The ceremony was the culmination of a radio contest dubbed "The Fabulous Gay Wedding." It was part media circus, part fairy-tale wedding, and part civil rights history.
"It was a fabulous moment of grace," said Tittle, an American, who has been the minister of the Auckland church for six months. "It was perhaps the most honored day of my life."
On April 17, the New Zealand House of Representatives voted to legalize same-sex marriage by a vote of 77–44. Not long afterwards, Auckland radio station ZM 91 announced a contest for listeners to select a gay or lesbian couple to win an all-expense- paid wedding. The wedding was originally slated to take place at St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church. In late July, however, the vicar of the church announced that the denomination would allow him only to confer a "blessing," not to conduct an actual same-sex wedding.
By coincidence, or—as Tittle describes it—an "unexpected moment of grace," he happened to be watching a morning news show when the radio station disclosed the vicar’s announcement. Tittle said that he rarely watched television in the morning, and had never watched that news show before. He immediately emailed the radio station, telling them that the Auckland Unitarian Church could host the wedding. The disc jockey emailed him back right away, and within three hours, a production crew was at the church, sizing up the location and the minister.
Tittle explained to the crew that not only did Unitarian Universalists have a history of supporting same-sex marriage, but also he had conducted many same-sex ceremonies in the United States. The radio station was convinced, and Tittle and the church began to prepare for the historic wedding.
ZM listeners selected Vitali and Ray from four finalist couples as the contest winners. Tittle began to meet with the couple, and plan the ceremony and vows. "They wanted a traditional wedding," Tittle said. "There were some religious elements, but it’s mostly about love and relationship." Some elements were dictated by the radio station, such as a solo song by Harrison Craig, winner of a television singing competition, The Voice Australia.
By 8 o’clock Monday morning, as a brass trio played, the church was filled to its capacity of 138 guests. The ceremony was carried on the radio station and television, and live streamed on ZM’s website.
It began with a Maori blessing called a karakia, an incantation of the Native New Zealanders. Louisa Wall, the Parliament member who introduced the bill that became the law to legalize same-sex marriage in New Zealand, read a passage during the ceremony. (A video of Wall in the New Zealand House of Representatives became an online sensation after the bill won approval. People in the gallery spontaneously broke into a Maori love song to her.) "I hope the New Zealand experience will inspire others to eliminate inequality and discrimination where they see it and to fight for what is right, fair, and just," Wall said.
Following the ceremony, the couple rode in a horse-drawn carriage to the reception, also provided by the radio station. The prize also included a weeklong honeymoon in Fiji.
New Zealand is primarily a secular nation. The Auckland Unitarian church was built in 1901, and is listed on the country’s national Register of historic places. It has a membership of 50. Tittle is in his first year of a two-year consulting ministry with the congregation, as it decides its future course and whether it can afford professional ministry. It had been lay-led for seven years before Tittle arrived. Tittle hoped the ceremony would bring attention to the Unitarian church in the country as a welcoming faith community.
But Tittle was careful to note that he didn’t see the ceremony as about the Auckland church or the denomination. "It’s history," he said. "It’s about love and receiving this great goal in yet another place on the globe." New Zealand is the fifteenth country to legalize same-sex marriage.
Tittle first began working for marriage equality in 1986, as part of the UUA’s Welcoming Congregation program. He said it was a great honor to be part of New Zealand’s historic movement for marriage equality.
At the end of the day Monday, after the historic marriage and reception, and a day of media interviews around New Zealand, Tittle wrote a simple message on his Facebook page. He said he was "humbled, proud, insanely happy, and feeling God’s grace in today’s events." And he expressed his gratitude to the radio station and to the brides: "Thank you ZM, Tash, and Mel for this beautiful day."
Photograph (above): The Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, minister of the Auckland Unitarian Church, presided at New Zealand's first same-sex marriage, between Natasha Vitali (left) and Melissa Ray (© Peter Jennings).