In the acclaimed HBO series Big Love, one of the characters has a thing or two to say about free ordination online—basically, that it smacks of corruption. This may seem ironic, since the fictional program follows the lives of a fundamentalist Mormon family that practices polygamy (which is now proscribed in the official LDS Church), and the very character who opposes online ordination has several wives himself. Nevertheless, the resistant attitude toward online ordination as depicted in the program forces us to ask the question, if even a polygamist opposes online ordination, is it really that shady? One answer is that it is no shadier than traditional ordination, with all of the arbitrary rules that entails.
The characters confront the issue of ordination in online churches in Episode Seven of Season Five. In that episode, Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) tells her husband (played by Bill Paxton) that she has become ordained online in the Universal Life Church in order to marry him illegally to another woman named Nicki (played by Chlöe Sevigny). Nicki happened to have been Barb’s caretaker during her bout with cancer. (It ends up becoming a rather cozy threesome.) Despite the good intentions of Barb (his first, legal wife), Bill refuses to accept the arrangement, expressing his distaste for ordination credentials from internet churches. Even though marrying Nicki in addition to Barb would technically be illegal, he explains, obtaining a minister’s credential online in order to perform the wedding ceremony would just be going too far.
Bill’s resistance to online ordination may be ironic, but it raises a few important questions: what do we know about the legality of online ordinations, and does it show disrespect for the institution of marriage to get ordained online in order to officiate a wedding ceremony? Not necessarily. In previous blog articles discussing the merits of online ordination, we have explained that, if anything, it is traditional wedding officiation that shows disrespect for the rite of marriage.
Priests and judges are allowed to marry total strangers just because they spent years in a seminary or law school earning a credential, and not because they have a meaningful, personal relationship with the people they are marrying, and such lack of personal interest on the part of the priest or judge, it might be argued, cheapens the sacrament of holy matrimony. However, online ordination makes it easier for people to marry their loved ones, which actually gives depth, relevance, and gravity to the occasion, because there is a personal interest on the part of the officiant.
In addition, couples are allowed to obtain a legal marriage license from their county clerk if they have fifty dollars and the right set of chromosomes, even if they do not love each other—even if they tell the clerk that they are getting married as a joke—and this indifference towards love cheapens marriage even more. Yet online ordination lets modern wedding officiants marry people because they love each other, and not just because of their sex or how much money they have. For example, it gives ministers the sacerdotal right to marry same-sex couples (non-legally) because the two people love each other, and not because of their anatomy or biology, and this shows more respect for marriage because it treats marriage as a deeply committed, loving union rather than some sort of breeding program or exchange of wealth and property (i.e. women).
At any rate, the husband’s attitude towards online ordination in Big Love does not tell the whole story about the meaning and purpose of online ordination, since it ignores the benefits of getting ordained online. These benefits include the fact that it makes the occasion more meaningful by letting people marry their loved ones, and that it allows individuals to marry people because they love each other, and not just because they are the right sex or have enough money. Another suggestion the episode makes is that it is easy for people to perform polygamous marriages through online churches such as the ULC, but this is false. Polygamous marriages are not recognized by such churches, since such marriages are illegal, and if they are justifiable, the church would arrive at that determination by rule of law, not underhanded complicity. If nothing else, the script-writers for Big Love do make online ordination look a little more normal and mainstream, since its legitimacy is being discussed openly on a popular television drama. Hopefully in the future the media will move beyond the stigma attached to getting ordained with the click of a mouse and see how ministers in online churches actually treat marriage as a profoundly loving union, and not as some shady operation, or cheap line of mass-manufactured goods.