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Jessica and Paul Hansbarger wed at The Stable at Bluemont Vineyard in August. Photos by Jonathan Clingenpeel
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John and Jessica have been friends for 12 years. Photo by Jonathan Clingenpeel
I received a call from my longtime friend Jessica, and the news was shocking. There had to be some mistake. She and her fiancé, Paul, wanted to me to act as the civil celebrant at their wedding. I had no idea how to execute this honorable task, but without skipping a beat, I said yes.
A little background: A civil celebrant is a layperson who leads a wedding ceremony. Typically, this person is not an ordained minister. I had, until this point, worked as a DJ at a few receptions, but it was a far cry from being called up to the big leagues as an officiant.
The first step was getting paperwork filed. Jessica had persuaded me by telling me all I needed to do was get ordained online. Having done so through themonastery.org , I skipped to the county courthouse to tell them the good news. They were unimpressed. A low-level bureaucrat informed me that online ordinations have no legal standing in Virginia.
Feeling discouraged, I conferred with "The Two Scotts," friends of mine who share a name and the ability to perform weddings. One had recently been ordained as the first gay minister of his denomination on the East Coast. The other had been performing secular services as a civil celebrant for years. They told me what documents I needed and helped me to start putting together what I would say.
My entanglements with the county clerks were difficult. Let's just say I had to get a judge's signature, a notary, and submit a $50 processing fee and a $500 bond. Two weeks later, I received a call asking me to come by the courthouse to be sworn in. Right hand raised, I repeated after the magistrate, and just like that, I had a temporary license to get people hitched.
I spent the next days working on the ceremony. I had gone over my ideas with Jessica, but few made the cut. She didn't even want a reading. I asked her fearfully, "How long do you want this to be?" She wanted it somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes. With the vows themselves being about two minutes apiece, that left me with a lot of time to fill.
One of the Scotts helped me put my thoughts together: "Start with a warm welcome and a joke." It seemed simple, but the benefit of having a civil celebrant is that you can choose someone close to you to make the ceremony more personal. I had the determination to fill that role but a total lack of experience of how to do so.
The night of the rehearsal dinner came, and I was finally able to share my excitement with Jessica and Paul in person. During a speech, the groom's grandfather gave a heartfelt toast. It was going pretty well until he ended with a flourish "To Paul and Jennifer!" If I got the bride's name right the next day, I'd be one up on Grandpa.
I made it to the venue with time to spare, and when the time came, I assumed my position. The groom looked dapper, and Jessica was luminescent in the way that only brides are: even after 12 years of friendship, there was something in her smile and gait that I hadn't yet seen. Before I knew it, everyone was seated. My last-minute practice in the hotel room served me well — I got the words (and the names) right.
After a couple "I dos" and one "power vested in me," we were at the reception. My sense of relief was palpable. It was strange looking back to a time when I thought this could have been a huge mistake and how it became such a great opportunity to be a part of the ceremony in a personal way. I surprised myself so much that I've agreed to perform another wedding for some friends in just a few months. It should be fun, as long as I get the names right