As a lifelong student of the manners and habitat of the American upper-middle, and upper, classes, I am of course a weekly reader of the Vows (weddings) pages in the Sunday New York Times. The tone of these notices has evolved with the years—the weekly essays on one featured couple tend to emphasize politics rather than love, and single-sex mergers are now routine—but the substance remains the same: These are people who take pride in their meritocratic status.
To be sure, as such features go, this is hardly a national cross-section. More rabbis and prep school chaplains and Episcopal priests conduct the services here than you would find in, say, a midsized city in the Upper South or Pacific Northwest. And academic credentials are heavily weighted toward the Ivy League and the Little Ivies, or other institutions ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report. There is a disproportionate number of brides and grooms who work in finance or publishing in metropolitan New York, and if somebody’s grandfather was an assistant secretary of commerce in the Johnson administration, or a Vogue photographer, that will not go unmentioned.
There are poignant touches, now and then: A widow and widower, who work in Wall Street, will find one another, or a radiologist will marry a kindergarten teacher. There are comparatively few Romeo-and-Juliet sagas—a Democrat marrying a Republican, say, or a groom from Massachusetts and bride from Alabama. But occasionally an unlikely union will be featured: the daughter of a federal appellate judge, for example, marrying the son of a heating-and-air-conditioning man. There is usually some mutual connection—Cornell University, for example, or McKinsey & Company—but not always. Indeed, the contents are often so predictable, and the details interchangeable, that I have no doubt that the Times could produce fictitious notices by juggling various names—Phillips Exeter, Scarsdale, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Massachusetts General Hospital, Tuscany—from lists of familiar places.
With one exception: Each week, almost without fail, three or four couples are married not by a priest or judge or rabbi but by “a friend who became a Universal Life minister for the event.” This discordant note is a mystery to me, and for two reasons. First, I am myself a minister of the Universal Life church, and in the nearly half-century since my ordination, no one has ever asked me to perform a wedding ceremony. And second, it strikes me that the sort of people who announce their nuptials in the pages of the New York Times seem the least likely on earth to have anything whatsoever to do with the Universal Life church.
The Universal Life Church, Inc. was founded in Modesto, California, in the late 1950s by a pentecostal preacher from North Carolina named Kirby J. Hensley (1911-1999). Hensley, who aspired to found a denomination that respected “all beliefs,” realized at some point that there was a lucrative market for ordination (for a modest fee, no questions asked) among people who didn’t want to be bothered with attending a seminary, or would welcome a clerical deferment from the draft, or just liked to acquire certificates.
As a wiseacre undergraduate, in the summer of 1969, I fell into that last category; and so, after watching a bemused television report on the Reverend Mr. Hensley and his ministry, I mailed a dollar to Modesto and waited. But not for long! Very nearly in the return mail I received a blank Universal Life church certificate of ordination, featuring Hensley’s printed signature, and the latest issue of his tabloid Universal Life News. The certificate was promptly filled out, dated, and framed, and the Universal Life News eagerly devoured. The News, I regret to say, has long since disappeared, but I still have my certificate of ordination, now unframed.
At the time, I regarded the entire enterprise as a joke—it was always rewarding to watch the puzzled expressions of visitors examining the “certificate of ordination” in my dorm room—and you don’t have to do much research on Kirby J. Hensley before stumbling on his laughing self-description as a “con man.” So why would people who have carefully crafted their lives for success, and advertise their impressive credentials in the New York Times, choose to enter the holy estate of matrimony under such ludicrous auspices?