I once attended a surprise wedding. I don't mean that the bride and groom were surprised. I'm not claiming that, an hour or so into a crowded cocktail party, someone suddenly revealed himself to be a clergyman, called for silence, pointed to a couple of people chosen at random and said, "Okay, you and you—get up here." What I mean is that the guests were surprised. We'd been under the impression that the couple in question had invited us to their apartment to observe the fourth anniversary of their relationship. When we were all assembled, the bride informed us that we'd been hornswoggled.
This was to be her third wedding (I'd helped celebrate both of the others, meaning that I was about to accomplish what sports fans call the hat trick) and she had realized that she simply couldn't face the wedding-planning discussions one more time. I bring this up because I remember what this wedding-savvy bride said when I asked her who one gets to officiate at a surprise wedding: "Somebody knew a judge who wouldn't expect to stay for dinner."
I was reminded of that answer some years later, as the wedding of one of my own daughters was approaching. It was not to be a surprise wedding, there had already been plenty of wedding-planning discussions, and it was to take place at a friend's house on the California coast rather than in a New York apartment. But we also had a limitation on how many people could be seated for dinner. When I mentioned a judge in the area who might be willing to perform the ceremony—our entire family knew him and his wife—my daughter said, "I like them, but we weren't thinking of inviting them."
I was pretty certain that there were no clerics or judges among the invitees. "I know I sometimes sound maddeningly conventional about some of these wedding details," I said. "But I think that having someone officiate is pretty close to a requirement."
It dawned on me at the time that, given the increase in cross-cultural marriages, some brides in my daughter's situation might have to worry about making room at the dinner tables for more than one officiant. For decades now, I've begun Sunday mornings by analyzing the wedding announcements in the New York Times, with the goal of being able to divine, through the biographical details of the couple and their parents, precisely what sort of tension might be present at the reception. (Yes, I know I should be above this sort of thing, but old habits die hard.) These days, I often read, in the account of a wedding that took place in some mainstream Protestant church, a sentence like "Pradeep Banerjee, a Hindu priest, participated in the ceremony" or "The vows were preceded by a traditional Japanese tea ceremony." In a cross-cultural wedding, it's natural for one or both of the officiants to explain the significance of anything that might be unfamiliar to some of the guests—why the bride circles the groom three times, for instance, or why the groom arrived at Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church riding an elephant—so a lot of ceremonies become what I call "demo weddings."
My daughter, fortunately, had to find only one officiant, and her older sister came up with a way to do it: In some California counties, a resident can, by filling out some forms and paying a fee, have himself appointed a deputy commissioner of civil marriage for the purpose of conducting a wedding. Selecting someone for the role was easy. My Uncle Jerry, who lived nearby in retirement, was a favorite of the bride and groom. Also, he'd had a distinguished career as a city librarian and an academic in library sciences.
"I think retired librarians should be able to perform weddings even without being deputized, the way ship captains can perform weddings," I told the bride. "Think of the experience they have in keeping people quiet."
Uncle Jerry was duly deputized. At the ceremony, he was splendid. He quoted Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century man of letters, on marriage, and told a charming anecdote about the bride as a child. Needless to say, he stayed for dinner.