How to officiate a wedding

(Note: This column on how to officiate a wedding ceremony originally was published in Brides magazine. Photos are from the actual wedding.)

When Holly and Jason asked me to be in their wedding, I immediately said yes. Then they asked if I would perform the ceremony.

“Is it legal?”

“It is,” Holly said.

“I’m in.”

I am not a priest. I am not a judge. I am not a ship captain, although I often wear short-sleeve dress shirts with gold stripes on the shoulder boards. But with a little paper wrangling and oath-swearing I could legally marry two amazing friends.

The truth is, I would have done it if it was illegal. I would have done it if the wedding took place on the moon. How often do you get a chance like this? I would get to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a priest and a judge and a captain of a cruise ship that’s home to romantic and comedic adventures. Father O’Malley Stubing, I would call myself.

To officiate a wedding in California you must go to the county clerk’s office, sign a few papers, pay a fee and swear an oath. Picture this scene. A man – me – stands at the front desk in a government office. Two feet to the left of this man – still me – is a line of people waiting to file property transactions. A woman – not me – asks this man – now it’s me again – to raise his right hand and repeat after her. “I swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

I discovered that when you officiate a wedding ceremony in Orange County, California, you are a representative of the government. If King George III’s band of redcoats marched down Interstate 5 during the reception, it would be up to me to grab my musket and organize a proper defense – probably behind the conga line.

When I had completed the paperwork and sworn the oath, I was designated a “Deputy Commissioner of Marriage.” I was given authority to marry Holly and Jason within county lines on a specified date, provided I did not receive compensation. As far as the state of California was concerned, the wedding was nice and legal. What’s more, a certain General Cornwallis would think twice before crashing the reception.

Among Holly and Jason’s friends, I was uniquely qualified to perform the ceremony. I am a writer. I perform improvisational and sketch comedy. I spent eight years earning baseball card money as an altar boy serving Catholic wedding masses. Also, my parents have always wanted one of their sons to become a priest. In a way, this was Holly and Jason’s big day. But in an even bigger way, this was my parents’ big day.

officiate, wedding, friends, secular, ceremony(Above: Mike and Carlos, of The Second Column podcast fame, think about what an awesome job I did officiating the ceremony.)

I met with Holly and Jason a few months before their wedding. They selected friends and family to perform readings and play music. They would write their own vows. The rest they would leave to me. They wanted to be a little surprised on their wedding day—a day they had been planning meticulously for more than a year.

I thought that was romantic.

I have always been dismayed by the banal nature of wedding homilies. It’s such a wasted opportunity to share the story of the couple. Your guests will include bored spouses, cousins who aren’t sure how they’re related to you and your parents’ friends who have been invited because they invited your parents to a wedding in 1986. Sharing the story of the relationship gives everyone a sense of ownership. If your goal is to make the guests feel like they are part of the celebration, let them know in detail why they’re there.

Holly and Jason were standing at the altar because they were strong enough to make a long distance Chicago–LA relationship work. The 100-plus guests seated in the brick courtyard laughed and shed a few tears as I told them about the day Jason proposed to Holly near the ocean at Dana Point, the magical role that tequila played the night they met and Holly’s belief that real love isn’t chocolates and diamonds; it’s when your boyfriend hands you flowers and a cold Diet Coke after you’ve just stepped off a 16-hour flight from Asia.

officiate, wedding, friends, secular, ceremony(Above: The wedding ceremony took place in black and white. The bride insisted.)

After the vows and rings were exchanged, I was ready to say the words the county clerk’s office had empowered me to say: “By the authority vested in me by the state of California, county of Orange, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Holly and Jason were happy with the ceremony and the family and friends – many of whom questioned the lack of clergy – came around. Any of my own small doubts were erased when Jason’s grandmother put her arm around me and thanked “the priest” by buying me several whiskey shots at the bar.

I guess you could call that compensation, but not a single Hessian mercenary laid a single dirty finger on the Constitution that day. I say we call it even.

(To hear Sean, Mike, Carlos, comedian Jeff Sloniker and me talk about this column on The Second Column podcast on iTunes, click here.)

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Ben Brode

    This was very insightful and very helpful. Thanks!

  • Chris

    Thank you so much for posting. This was very helpful indeed!

  • Glad I could help!


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