Last night’s Conan O’Brien television program featured an on-stage wedding presided over by the host himself. Of course, it is not the first time vows have been said on late night television. Some of us are old enough to remember Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki tying the knot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show back in 1969, though unlike Conan, Carson did not officiate.
The fact that the two people married last night were both men may have garnered some extra headlines and publicity for Conan.
I make no secret of the fact that I oppose redefining marriage as the means of assuring gays and lesbians the civil rights due them. As we saw in our Faith Acts class last night, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania defines marriage as “a civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.” That’s a pretty minimalist definition, and as a Christian I add much more to it, but it’s a fair starting point and requires no revision. Whatever adjustments are needed to guarantee the employment, inheritance, hospital visitation and other rights of all our citizens can be made in other parts of the state code.
But it’s not the gender of the couple that most troubled me about last night’s wedding. I knew that was coming. It is not whatever element of publicity stunt there may have been in its location and time. It is the emptiness of the entire event.
The ceremony itself was sort of Jewish and the Irish Catholic O’Brien had gotten himself licensed by The Universal Life Church Monastery. The partners exchanged words of love for each other and one of them said he was really lucky while the other said he’d be “yours forever.” There was nothing about faithfulness in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, throughout all their days. God’s presence was not evoked and the witnesses were not asked to make any commitment of prayer and support. But by the laws of the state of New York, which are different than those of Pennsylvania, the marriage was pronounced by the comedian turned Universal Life minister.
In fact, other than the gender of the couple and the setting of the ceremony, it was a pretty typical American wedding. It probably had more integrity that than the Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries farce that began their 72-day marriage this past August. (Tiny Tim’s Tonight Show wedding was thoroughly and classically Christian in its liturgy. Miss Vicki walked out within a few months and the divorce was finalized seven years later.)
The wedding ceremony as outlined in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship opens with what we call the “Statement on God’s Gift of Marriage.” Marriage is a gift from God and it is to begin as the man and the woman come together before “God and these witnesses” to exchange vows and confess faith. The community promises its prayer and support for a journey where love will be tested and strengthened in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, throughout all their days.
The man and the woman are to belong and freely give themselves to each other. Marriage is the setting in which children are nurtured and family and society made strong. Marriage is to be a reflection of Christ’s love for his church.
It’s easy for me to allow myself to get grumpy about 72-day marriages and publicity-stunt weddings. I worry about lavish parties given to launch journeys clearly bound for divorce.
Professionally I am in the wedding business and pray that I am more than a comedian emcee at those ceremonies where I am privileged to officiate. Personally I am called to be a faithful and loving husband to Becky and to pray for and support the marriages of all those whose lives touch mine.
I can’t say there’s much I like about what I saw of Conan O’Brien’s show last night.
But I can rejoice in God’s gift of marriage and do my small part to be sure that marriage is held in honor by all (Hebrews 13:4). Will you join me?