I was recently a bridesmaid in a wedding–bouquet and all. It was a gorgeous event, and I had a wonderful time celebrating my childhood best friend’s marriage to her new husband. Standing up with her was a youthful dream come true.

The wedding mass was held in an old, opulent Roman Catholic church where the bride is a member. I didn’t mind this despite my divorce from Christianity and personal views on the way the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) manages itself. It was a beautiful location for their special moment.

Photo by photine

During rehearsal we ran through the ceremonial procedures and were instructed how to act by the wedding sacristan and the priest. At one point, the priest walked over to where we bridesmaids were sitting and gave us all a stern look. “When you are walking up the aisle,” he said, “Once you reach the front you must stop, pause, and bow to the Eucharist. You can’t genuflect in your dresses, but you must bow.”

At this matter-of-fact instruction, he walked away. Immediately, my eyebrows shot up. Surely he didn’t expect us all to be Catholic. and what non-Catholic would bow to a piece of food in a gold box on the stage?

My feeling of puzzled reticence only inflated when the priest joined us once again ten minutes later. He instructed us how to “properly receive the Eucharist” during communion: All of us must go up together because it would (apparently) look better. Those people not in good standing with the RCC should cross their hands over their chest (like a dead person in a coffin) and receive a blessing in the form of a cross drawn on the forehead by the priest’s thumb.

I sighed audibly, rolled my eyes, but kept my vocal opinions on this instruction to myself. The bridesmaid beside me was clearly perturbed as she scoffed, “Geez, who wouldn’t want a blessing?” I guess I didn’t hide my distaste for these traditions very well.

Some of the other other bridesmaids knew I wasn’t a Christian, but all of them knew I wasn’t Catholic. I saw a few  eyes dart towards me from further down the pew as I pondered what to do.

First we’re told to bow to someone who isn’t there. Then we’re told to receive a blessing and get a torture device religious symbol drawn on our foreheads? I mean really–what kind of atheist would I be if I didn’t feel a bit annoyed by this?

My usual practice ever since childhood was to stay in my seat quietly and just wait for all the Catholics to get up, move through the line, eat and drink some Jesus, and come back to kneel beside me. The one thing you must not do, according to the RCC, is let a non-Catholic receive communion. We’re not part of the club, you see. Since the bread and wine are supposed to impart grace and salvation, you don’t want to hand that shit out to every Tom, Dick, or Harriet that sneaks up that aisle. Non-Catholics have got to follow all the Church’s rules in order to get the good stuff.


I remember tweeting about the priest’s orders after the rehearsal–the requirements for me to bow and receive the blessing of the cross weighing rather heavily on my mind. What was the right thing to do?

On one hand, I didn’t want to take part in traditions I thought were silly and meaningless. I wouldn’t require anyone else to take part is my religious or non-religious traditions if they didn’t feel comfortable with it. Even if I thought my beliefs or practices were correct or “best”, I would still respect those of other traditions. I did as a Christian, and I still do this today.

On the other hand, this was not my special event. I was a guest and an honored participant in my close friend’s wedding. The bowing and the blessing meant a lot to her, and I didn’t want to harm or hurt her in any way. Since these orders of behavior didn’t do me any harm, I could participate without any consequence besides a b low to my ego and an annoyance about play-acting a role I didn’t support.

My Choice

The priest stood at the front of the church with clasped hands, watching as I walked up the church aisle. I was smiling from ear to ear and loving this moment. My friend was getting married! That was the most important thing to me. As I neared the stage upon which the altar and the Eucharist stood, I stopped, faced the priest, and nodded. I chose not to bow, but I made the movement of my head as a sign of peace and respect.

The time for taking communion came. I stood with my fellow bridesmaids and received the blessing from the priest, a cross pressed into my skin. As we returned to our pew, everyone knelt in prayer, but I stayed sitting, considering my choice. Did I do the right thing? Was I honest? Weak? Too compromising? Did it even matter?

It all came down to my desire to give my participation as a small gift to my dear friend. My actions were empty, meaningless, and had no spiritual meaning to me, so I didn’t see any true harm in acting the part. The compromise I made was tiny and it kept the peace.

Do you agree with my choice? Would you participate in a similar situation or stand up for yourself and make a fuss?

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42 thoughts on “Do You Participate When You Don’t Believe?”

Andrew MacVicar · January 13, 2011 at 7:53 am

I think your choice was noble. You didn’t bow to the eucharist but still showed respect to the church (and the bride) by nodding to the priest and not making a scene. I have always felt that religious institutions and practices only hold meaning to the people who believe in them. I once responded to a letter to the editor from an individual who was offended that his polling station was at a church. My response was similar: to me it is a polling station that just happens to be a church – not the other way around. The fact that a statue of Christ watched me vote really meant nothing to me while to a voting believer they likely felt their vote was blessed. So in your case, at the risk of sounding disrespectful, the “joke” is on the RCC, as the rituals pass while you daydream about the reception!

Jennifer · January 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm

I’d take the wine. And only if they refused, THEN I’d make a scene.

Kat Waterflame · January 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm

I would have let the priest know that I was not of the faith, and it would be wrong to take the communion… But, never having to be involved in such a religious ceremony, I’m not completely sure what I would have done if I had been forced to do so…

Green · April 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Well you could view this as two different things. A traditional ceremony or a religious ceremony. In reality it is both, but I don’t feel it’s wrong to participate in your friend’s wedding and celebrating it the way she wished to celebrate it even if her religion runs counter to your own beliefs.

It doesn’t change what you believe to have participated in something you were invited to participate in. If we’re afraid to go to church and experience for ourselves what Christians constantly tell us is so holy and sacred then they’re right when they accuse us of being close-minded.

At least this way you can say you tried it and didn’t get anything out of it.

Charolette Bowdle · June 22, 2012 at 5:00 am

I have learn several just right stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how a lot attempt you place to create any such magnificent informative website.

Dear Godless Girl: Saying Grace? | Godless Girl · April 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm

[…] Saying Grace I read your blog post ‘Do You Participate When You Don’t Believe?‘ and I was wondering… I was brought up in a heavily Christian family and we always say […]

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