When Justin Pratt was asked by his friends to officiate their wedding during the winter break, he already knew what his answer was and knew just what to do.
Pratt immediately went online and typed “free online ordination” into Google and found Universal Life Church Monastery, an online church whose website touts its sole mission is to provide ordinations to anyone, “regardless of your spiritual or religious denomination.” With just a few clicks of a mouse and by entering in a few pieces of personal information, Pratt was almost instantaneously an ordained minister.
“I was surprised at how fast the whole process took, but I shouldn’t have been, because we live in a pretty fast-paced world where you can do pretty much anything online,” said Pratt, a University junior journalism major. “I kind of figured that there was going to be more to it … it just asked me to put in my name and address and pay the fee, and that was about it.”@@http://directory.uoregon.edu/telecom/directory.jsp?p=findpeople%2Ffind_results&m=student&d=person&b=name&s=justin+pratt@@
According to the Universal Life Church, Pratt isn’t alone, and he represents a controversial growing trend of people turning to online ordination to officiate weddings and preside over baptisms and funerals — a move lauded by religious freedom advocates and castigated by theologians.
The Universal Life Church neither holds religious Sunday services, nor has a physical building that serves as its house of worship. In fact, church spokesperson Andy Fulton said the original Modesto, Calif., church that was founded in 1959 no longer exists. Rather, Fulton said the main mission of the church is carried on through its website. Even before the online ordination became the newest fad next to miniskirts and sweater vests, the Universal Life Church had already provided nearly 18 million ordination certificates worldwide between 1962 and 2009, and that number has grown to nearly 20 million in 2011, according to the church’s website. In fact, it touts 114 University students alone as ordained [email protected]@http://media.www.thelantern.com/campus/site-ministers-to-those-seeking-ordination-1.2224535@@
On the church’s website, ordained ministers can pay anywhere between $13.99 to $139.99 to purchase a variety of products and services, including receiving a religious title, doctor of divinity certificate, doctor of metaphysics certificate, master of Wicca certificate, “ordination package” and a “ministry-in-a-box.”
“We are a church, but the purpose of our church is to ordain people so that they can perform these wedding ceremonies,” Fulton said. “What we do is perfectly legal; we’re a service organization, if you think about it. People hear the word ‘church’ and they expect a brick-and-mortar church with a pastor or priest, but when you look at the Universal Life Church Monastery, you have to look past that model.”
However, not everyone is supportive of online ordination. John Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins professor of homiletics at Southern Methodist University, said he finds online ordinations to be “absurd” and correlates its popularity to the secularization of modern-day [email protected]@http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/FacultyAcademics/DirectoryList/Holbert.aspx@@
“I believe that ministry is a learned profession that means that you don’t imagine yourself one day to be loved by God, and then go out and do it,” Holbert said. “I think it’s a kind of sign that the culture is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional understandings of church and clergy.”
Nevertheless, Holbert said he understands why this shift in society’s perception is occurring when he considers the numerous scandals many religious institutions have faced in recent years.
“I think the online thing has become a kind of outlet and a kind of revolt or rebellion, really, against the traditional church,” Holbert said. “I don’t defend it at all, and I frankly think it’s a mockery of traditional ordination, but at the same time, I’m not surprised that it’s happening.”
Fulton defended the Universal Life Church’s actions by saying the organization’s sole purpose is to ordain people to conduct wedding ceremonies, rather than grant people the religious authority to start their own congregations.
“If people that we ordained wanted to go out (and) form their own churches or their own congregations, then that would be a little sensitive and a little suspect, but 99.9 to the umpteenth degree percent of the people that we ordain are ordained so they can perform wedding ceremonies — they don’t go out to start churches,” Fulton said. “I feel like anyone who criticizes the Universal Life Church Monastery or criticizes online ordination doesn’t really know the whole deal behind it.”
Some people ordained by the Universal Life Church Monastery take their responsibilities seriously because they view the act of officiating a marriage as one of great honor with a significant amount of responsibility.
“I take it seriously, because there’s really not a whole lot more serious than joining two people in marriage,” Pratt said. “It’s a big responsibility that they put on me, so I put a lot of thought into it before I actually said, ‘yes,’ to it. There really wasn’t any answer other than ‘yes’ that I would have given them, just because it’s a really big honor. ”
On the other hand, some of the church’s ordained ministers see it differently. Almost a year ago, University sophomore digital arts major Matt Greeley-Roberts said he was bored at work in the Knight Library when he found out that anyone can be ordained online. A few keyboard taps and mouse clicks later, he found himself an ordained [email protected]@http://directory.uoregon.edu/telecom/directory.jsp?p=findpeople%2Ffind_results&m=student&d=person&b=name&s=Matt+Greeley-Roberts@@
“I just wanted to see if it could be done, and apparently it can be,” Greeley-Roberts said. “I don’t take it seriously at all. I’m quite sure there are people who do, but I look at it completely as a joke or as someone who just wants to run their friends’ wedding for them or something.”