The Secular Advance on Marriage

Church weddings – remember those? They seem to decrease in our society every year. According to The Knot, a popular nationwide wedding planning website, only 22-percent of couples chose a religious institution for their wedding in 2017, which is dramatically lower than 41-percent in 2009. Where are the majority of people holding their wedding services? In 2017, 15-percent were held in barns, farms or ranches; 14-percent in historic homes; 17-percent at banquet halls; 12-percent in hotels and 12-percent in country clubs. In addition to a dramatic generational reduction in church weddings, the service itself has been subordinated to the reception venue and activities. The majority of couples are no longer deciding in which sanctuary to be joined together. The celebratory aspects have become the priority. As a result of this trend, the role of clergy in weddings has been significantly reduced. According to The Knot, 43-percent of couples chose a family member or friend to officiate at their wedding in 2016, as compared to 29-percent of couples in 2009. The secular rampage that is engulfing American society has penetrated the wedding sacrament, reducing a spiritual bond to a purely legal experience. Marriage as an institution is under duress, and religion is largely absent from weddings that do take place. 

The Armenian American community is not immune to this reality. In the western diaspora, our communities are heavily influenced by the societal values of the host nations, which has both positive and negative effects. For example, the values of education and personal freedom have been widely exercised by Armenian Americans, leading to their general success and prosperity as a group and benefiting their host communities. While the importance of family has diluted some of the negative influences, secularization, divorce, drugs and violence have impacted Armenian Americans. In a society where success is defined in financial terms,  Armenian institutions do their utmost to protect their constituencies from the harmful side effects of financial prosperity. 

Armenian wedding at Khor Virap, 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)

The most important institution in the diaspora is under the most pressure regarding values and norms. The Armenian church has a responsibility to embody the teachings of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, according to its traditions and canons. It is increasingly challenging for the church to attract new generations without compromising to maintain relevance – a word that should never be associated with a relationship with our savior. Sadly, the church competes with worldly ventures for the attention of their constituencies. The problem lies with how we choose to spend our time on this earth. In our society, the problem is not the acquisition of wealth, but our obsession with it as a distraction. In our faith, life on earth is but the beginning of the promise of eternity. It starts with the family unit created by God as the primary vehicle of teaching and living our values. My parents always made our relationship with God and the church a priority. I will always be grateful for that, although I am certain there were moments of rebellion in my youth. We did our best to carry those values forward with our children, but I have become particularly sensitive to making time as a grandparent to bring our grandchildren close to the church. A loving relationship with God and his church is the most important gift we can give our children to help them navigate life’s challenges. All baby boomer grandparents have an important role to play in this journey. Our children face much more complex societal distractions than we did as young parents. We need to transmit values that enable stability and happiness. They will not transfer simply by the passage of time, but through sacrifice, participation and commitment. Too often we choose the “window shopping” approach, bringing our children to church once in a while, but this is not nearly often enough for them to develop a love and dependency. 

The Armenian church is in a difficult position in this country regarding the marriage sacrament. I have spoken with several priests from both the Diocese and the Prelacy on the decline of church weddings. The general consensus was that the number of church weddings has significantly declined to as little as one third of what it was ten years ago. It obviously varies with the size of the parish, but these observations seem to be consistent with the American societal data. The data from The Knot includes Christian denominations in which the clergy are allowed to conduct weddings at venues outside of the sanctuary. Some of the 78-percent of weddings held outside of religious institutions in 2017 could have been officiated by members of the clergy. The official position of the global Armenian church is that their clergy can only officiate at weddings that are held in consecrated edifices. There are some forms of accommodations, but these exceptions are usually not public. An Armenian priest may also offer a blessing at an outside venue, which is not the sacrament of marriage. Regardless, the decline of church weddings seems like a plan for going out of business. I usually hear the resigned response, what are we going to do?

The diaspora in America differs from Armenia in this regard. Church weddings here are more likely within immigration generations, in line with assimilation trends. In Armenia, despite 70 years of Soviet atheism, it is almost unheard of for couples not to be married in the church. Some local churches in Armenia hold up to four weddings in one day. This might be attributed to the ratio of churches to the population, but also to the cultural connection to the church and limited intermarriage. The church and families must reverse this trend in the diaspora.

If God is a part of our home life, then the sacrament of marriage is a natural extension. Deprioritizing a spiritual family life and expecting children to marry in the church is unrealistic and self-fulfilling. We have no right to lament the absence of the sacrament when we raise our children with an aloof presence in the church and little familial spirituality.

A compromise can be reached that maintains the sanctity of the sacrament and enables the church to continue its important role. I have mixed feelings when I attend weddings outside of the church. I am happy for the couple, but I still feel a sense of emptiness as we keep God on the outside and failure as a part of the current gatekeeping generation. Intellectually, I understand that there are larger, overwhelming societal issues at play. Yet the absence of God in this union is tragic. One suggestion I have heard is the use of a consecrated mobile altar for weddings held outside the sanctuary. More resources must also be applied to strengthening families in their spiritual journeys. If God is a part of our home life, then the sacrament of marriage is a natural extension. Deprioritizing a spiritual family life and expecting children to marry in the church is unrealistic and self-fulfilling. We have no right to lament the absence of the sacrament when we raise our children with an aloof presence in the church and little familial spirituality.

The decline of church weddings in the western diaspora is a reflection of shifting values and priorities. I have long feared an Armenian community with a dominant secular base. Decoupling our historic bond between heritage and faith by diminishing the role of the church as an institution is not in the long-term interests of the Armenian nation. If this trend continues, then what’s next – unbaptized children or fewer who seek redemption through the body and blood of Christ? At that point, we are an empty people in decline. If we have the will, we can overcome these challenges, not simply for the sake of restoring traditions but for the glory of God and our salvation. It has been said that marriage offers a sense of commitment to each that will guide couples through life’s challenges. The holy sacrament of marriage provides us the lifelong seal of commitment with the love of our heavenly Father.

This is the business of the church and the responsibility of our families. We can begin to solve problems once we recognize them as such. Give our children this gift.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.


  1. Consecrated mobile altars is truly inane. It’s like trying to ho to church without going. For Armenian Christians to marry outside a church sanctuary without an Armenian clergyman is, in my opinion an extremely sad state of affairs, virtually unforgivable.

  2. The story is the same with Armenians or Iranians or Greeks or Arabs or anyone else. Going to America (or Canada/Australia/EU/etc.) is a transaction: receiving a high salary and retirement package in exchange for your grandchildren’s ethnicity and culture.

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