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Who Will Marry Us?

How to find a rabbi, a priest, an imam, or a former boss to say your ceremony.


Illustration by Graham Roumieu  

... A Rabbi

The Overview: If you don’t want to be married in a synagogue, don’t worry about scrambling to join one. “You can usually call up any rabbi at a local synagogue, and the rabbi will perform the wedding wherever you want,” says Ronald Broden, a Reform rabbi and cantor in Westchester. But if you want to be married in a temple, you may need to be a member, depending on the leaders’ policy. Note: The more traditional the rabbi, the less flexibility you’ll have over the ceremony. Reform rabbis and cantors will be the most open to what you want included.

Get in Touch: About a year before the wedding.

The First Meeting: Don’t be surprised to find yourself in the rabbi’s home, and also feel free to invite one to yours. “I invite prospective couples over,” says Renee Feller, a New York Reform rabbi. “When you walk into someone’s house, you can tell what kind of person they are.” After the intros, you’ll start to figure out what you want included in the ceremony—say, if you want poems read or for your families to have certain roles.

Typical Spiel: Almost anything goes, depending on your rabbi’s personality. He or she could quote Scripture and talk about your personal love story (or both) and, as rabbis are wont to do, crack jokes. “I like to use humor,” says Feller. “A recent joke I made was, ‘If there is anyone present who has just cause why this couple should not continue to be united … you probably should not have come today.’ I got the couple’s approval first.”

Cost: From $750.

...A Priest

The Overview: If you want the church bells (Catholic, Episcopalian, Protestant, or otherwise) to ring on your big day, you will most likely have to be an active member or sincerely interested in that church. “Churches are communities,” says the Reverend Mark R. Collins, an Episcopal priest at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side. A Roman Catholic church will probably have the most requirements: The couple must be members for a year, go to premarital counseling (known as Pre-Cana), and have been baptized. But most churches will at minimum require that you’ve shown your face at least a handful of times before the ceremony. “One thing we really hate is for people to want to get married at the church just because it will look nice in the background of their photos,” Collins says.

Get in Touch: Start a year or more in advance if you’re joining a church. “And spend some time on the church website to learn what we believe,” says Collins. If you don’t want to be married in a church—or join one—but do want a priest or pastor to marry you, you can usually find one not tied to a parish to do the job. Try to do this three to six months out. For Roman Catholics, try websites such as citiministries.org or cacina.org; for other denominations, try weddingpastorsusa.org.

The First Meeting: Expect some couples counseling, including a primer on the challenges that come with marriage, says the Reverend James J. Balija, a Catholic priest based in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. “We talk about being present for each other and the value of communication,” he says. Collins says he requires premarital counseling but adds, “I’ve never had anyone say it’s a waste of time. We want the marriage, and not just the wedding, to be successful.”

Typical Spiel: Generally, this is stock material for whatever denomination you’re being married in, such as a passage from the Song of Solomon, or heavy preaching about how to make the marriage work. “It’s often the same homily I give at every wedding,” Balija admits, “although I do add some things that are specific to the couple. You’re not going to tell a couple that’s on their second marriage the same thing you tell 20-somethings.” Still, Collins adds, “it’s not just a wedding for the couple; it’s a service of the church. It’s an expression of what we believe in and value.”

Cost: Most churches ask for a donation; a nonaffiliated priest or pastor like Balija charges about $650.

...An Imam

The Overview: You don’t need to be a member of a mosque to use an imam, according to Imam Qazi Qayyoom, the founder of the New York Qazi Office in Jackson Heights, Queens. “Anyone can come,” he says. “New York mosques tend to be very open.” The ceremonies usually include a short marriage sermon, then the “offer and acceptance”; one person puts forth the offer of marriage, and the other will accept it. Beyond that, it’s flexible and can include requests like having your whole family sit on the stage while you marry.

Get in Touch: A month and a half before the wedding.

The First Meeting: There’s usually a breakdown—and a word of caution—about what the marriage contract means in Islam. “The couple has to mutually agree to everything that goes into the contract,” says Khalid Latif, an imam and the director of NYU’s Islamic Center. “You can say, ‘Here are certain things we agree to, like our kids will be homeschooled.’ If a condition isn’t met in the contract, it can serve as grounds for divorce.” You’ll also discuss what you want the ceremony to look like, including how to keep it celebratory and uplifting. “I’ve heard some horror stories, like imams who talked about the Iraq War,” Latif says.

Typical Spiel: A five-to-ten-minute general marriage sermon, which includes certain verses from the Koran and the ideas of love and marriage in Islam. Qay-yoom usually talks about the five principles of marriage in Islam: “Patience, compromise, sacrifice, cooperation, and communication.”

Cost: From $300.

... A Nonreligious Celebrant

The Overview: Celebrants perform civil ceremonies and work best for couples who want some spirituality in their ceremony (read poignant, not preachy) or are from different cultural backgrounds and want a wedding that blends some unique traditions. “The benefit of working with a celebrant is that I am in service to the couple and not to any institution,” says Susan Turchin, a New York celebrant and interfaith minister.

Get in Touch: Four to six months before the wedding.

The First Meeting: You should feel comfortable asking the celebrant anything, says Turchin. “I like when couples basically interview me,” she says. “Then I’ll ask probing questions to get to know the couple.” Expect touchy-feely-type questions based on your first impressions of each other, if there’s anything unique about your wedding bands, what the proposal was like, how important your ethnic origins are to you, and what your hopes and aspirations are for the marriage. You’ll leave with homework, like ideas for readings.

Typical Spiel: Sarah Ritchie, a New York wedding celebrant, often explains how the couple met, quoting from the story the couple told her. “I believe this retelling sets the stage and reflects the couple’s emotional closeness. And when I’m using their words, that takes the focus off me and keeps it on them.”

Cost: From $650.

... A Friend

The Overview: If you want to be married by your best friend, the person who introduced you, or the senator you interned for one summer in college, you can suggest they be ordained online through a group like the Universal Life Church at themonastery.org. After registering with the city clerk’s office and getting the proper forms (cityclerk.nyc.gov) your buddy should be good to go.

Get in Touch: It takes about a month to get registered as a legal officiant, but ask your friend sooner—at about the same time you enlist the wedding party.

The First Meeting: This may sound obvious, but “be certain your fiancé is onboard,” says Crystal L. Bailey, director of the Etiquette Institute based in D.C. “There’s nothing worse than for the person bringing you together to cause friction.” Bailey warns against picking the “resident prankster” to do the deed. Also, she says, “don’t get so wrapped up in landing the ‘impossible to book’ or famous officiant, which can easily overwhelm your planning and overshadow your big day. Ultimately, you want someone who knows you and your fiancé; a close friend is your best choice.”

Typical Spiel: The only must (to make the ceremony legal) is for the couple to state “I do” in the presence of an officiant and a witness. The rest is up to you and your newly ordained friend. For help, online guides abound—some even include full scripts. When in doubt, make it brief: Keep it to the “I dos,” the ring exchange, and the kiss.

Cost: About $25 for the online ministry, and $15 to register with the city clerk.


Illustration by Graham Roumieu  

Note: For Same-Sex Couples

The Roman Catholic church doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages (neither do most Baptists), but some Christian denominations do (Episcopal, Presbyterian, most Lutheran congregations). With rabbis, both Conservative and Reform, it’s up to the individual whether he or she will perform the marriage, although the Reform movement has allowed or encouraged rabbis to officiate at same-sex ceremonies since 1993. Imams, too, officiate same-sex weddings on a case-by-case basis; however, it’s not common for them to do so. Most celebrants, on the other hand, will be happy to.

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