Exactly what is the face of Universal Life Church Monastery’s growing congregation of Christians, Buddhists, pagans, and myriad other faith groups? Not only does the church represent a wide variety of creeds, emphasizing the compatibility of these paths where they intersect, but also boasts a mix of members from highly diverse backgrounds, including film, television, and radio personalities alongside everyday individuals. The popularity of the church’s accessible, egalitarian approach with celebrities recently became apparent once again with the online ordination of British radio and breakfast television show presenter Steve Penk, famous for his telephone prank calls.
Perhaps there is something intrinsically rebellious about the personalities of comedians, actors, and other media figures that draws them to unconventional online churches such as ULCM. Like many online church ministers, Penk, who was ordained by ULCM’s presiding chaplain, Brother Martin, saw little use in following the traditional path of formal seminary training in order to earn his minister’s ordination credential: “I didn’t have time to waste taking the traditional route to ordination, so I fast tracked it and got my licence through . . . “, he said on Radio Today. Like many online church minister, he has received interrogations, if not criticism, for the lack of required training to receive his credential. In response, he points out that the disciples of Jesus Christ were “nothing but ordinary guys with everyday jobs—like fishermen”. Like other ministers with churches such as ULCM, Penk suggests that the sign of a worthy minister lies in a spark of personal passion and direct inspiration rather than in the official approval of a hierarchical body of clerics.
Further reflecting the unorthodox tendencies of online churches, Penk now intends to use his new credential to make marriage easier and more accessible for a wider range of hopeful couples. According to Radio Today, he is “aiming to become the first radio presenter to marry people live [on air]”. In addition to marrying couples on-air, Penk has now begun hosting weddings in the function room of his radio station, The Revolution, situated in a former pub and club. Individuals like Penk have exploited modern technology and lifestyles to accommodate the traditional institution of marriage—not only will he be conducting his wedding ceremonies inside a radio station instead of a church building, but will also be broadcasting the vows of the couples he marries over the radio.
But can this approach to the sacrament of holy matrimony be considered irreverent, even “tacky”? This question may depend on what constitutes the “sanctity” of marriage. Historically, the institution of marriage has been controlled by ecclesiastical authorities who have shrouded it in a powerful mystique, rendering it somehow holy, sacred, or worthy in the eyes of God. In the present day, however, marriage has evolved into a private commitment between two individuals which does not require the approval of non-participants, and its high regard is based on much more practical considerations, such as legal benefits. Perhaps the truly special thing about marriage is not some hazy notion of divine approbation, but the understanding that it should be as accessible and practical as possible to all loving and committed couples, and that bride and groom (or whichever permutation one chooses) should have the option of choosing the wedding officiant of their preference to bless their union, whether friend, relative, or admired public figure. For some couples, eccentrics like Steve Penk fit the bill.
It has long been the commitment of ULCM to make it easier for individuals to legally marry or legally officiate weddings which reflect diverse and contemporary backgrounds, interests, and lifestyles. But, as always, we would like to hear what our ministers have to say. Does this approach to solemnizing marriages and performing wedding ceremonies degrade and dilute this venerable institution, or help it fulfill its noble function of legally recognizing loving relationships?