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My first wedding ceremony was supposed to be held on the beach, but rain changed our plans and we ended up inside the local yacht club. I was relieved. The surf was so loud that day, I had no idea how I’d be heard over the pounding waves. As planned, we got the cue that the bride was ready, so in I processed, followed by the groom and his groomsmen. Then we stood there, waiting at the makeshift altar. The bride’s music began, but no bride appeared. We smiled, the guests smiled back. The band played the wedding march to the end and started all over again. Still no bride. I stood there thinking, Ok, now what do I do? Just as I was about to step out of formation to find out what had happened to the bride, there she was. All was well, all was beautiful.
It’s been 15 years since that wedding, but what remains is the joy as the couple kissed and ran off before I could even say my closing words. They’d waited long enough and they were ready to plunge into their new life together. I laughed all the way home.
I was a student minister then. Not long after, I performed my first memorial service. I was a total novice when I arrived at the funeral home to meet a family in deep grief. Their mother had unexpectedly died the night before, and the children and the whole extended family gathered around me in shock. I still remember the hours that passed, the many boxes of Kleenex, and the open and honest story that was shared about a beloved mother’s life.
Seminary had trained me in ritual, worship and pastoral care. I’d been taught how to listen, how to make room for sacred space to open in the midst of love and grief, but as a beginner you wonder if you really know what to do. That day I learned the incredible power of being present, of waiting, of listening for the stories that emerge without coaxing or forcing anything. Clarity comes, the central theme of a life comes, and suddenly you know what needs to be said and done.
I loved that family, my first memorial family. I can no longer see their faces, but the laughter and the tears that came with their memories, the intensity of their love for each other and for their mother — all that is still with me. It’s a gift that I’ve carried with me into every meeting I’ve had with grieving families since then.
And so it goes, the first memories of child dedications, of grave-side services, of weddings in usual and unusual places, of house blessings, and other rites. I have loved each child, each couple, each family — even when some were not so easy to work with. To me, my role was clear. I was there to stand as a vessel to something greater than myself, to create holy space out of ordinary time. This is why I became a minister.
In Christianity, especially in Catholicism, there’s this idea of the sacrament, “a visible sign of inward grace,” conferred when a child is baptized, when a couple is married, when someone dies. In Unitarian Universalist tradition, we are clear that when we dedicate a child, marry a couple, or lay someone to rest: these are not sacraments, not in the sense of something holy being transmitted through the power of Christ. Yet I think we could claim and redefine the word “sacrament” as our own.
There are milestones and passages in our lives that deserve more than a passing acknowledgement. These days, I see many people letting these moments slide. Gone are the grandparents who would have once insisted that some kind of ceremony had to be held to mark a child’s entry into the world, or a couple’s lifetime commitment, or a funeral. Their children and grandchildren may no longer have the time or see the value in child dedications, weddings, or memorials. Even more likely, they may not have experienced many, if any, rites of passage, and can’t imagine that something meaningful can be created to mark these moments.
But these are precious, fleeting moments in our lives that deserve to be exalted — and I really mean exalted. Life is too short to take these times of passage for granted. Someone recently told me how incomplete they felt when they gathered for a cocktail party to remember a friend who had died of cancer. “Just have a party,” were the friend’s instructions. But a party leaves no room for our feelings of grief or a place to consider our own mortality as we face the loss of those we love. Several years ago, I lost one of my dearest friends. He insisted that there would be no memorial service when he died, and I still feel the emptiness of not being able to share my grief in person with all of us who loved him so.
It can be stressful to plan major events that involve the gathering of family and friends. You have to decide whom to invite, how many layers of cousins to include. What family doesn’t face some dysfunction, or tension in planning for a child dedication, a wedding or a memorial? I’ve listened to many stories. I’ve held people’s hands through the worry and the anxiety leading up to the event, but I’ve also seen the miracle of bringing everyone together, of time standing still in the midst of ceremony when all tensions are forgotten. In each rite of passage, even in the case of death, there is a splendid reaffirmation of life.
When I came to Canada to serve as the minister here, it was a surprise to encounter the lay chaplaincy program. In the US, student ministers take on the overflow ceremonies that their supervising ministers can’t handle. Here, I discovered that my role was to first and foremost provide rites of passage to members of the congregation. The lay chaplains would handle non-members. That division continues today, although I often officiate at rites of passage for the family of members as well as for friends of the congregation, and for special requests.
