I cringe, not because the beliefs are ignorant, but because it’s ignorant to attempt describing one of the most difficult aspects of one’s being using words for which you only have a cursory grasp.

I know I’m not alone in doing this. I’ve witnessed others make similarly ridiculous statements of faith because they lack the words the properly define themselves. We use words we saw in a book we read once, something we found after spending an hour looking up religious beliefs on Wikipedia, or maybe something we had said to us in another online forum. It’s easy to do, almost natural in some communities, because we see others doing it. Does that make it right?

Does using terms we don’t understand to describe, or label, ourselves dilute the meaning of the words and philosophy behind them? Does it do a disservice to those who truly hold the beliefs we’re assigning to ourselves, when we’re not even really sure of those beliefs?

I don’t claim to have answers to my questions. They’re just thoughts running through my mind. Things I’m contemplating and trying to form opinions on.
I am starting to believe one thing, though: that I want to fully understand the meaning of the words I used to describe myself. This will require a lot of reading and contemplating, but it has to be worth it to understand who I am.

I concluded my original post with the following statement: Beyond that, I’m still searching.
And so I continue: wandering and searching.