Virtual Vows

Online Ordination— It's Free and It Takes Five Minutes

The Reverend Michael Smallman is in a panic: palms sweating, heart palpitating, the works. For the first time in his 27-year-old life, he'll be joining a couple in holy matrimony, and he has no idea what he's going to say, let alone wear. The bride and groom— both good friends of his— specifically requested that he officiate at their wedding, and while he's pleased and moved, he's also terrified.

"I was so freaked out when they asked me to do it," says Smallman, a stage electrician. "I told them it was a huge honor and that I deeply appreciated it, but that at any point they had the option to pull out. They didn't."

Smallman, whose long red hair, brown eyes, and flowing beard make him look like, as he puts it, "an Irish Catholic Jesus Christ," got himself ordained online via the Universal Life Church— a free, five-minute-long transaction. As every good hippie knows, the ULC, headquartered in Modesto, California, has been around since 1962 and advertises in the back of Rolling Stone. Its founder was the late Reverend Dr. Kirby J. Hensley. Tired of the hypocrisy in organized religion, he anointed himself "bishop" and started offering free mail-order certificates of ordination to anyone and everyone— including animals— regardless of race or religion. Since that time, nearly 16 million ordained reverends have been floating around the universe, among them Jim Jones, Lyndon Johnson, Lawrence Welk, and Phyllis Diller.

Five years ago, Brother Daniel Zimmerman, 50, saw the light and decided to set up a Web site from his home in Tucson (www.ulc.net). A spitfire whose voice rises and falls like the preacher he once was ("I could shout with the best of 'em"), Zimmerman fields nearly 15,000 requests a month, responding individually to each one. It is, he says, a full-time job, but who said God's work is easy? In New York City, online ordination has spread like, well, hellfire: the ULC gets about 5000 requests from New Yorkers per month, up from 3000 in December. "I think it has to do with Y2K and the end of the world," says Zimmerman, although, he muses, "If it's the end of the world, why would you need to be ordained?"

Like Smallman, most New Yorkers get ordained to play reverend for their friends, many of whom are marrying outside their religion or for the second or third time. "It has to do with the coming of age, of roles being redefined, of people having smaller, more intimate weddings," says Smallman. "They want the ceremony to be more meaningful by having a close friend officiate."

"We don't advise them that the knots are any tighter, but they are knots," adds the never-married Zimmerman.

Once ordained, new ministers can download credentials or mail away for a certificate with a gold-embossed seal (for a suggested "free-will" donation of $5). For $59, they can order Ministry in a Box, a sort of spiritual Happy Meal filled with a Doctor of Divinity degree, a certificate of Sainthood, the ULC handbook, suggested ceremonial readings, and, of course, incense. Special monikers are also available, among them Martyr, Lama, Brahman, Dervish, Soul Therapist, Existcreatologist, Astrotheologian, and King. Should church business occur during rush hour, an 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 ministers' car-window shield can be purchased for $5; flip it over and it's a press pass. The credentials are good for life, and ministers can conduct funerals, baptisms, weddings— everything except brisses, which only count if performed by a moyel, a title not offered by the church.

Whether or not ULC ordination is legal in Manhattan is currently up for debate. Some wannabe ministers have been able to register with the city clerk by simply wandering into the office and filling out paperwork; others have had to provide notarized letters of good standing from the church, a list of ULC congregations in New York City, and copies of the church's Articles of Incorporation. Still others are turned down: "No one in the five boroughs is allowed to marry [other people] without our permission, and we don't recognize the Universal Life Church," says clergy registrar Audrey Spark. "A lot of people call or come in and I have to reject them. We don't even look at their paperwork."

Her news comes as a surprise to those who've been hitched by ULC ministers. "The IRS thinks I'm married," says Jennifer Newton, director of conference services and programming at Fortune magazine, who was married in 1997 by former MTV VJ­ULC minister Adam Curry. "After the wedding I sent in the marriage license, and it was accepted. Can they go back on that?"

Zimmerman is also miffed by Spark's comments. "No state may refuse to allow the ULC to conduct its affairs," he says, threatening to appear on Howard Stern and "do something really wild and challenge the State of New York." He cites a 1983 case in which a ULC minister married a North Carolina couple.

After they separated, the husband remarried, claiming his first marriage wasn't legal. "Really, it was a bigamy case and the woman sued," says Zimmerman. "We lost and then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court and won." The church is currently seeking legal counsel for its New York situation.

Smallman would like the discrepancy to be resolved. He is taking the plunge in August and, as a ULC minister, has the power to ordain the reverend-to-be— which he'd like to do. As things stand, though, a City Hall official will preside.

 
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