Sunday, June 21, 2009


My friend Bridget asked me, "Have you ever heard of a celebrant?"

Oh yes, it's the Roman Catholic or Episcopalian priest or other Christian minister who celebrates a sacrament on Sunday morning and at weddings and funerals. But that wasn't what Bridget meant. She didn't mean the river Celebrant in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings either. (The latter is pronounced with an initial hard "k" sound and not an "s" sound.)

It seems there's a growing movement to have trained, credentialed, but secular celebrants for the important moments of life in our society. The occasions can be anything from the death of a pet to the death of a person; weddings and funerals; divorces; graduations, promotions, or the loss of a job—practically anything important to someone.

How interesting. Traditionally, clergy do some of these things—more than you might realize. There are liturgical ceremonies for blessing pets (on or around the feast day of St. Francis), boats, and homes. An Episcopalian home blessing is especially nice. Where I live now, my priest made her way from one room to the next, followed by everybody else with one person holding a candle and another sprinkling holy water with a sprig of rosemary. The priest said special prayers for every room, including living room, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and study. Even the bathroom—into which twelve people cheerfully fit themselves, with two standing in the tub, to participate as the well-crafted and tasteful words of blessing were pronounced.

Less formally, some church services take a few moments to celebrate occasions in the lives of the people. At my church, St. Stephen's Episcopal in Houston, there's a time in the service for people to come up and put coins into a little model church as they announce celebrations or thanksgivings for everything from a new baby sister or brother to a union or wedding anniversary to a 2400-mile road trip in which the only problem was a flat tire that happened in the driveway of a friend's house.

And a lot of clergy are willing to informally all kinds of things that you feel need blessing. According to the Houston Chronicle, one passenger on a recent flight from Belgium to Houston never flies without a rabbi's blessing. In Antwerp, he had to wait until late in the night before his departure to get a blessing from a busy rabbi. He was glad he had done so after the airplane's pilot died of a heart attack over the Atlantic Ocean and the other flight crew brought the jet to a safe landing in Houston.

On the other hand, a lot of religious traditions leave much to be desired when it comes to celebrating the occasions of our lives. The most glaring example is same-sex weddings or unions. It has been pointed out by gay Catholics in the Houston-Galveston area that in the Catholic Church it is OK for all kinds of things to be blessed, and this includes pet parakeets and Galveston's shrimp fleet. Why not two people who love each other enough to want to make a life together?

Thus the need for secular celebrants. A Web search turns up several venues for the training and credentialing of people to serve in that capacity. One is the Celebrant USA Foundation and Institute. Another is the Council for Secular Humanism. Yet another is the Humanist Society.

And according to Wikipedia, in Australia an "authorized celebrant" is a person who can conduct legal marriages, while "general celebrants" perform a range of extra-legal ceremonies including funerals, renewal of wedding vows, funerals, birthdays, commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, scattering of ashes, boat-naming ceremonies, citizenship and naturalization.

This is all to the good. Life gets thin, strained and tiresome without ceremonies. I don't just mean celebrating the good stuff. As much and more, we need ceremony for funerals and other really bad stuff—of which there is a lot these days. Ceremony is food for the soul. Without it, we have an emptiness inside that we may try to fill with food, entertainment, and possessions. Without ceremonies we are reduced to consumers. Insatiable ones.

Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples must do their part as they are able. Some are surprisingly able. Others are mired in the kind of religious judgment-mentality (judgmentality?) that drives hurting people away. Meanwhile, a secular celebrant movement has arisen because the need is great, and the stakes are high: people who may have been secretly unhappy consumers in flush times are openly suffering now, and all of us feel the weight of jobs lost, dreams derailed, retirements deferred, and the whole rest of the trouble we're in. We desperately need celebration for the good things, the bad things, and all of our hopes for something good hidden inside the bad.

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