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COLUMN: Called to spread the electronic word: How I became ordained online

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I should probably let my faithful readers know that while my columns may sound like the inane ramblings of a slightly delusional person, there happens to be quite a bit of ecclesiastical weight behind the things I say.

That’s right. Guess who’s an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California? This guy.

I don’t usually like to throw that title around because I don’t want people to act differently just because I’m an esteemed member of the clergy. But every now and again I have to point out to my friends — lest they forget — that I have certain ecclesiastical powers that not everyone possesses.

I should probably give you some background. Years ago, I was having a discussion with my friend Eric, who is the pastor of a church in Cartersville called The Bridge. He is one of the nicest, coolest guys you will ever know, and he happens to be a remarkable member of the clergy. However, we were arguing one day and I got the sense that, since it was an argument about theology and he DID spend years and lots of money getting his ordination, he probably was better informed than I was.

Unfortunately, I rarely back down from an argument, and I made up my mind to never lose a theological debate to Eric ever again. I was going to have to become an ordained minister as well. But I didn’t want to dedicate years of my life and thousands of dollars going to a divinity school to study under some of the greatest theological minds of our generation. I needed a quick, easy, cheap way to become an ordained minister.

That’s when I found out about the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California, or the Universal Life Church Monastery. The church has a long, 35-year history online, and its task is to “promote freedom of religion and to do that which is right.” What I got out of that was “to help you win theological arguments with your friends.”

They have an online ordination process, which takes a few minutes, and it was completely free. This was perfect for me. So I filled out the form and waited a few minutes and then received a confirmation email saying I was now an ordained minister.

That’s right. I became an ordained member of the clergy, out of spite.

The email included a copy of my credentials. If I wanted the original I was going to have to pay for them to send it to me in the mail. But you can also get a little wallet-sized card saying you’re an ordained minister.

You’re probably thinking “that’s wonderful, Severo. You get to spread the word of the church. But what benefits and responsibilities are accorded an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California?”

Well, let me tell you. As an ordained minister with that online church, I have the ability to perform marriages, funerals, baptisms, ceremonial rites and last rites. I can also start my own church (be it brick and mortar or just online).

The next best thing is that I can use the titles Reverend, Minister, Healer or Educator. And the BEST thing is that I can absolve the sins of others. Do you realize the kind of power I wield, to be able to absolve sins? I might start charging for absolutions. I can even make emergency absolution house calls — but that will cost you an arm and a leg.

I’ll probably just set up a booth at the Coosa Valley Fair where people can get their sins absolved for the low, low price of $26.

I have never technically performed any of the ceremonies that my ordination allows me to. A big part of that is I’m not really sure of the legality of all this and if a ceremony I perform would be recognized by the state. I guess I should look that up somewhere. The “frequently asked questions” section of the church website doesn’t offer a whole lot of information, and that’s pretty much the only resource I’ve consulted at this point.

The overriding premise of the church is that your actions and beliefs shouldn’t hurt anyone and must obey the laws of the land. So while that’s a bit restricting, I suppose I should follow it.

I was hoping that being an ordained minister would allow me to not only have the upper theological hand on my friends, but maybe even let me smite people I didn’t like. I like the idea of smiting. But that would definitely hurt someone and I’m almost positive there are anti-smiting laws somewhere in the Georgia constitution.

And before you go making fun of me for my online ordination (which, by the way, is probably a sin for you to do that), you should stop and consider that someone you know is probably an ordained minister with that church as well. Apparently it’s been the thing to do for quite some time.

The church’s website even has an entire page dedicated to the celebrities who are (or were before they died) ordained ministers. I’ll just throw a few names at you.

All four Beatles, the guy who plays Gandalf, Conan O’Brien, Tony Danza, Hugh Hefner, Bette Midler, Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Newman, Johnny Carson and that guy from “Breaking Bad”… like, the main guy.

Not too shabby, huh? Ole Severo’s not so stupid after all. I guess you’re singing a different tune now that you know the guy from “Breaking Bad” is also an ordained minister in MY church ... and by “my” I mean an online church whose history, activities and doctrine I know almost nothing about.

But please don’t let this affect the way you interact with me. Sure, I have the ecclesiastical power to smite my nay-sayers (or at least I think I do). Sure, as a member of the clergy you probably need to show me a little more reverence. And of course, as a man of the cloth I probably know way more about the Bible than you do. But don’t let that be a reason to somehow put me up on this pedestal. I am still one of you. I am among the people. For the meek shall inherit the earth ... or something to that effect.

Severo Avila is features editor at the Rome News-Tribune and an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California.