Celebrating Love and Commitment

Offered by Rev. Leslie Westbrook
Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Bethesda, MD
July 20, 2003

I officiated at my first lesbian “Celebration of Love” in 1973. After performing the ceremony, I registered the religious event in the records of the church I served with the required documentation: the date, the place, the couples’ full names, and myself as the officiating minister. I had no idea my actions would be seen as controversial.

Today, as our nation debates whether gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, I think back to over thirty years ago when two women asked me, because I was a Unitarian Universalist minister, to bless their union.

It was September of 1973. The couple were in their early thirties. They sat holding hands. One woman was wearing jeans and a denim jacket. Her cropped blonde hair feathered softly around a petite heart-shaped face unadorned by cosmetics. There was a no-nonsense appearance about the way she carried herself. She was from the working class, from Irish South Boston.

Her partner, who had medium length dark hair, was in a traditional summer dress. Pastel hues captured and emphasized her gentle appearance. Both women’s quiet reserve permeated the room.

While they both seemed shy, the woman in the jeans took the lead. First, she formally thanked me for meeting with them and then she told me that she and her partner wanted a wedding ceremony. As I asked them questions, they each, in their own very different ways, spoke of how much they loved one another and wanted to be with each other. They spoke of a felt need to tell the world of their love. The woman in the jeans spoke the most. Her speech was intense, direct. She looked me straight in the eyes as she spoke. I liked her. I liked her partner. I liked the way these two women were with each other. I said I certainly would perform the ceremony they requested.

I had just begun my first month as Assistant Minister at Arlington Street Church, in Boston. I was twenty-seven, naive, idealistic, hopeful, a woman in what was still a man’s world, trying to learn how to be a minister. I had been drawn to the church I served because of what the Senior Minister preached… respect and equality for all people.

I had never performed a wedding, nor taken a course in theological school about how to develop a wedding ceremony for a couple. A child of the 60’s, I was a product of the women’s liberation movement. The Senior Minister, approached first to perform the ceremony, gave me a private tutorial. What he taught me are still guiding principles when I work with any couple.

The evening I met with the couple, I sat in an office under a large portrait of William Ellery Channing, the father of our religious movement. Channing’s sermon on the occasion of the ordination of Jared Sparks at First Church in Baltimore laid out the Unitarian theology of a unitary, not a trinitary, God. Later, Channing had spoken out against slavery, declaring that all human beings were of one species. Our modern rendition of Channing’s ideas are that whether we are white or black, rich or poor, gay or straight or bisexual or transgender, the human blood and desire that courses through our veins is basically the same. I thought it was appropriate that I and those two women sat under Channing’s portrait.

Marriage invariably stirs strong emotions in most of us — no matter whether we are gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender. We may have thoughts and feelings about our parents’ marriages, the relationships of others we have loved, perhaps of our own past marriages and unions. We may remember painful disappointments, as well as moments of feeling uplifted. Our emotions may run the entire gamut from desire to disgust, from fear to longing, from confusion or ambivalence to absolute clarity of feeling.
Not everyone wants a committed, on-going, monogamous relationship. Many people, however, do. They want an intimate, sexual, companionate relationship that they can count on over the long haul. As in the heterosexual world, the nature of those relationships and the details of the sexual, emotional, financial, social and familial relationships are as varied as are the people who create them.

When a couple comes to me because they want a public celebration of their love and commitment, I help them design a service that will reflect their understanding of the love and affection they feel for one another. I help them design a service that will express their hopes and promises for their future together. I help them think about and acknowledge the limits of their relationship, i.e. under what conditions they would leave the other person. What is it that is critically important to the maintenance and sustenance of their relationship? What would seriously threaten its continuance?

The elements of a Celebration of Love or Gay Wedding are usually simple but full of intense feeling and yearning.

I remember the Opening Words of another Celebration of Love I performed in a garden in Concord, Massachusetts in May of 1981. The words were composed from what the couple told me and what they wrote about their relationship. Imagine that garden, green in the New England spring, sprinkled with the bright flowers that come after a long winter. This time, the wedding was in the backyard of a home in a well-heeled residential neighborhood. Imagine a clear sky, no traffic noise, a slight chill in the air. The Opening Words spoke of what the women valued and cherished, their hopes for the future, their promises to one another. At their suggestion, I said:

“We are here today at Ann and Linda’s home because Ann and Linda love each other. We have been called together as witnesses to the happiness which they have found together and to the pledge which they will now make, each to the other, for the mutual service of their common life.

“We rejoice with them that out of all the world they have found each other, and that they will henceforth find the deeper meaning and richness of life in sharing with each other.