In addition, I oversee the lay chaplains with support from the lay chaplaincy committee. It is a joy and an honour to witness our lay chaplains as they grow and develop in their roles. Sometimes, it can also be a challenge. Lay chaplains represent Unitarian Universalism, the congregation and me in the wider world. They receive training and are affirmed by the congregation to serve for three to six years. They are individuals who must hold the trust and respect of the congregation. Our lay chaplains are careful not to represent themselves as ministers, but the public hardly makes the distinction. I can’t tell you how many times someone has insisted that I officiated at a wedding or a memorial that was clearly led by one of our lay chaplains — say, for example, Normand — who doesn’t look at all like me.
The lay chaplaincy program began in the early 1970s as our ministers across Canada tried to respond to a growing volume of wedding requests. This was especially critical here in Quebec. In an overwhelmingly Catholic province, there weren’t many marriage options for those who were divorced, or came from different religious backgrounds. The Unitarian Church was the only real option in town for a very long time.
I think of Rev. Leonard Mason, in 1965, walking across the street from the old church at Simpson and Sherbrooke to the Ritz Carlton Hotel to marry Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was considered scandalous by many Quebecers, even among some church members, that Rev. Mason agreed to marry two such notoriously divorced and public lovers. When the actor’s publicist broke his promise to keep the wedding private, it was Rev. Mason’s wife who had to field a lot of angry phone calls.
In those days, you could only be married by a religious institution. But Rev. Mason believed that everyone had a right to be married, and he went on to work with Mayor Jean Drapeau to advocate for civil marriage. It finally became legal in 1968.
When the law changed, city hall became a new option, but it didn’t offer much creativity or ceremony. Most surrounding religious communities did not allow interfaith marriage, so we continued to play a significant role in Montreal. Then civil union for gay and lesbian couples become possible, followed by equal marriage in 2005. We were the first religious denomination to offer same sex unions and marriages, and many couples flooded across the US border to be married here. At one time, we had lay chaplains who would perform an average of 40 weddings a year. I don’t think I know of any UU ministers who come close to performing that many weddings in a year — many of us hardly perform that many in a decade.
Today, the number of people who get married in Quebec, and across Canada, has dropped significantly, for a lot of cultural reasons. In addition, the US has legalized equal marriage — which is a wonderful way to lose “business.” I hope and pray that doesn’t change.
Those who do choose to marry here have many more options, even more than when I arrived in Montreal nearly eleven years ago. Now you can get more personalized services at city hall or choose the services of a notary. Even a friend or family member can apply for a once-in-a-lifetime license to perform a wedding.
The demographics may be changing, but our lay chaplains continue to play a critical role for our congregation. The volume of people they serve is much lower, but they are able to be present to many more people than one lone minister could ever support. They offer creativity, professionalism and an overture to our faith that is significant.
This year, Caroline Jondahl completed her three-year term as lay chaplain. She asked not to be publicly thanked today. Congratulations to Normand Gosselin who will begin a second three-year term this year. Shoshanna Green is coming to the end of her six years as our senior lay chaplain. She still has a number of rites of passage to perform before her term officially ends in June. I know this is a bittersweet time for her as she winds down. I will miss working with her in this capacity, but I’m grateful that she will continue to support the program on a local and national level. We’ve agreed that we will officially mark her retirement at our Annual General Meeting in June, because, as she likes to remind me, she’s not retired yet!
I’m glad to say that a number of people have already expressed their interest in becoming lay chaplains and Shoshanna and I will be offering a 5- or 6-session training program starting on June 3rd and continuing into the fall. In the short term, we have ample back-up with several UU ministers-- Rev. Carole Martignacco, and I included--as well as the Lakeshore Congregation’s lay chaplains. Change is coming, but don’t worry, all will be well.
I look forward to welcoming new lay chaplains in the future. I think we have a lot of work to do to let people know that we are here and that rites of passage deserve our tender care. We need our Unitarian Universalist rituals. We need to create rites that express who we are and what truly matters to us. We need to create our own sacraments that express the joy of birth, the commitment of love and the reality of death. To do so in community, with family and with friends, reminds us that we are not alone and that the milestones in our lives are sacred transitions to be shared.