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“Having the care of souls” as an online-ordained minister: How wedding officiant ministers exceed the legal standards of state marriage law requirements.

Published Friday, Oct. 2nd, 2020


Before we even get into the matter at hand, here’s a warning – this one’s not going to be nearly as interesting as the previous post about nudist weddings. So, make sure to read that one too. That said, the topics are all tied together because regardless of whether you’re officiating in your birthday suit, or wearing a cassock and stole, you do so as an ordained minister, and that designation as a minister has a rich legal and spiritual history.
 
To unpack that a little, let’s look at the wording that the State of Tennessee uses to designate persons authorized to conduct ceremonies to solemnize marriages in T.C.A. § 36-3-301(a):
 
“All regular ministers, preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis and other spiritual leaders of every religious belief, more than eighteen (18) years of age, having the care of souls, and all members of the county legislative bodies, county mayors, judges…” and the list goes on.
 
Last year, when a group of Tennessee lawmakers moved to deprive thousands of ministers that were ordained online of their constitutionally-guaranteed religious rights (including that of officiating weddings as ordained ministers), the words “having the care of souls,” popped up.
 
According to their (incorrect) assessment of the situation, online ordained ministers didn’t have the care of souls. Well, that’s nonsense, and here’s why:
 
First off, the phrase comes from “Cure of souls,” suggesting that Tennessee’s lawmakers are drawing on an older iteration of the phrase. Like, did they even read the Wikipedia article? In most denominations of Christianity, especially among the Catholics, the phrase "care of souls" is used to describe the exercise of his/her/their office by a priest. In practice, this means religious or spiritual instruction, delivering sermons, administering sacraments, and other ecclesiastical duties.
 
This description is a pretty apt representation of the duties of your average AMM Minister, right? Let’s look at these duties and see how they correspond with what an online-ordained minister might do in the process of creating and delivering a wedding ceremony.

 

  • Instruction – Working with the couple to help them put into words their love for each other, write their vows, and find meaningful rituals that speak to their values and worldview.
     
  • Delivering Sermons – This best correlates to the invocation, where the officiant delivers what is ostensibly a sermon about the couple, their relationship, the importance of marriage, and other spiritual matters that are important to the couple and their guests.
     
  • Administering Sacraments – This can be any of the rituals such as wine ceremonies, sand ceremonies, breaking the glass, tying the handfasting cord, and many more sacramental rituals that the wedding officiant leads during the ceremony.
     
  • Ecclesiastical duties – This includes all of the aforementioned duties, as well as the officiants role in their community. Our ministers' roles in their communities extend beyond officiating weddings. We are also community leaders, educators, and advocates for social justice.

 
 
There are plenty of ways to support our efforts, from fighting for our ministers' rights in Tennessee and Virginia, to supporting other organizations that are committed to leaving this world a better place than we found it. The world is changing fast. The lawmakers that insist on treating ministers differently because of how they were ordained will soon pass away, and their protestations will soon be forgotten. As we examine the role of religion in society, let us not lose sight of our founding father’s intentions – the free practice of one’s faith, on one’s own terms.
 


Lewis King
Lewis King

Lewis is AMM's executive director. He also wears other hats at AMM, like taking out the recycling, restocking the sparkling water, and watering the office plants.

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