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  • The Reverend
  • Michael Downs (bio)

This spiritual journey began, as spiritual journeys do, with a question.

"I know it's a lot to ask," Courtney wrote, "but we would be honored if you'd consider becoming a fake minister and marrying us."

Her request came via e-mail. Courtney had been a student when I taught journalism at a university in Montana, and we later grew to be friends and colleagues. Now I call Baltimore home, but Courtney and Jacob still live in Montana, where, apparently, fake ministers can conduct weddings. This fact does not amaze me. Montana is wild and libertarian; in some towns the Stockman's bar opens Sunday mornings, but the whitewashed church closed a decade back. In such a vast landscape with so few people, the law provides that God's proxies may easily be found—or made. Somehow, a minister can even be formed out of a lapsed Catholic whose idea of Sunday church is a walk with his wife and dogs in the woods.

Courtney wrote that she and Jacob believed I understood the values and the spirit of their lives, so "when we're up there ready to say our vows, you would be able to articulate in a way few other people could what the whole hullaballoo is all about." I felt honored, humbled, and just a little grand, vain in a kerchief-in-the-suit-pocket way. [End Page 1]

"Think about it," Courtney wrote. "There will be lots of free beer."

The Montana Code Annotated of 2007, 40-1-301: Solemnization and registration (with my italics).

(1) A marriage may be solemnized by a judge of a court of record, by a public official whose powers include solemnization of marriages, by a mayor, city judge, or justice of the peace, by a tribal judge, or in accordance with any mode of solemnization recognized by any religious denomination, Indian nation or tribe, or native group.

Also …

(3) The solemnization of the marriage is not invalidated by the fact that the person solemnizing the marriage was not legally qualified to solemnize it if either party to the marriage believed that person to be qualified.

So, were I a huckster, a purveyor of false gods, a Bible salesman with pornographic playing cards in my briefcase, I could still unite Courtney and Jacob so long as one of them was convinced of my credentials. In Montana, by law, marriage truly is an act of faith.

I telephoned Courtney and said yes. Ordination, she explained, was necessary ("any mode of solemnization recognized by any religious denomination") and would be easy if I pointed my Web browser toward the Internet address of the Universal Life Church.

I'd never heard of the ULC, but among certain folk the church is famous. Not famous as the Church of Latter Day Saints is famous, or the Society of Jesus, or even the Branch Davidians. The church's name travels underground, through pop culture and counterculture and trivia games. One example: Chris Stevens, the convict/radio deejay from the 1990s television comedy Northern Exposure, was his fictional hamlet's clergyman, ordained via the Universal Life Church through an advertisement in Rolling Stone magazine. The ULC, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and In-N-Out [End Page 2] Burgers, has a cult following.

Right away I visited the church via the Internet. A pixilated dove welcomed me as it winged through a cosmic sky of stars and nebulas. I clicked and read that the ULC was founded in 1959, that it maintains weekly services in an unassuming white building in Modesto, California, and that all seekers are welcome. I read prayer requests ("I'm controlled by some kind of voodoo and black magic. I need God to save me, protect me and cleanse me"), and noted that anyone could confess online ("Have you forgiven yourself for your sins?" Click "Yes" or "No"). I could purchase clergy kits. I could be ordained for free. All the ULC required was contact information. In fact, I was already ordained! God had ordained me, the ULC explained, as God ordains everyone.

I wrote Courtney a note. "I'll get myself ordained fairly soon...


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