“This ceremony brings with it no guarantee. Ann and Linda must deliberately intend, in every coming day, to be married to one another, without regard to the ebb and flow of feelings, without regard to the joys and sorrows of life, without regard to the gifts and denials of circumstance.

“Ann and Linda each come to this union with a unique background that has made her who she is. From this they will make their own history, each one knowledgeable and thankful for what went before in the life of the other.”

Like every other wedding at which I have officiated, I declared that the purpose of the gathering was to witness the exchange of marriage vows in which two people commit themselves to a relationship of love, caring and support.

I told the gathered assembly that we stood with this couple in a profound moment in time and we were honored to be with them.

I declared that the couple pledging themselves to one another needed us, their family and friends, to recognize, to support, and to celebrate with them as they began their life together. In fact, I said that the ideals, the understanding, and the mutual respect which they brought to their relationship had their roots in the love, friendship, guidance, and shared experience that we had provided them.

And I spoke of how each woman came from a different family, with different cultural and religious values and different life experiences. Their relationship would be as unique as the two people who formed it.

There were readings of poetry and prose that expressed Ann and Linda’s understanding of love and marriage. Then came the most important part of the ceremony. I asked the couple, “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?” When they responded affirmatively, I invited them to exchange their wedding vows. Ann spontaneously declared her love, with no written text. Linda, being more organized and formal, vowed her love and commitment with the following words. She said:

“In admiration and trust, I say these true things to you, Ann. I promise to share myself gladly with you, wholeheartedly and without reservation, never to allow any other relation to come before ours. I will seek you out in times of my need and comfort you in yours. You are my best friend and only lover. I will love, respect, and care for you through good times and bad, as long as we both shall live.”

The couple exchanged rings, and I declared that they were loving and committed partners from that day forth. The couple kissed, and the assembly laughed with pleasure and clapped.

All of the elements of an adult love relationship were incorporated into the ceremony.

As described in The Psychology of Love by Robert J. Sternberg and Michael L. Barness, an adult love relationship typically includes passion, intimacy, and commitment (p.142).

First, PASSION. These two women were sexual partners. As with any other couple, the details of the ways they expressed their love, affection and sexual desire were known only to them. They were, however, saying in front of their family and friends that this part of their lives together was satisfying and they both consented to it.

Second, INTIMACY. Intimacy includes a feeling of closeness and human warmth. Each woman expressed high regard for her partner. They received and gave one another emotional support, and they felt loved, appreciated, understood and similar to one another.

Finally, COMMITMENT. In front of family and friends, these two women said they would do all they could to maintain the love that they felt for one another.

The issue of gay marriage is now in the national spotlight. Some legal authorities have taken the risk and granted civil sanction to gay unions. I invite you to support those efforts as Unitarian Universalists by speaking out about your religious views on gay marriage, by being involved in lawful assembly, by lobbying your legislators on behalf of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

I close this morning with the wedding benediction I have used since 1973. I do not know the author of these beautiful words. I have altered the strictly heterosexual references, so that the poem refers to all loving couples. I say:

I wish for you now, and in the years ahead, these three things.

Love in your lives that makes you better people, that continues to give you joy and zest for living, that provides you with energy to face the responsibilities and challenges of life.

A sense of home, with whomever you choose to make up your family, a home that can stand as a symbol of people living together in love, honesty and equality.

And finally, the capacity to say to those you love, when you come to the end of your lives, ‘Because you have loved me, my faith in myself has grown; and because I have seen the good in you, my faith in all humanity has deepened.’

Amen.

Leslie Westbrook

I became a minister in the early 1970's in response to the civil rights movements in our country. I felt passionate about Unitarian Universalism and wanted to do what I could to support our efforts for social justice. I served parishes in New England and the Southeast and then for six years served as Consultant in Adult Education for our denomination. For eight years I was a member and then Vice Chair of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the gatekeeping committee that interviews potential new ministers of our denomination.

When I married and started a family, I began specialized training to be a therapist. I earned a doctorate from the Institute for Clinical Social Work of Chicago and a three year certificate from the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago.

I have for the past twenty five years served as a counselor and therapist to adults, adolescents, and couples. I offer crisis counseling, executive coaching, individual therapy, and couple’s counseling. I see people who are suffering with depression, anxiety and every kind of mental health concern. Others come to me with issues such as infertility, parenting difficulties, marital or intimacy concerns, transitions in their work life, women’s issues, death and dying, and Gay/lesbian issues. I especially enjoy working with partners who are in intimate relationships. I do this work knowing that I am furthering our liberal religious principle of ‘Respect for the worth and dignity of every human being.’

While I have loved serving our denomination as a parish minister, educator, and administrator, my true love is accompanying individuals as they seek to become more compassionate, productive, and creative persons and working with couples who want more satisfaction, caring and love in their intimate relationships.