Wednesday, March 20, 2013

State should do weddings, Church marriages

Let the state conduct weddings so the Church can concentrate on marriages; my solution to the "gay marriage" impasse

I first wrote this essay in 2004 but decided to post it here when I saw a link the Rev. Lee Stevenson posted on his Facebook page a link to a story about Green Street United Methodist Church:
A United Methodist church in Winston-Salem, N.C., has vowed to stop performing weddings until same-sex marriage is made legal. 
Last week, the Green Street United Methodist Church announced its decision to stop performing heterosexual marriages, the Winston-Salem Journal reports. Instead, the church's leadership council is asking pastors to perform blessings.
I have been in the wedding business now for almost 16 years. I haven't counted the number of weddings I have officiated, I'd guess at least 50.

As presently done, church weddings have two components, the legal and the spiritual. Any clergy officiant who performs weddings must do the legal part. The religious part is optional, even for pastors. I have known a few ordained ministers who would perform either a full-up religious ceremony or a bare-bones civil-style ceremony bereft of religiosity. Some civil officials who perform matrimonial services use religious language, others do not. There was a Nashville judge famous for his terse style who beheld a couple come before his bench about 25 years ago. The entire proceedings went like this:
Judge: What do you want?

Groom: We want to get married and we're in a hurry [hands judge license and certificate].
Judge: [Signs license and certificate] Okay, you're married. Next!
As far as the state is concerned, a wedding is a legal meeting in which a contract is made and property rights are allocated according to law or other legal agreement. That is really the state's only interest.

What the filing of a signed wedding certificate and marriage license does (requirements vary from state to state) is abbreviate what would otherwise be a long, drawn-out affair. Think of a home-sale closing and you get an idea of what a wedding would be like if it weren't for the fact that law and custom simply assign to spouses rights that would otherwise require lengthy, lawyerly documentation, and would probably require it for nearly every significant change in the couple's material status and the birth of children.

Yet for the Church, property rights and contracts are of fleeting to no concern except as they affect for good or ill the spiritual health and religious character of the married couple.

So why should I periodically act as an agent of the state in performing weddings? I can't think of any reason.

I would rather see the state and the Church face the truth about what they are both doing in the matrimony business the way it is presently done: each meddling in the other's affairs and, with the debates over "gay marriage," managing to make a mess of it.

If I had my way, I would never perform another wedding as weddings are presently done. There is a much more appropriate role for clergy, IMO, than joining couples in legal contracts called weddings. I am thinking of this topic because when I first wrote this essay, James Joyner, surveying the issue of gay marriage controversies, suggested a radical solution:
... simply do away with marriage as a governmental institution, period. Let churches marry people as they see fit—with only religious value attached to the ceremony. We could then have civil unions that the states could regulate.
I posted a comment taking quite the opposite position. Instead of getting the state out of the wedding business, I would rather see the church get out of the wedding business.

This is heresy, of course, not in the sense of violating theological-doctrinal standards, but in the sense of crossing a deeply-embedded, socio-religious more. There still remains in American society a strong sense that you are "supposed" to get married in a church by a cleric, even among couples who never otherwise darken a church's door. A lot of times an engaged couple with no active religious life seek a church wedding just to make mom and dad happy, and/or because they want a traditional photo album of wedding pictures.

That, however, does not bother me. It used to, but I adopted my own personal wedding policy some years ago: I do not marry couples not under my pastoral care. I am not a wedding mercenary. I am more than willing to talk to total strangers about officiating at their wedding, but they must become part of my flock until the wedding occurs. After that, they can do what they want. In the meantime, I give them Christian witness and pastoral care. I have found that most couples I marry under these conditions have stayed in my church after the wedding, some as members, some as participants. If these terms are not acceptable to the couple, I offer them my prayers, best wishes and farewell.

But I digress.

In Protestantism, marriage is not a sacrament as it is in the Catholic churches (for definition of "sacrament," see the endnote to this post). In the Greek Orthodox Church,
Since Marriage is not viewed as a legal contract, there are no vows in the Sacrament. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom.
However, in the Roman Catholic Church and the Western wedding tradition generally, vows are exchanged and promises made. These vows are essentially legalistic in nature - in fact, contractual - and date mostly from the time of European feudalism. Feudalism was a pre-capitalist social system based on contractual obligations between classes regarding goods and services; this contractualism pervaded every aspect of society. One of the chief interests in weddings - done only between peer families, of course - was the matter of inheritance and property rights. Hence, weddings vows included, and still include, legal language such as "to have and to hold from this day forward" and declarations of freely entering into the vows.

However, weddings were rarely performed in churches until about 500 years ago. Martin Luther, for example, was not married in a church. While marriages were seen as falling under religious dominion, the wedding ceremony was a civil affair. (Note that the Catholic churches hold marriage, not the wedding, to be sacramental.)

The contractual nature of weddings continues to this day, exemplified by prenuptial agreements and especially in divorce proceedings, in which the division of property is of foremost concern. The wedding litanies used by most denominations today have a lot of God talk but remain basically legalistic, not religious.

As the officiant of a wedding, I act as an agent of the state, signing two legal documents certifying the wedding took place and attesting to my legal authority to conduct it. I have no problem with that, but it tends to bifurcate my role. I have come to think a more appropriate role for me would be to conduct a purely religious blessing ceremony some time after the wedding is done.

So, if I could wave a magic wand to get my way, here is what it would be:

1. Engaged couples would be wed by civil authorities. Legally, they would then be husband and wife. I deny that same-sex "marriage" can ever rightly be called that, about which more in another post to come, but briefly, states that want to legalize such things should abandon issuing marriage licenses of any sort, to anyone, and just issue civil-union certificates (CICs).

2. Certificates of marriage, having no additional legal effect, would be issued by churches, synagogues or mosques, not by the state. Holders of CICs who also wanted to be married - with all the social and religious implications thereof - would find their desire unencumbered by state burdens, and churches would be freed of the pressure to unite couples in matrimony for reasons often having little to do with religious nurture.

From my perspective as a pastor, separating the civil-legal aspects and the religious aspects would have some salutary effects:

First - It would allow more time for me to work with couples who have a religious interest in their interpersonal relationship without the deadline pressure of a wedding date. Of the gazillion things on the mind of brides, grooms and their families to get the wedding done well and on time, religious reflection and counseling usually rank about last. The couple usually perceives, correctly, that there is time for that after the wedding.

Second - It would permit me and the engaged couple to go forward with less sexual hypocrisy. Far more than half of men and women getting married today are already cohabiting, living as husband and wife in every way except the legal certification. For a large number of such men - and the majority of such women - the spouse they will take is not the first they have cohabited with. The historical teaching of the Church, of course, is that sexual relations should follow, not precede, the wedding.

My personal policy in this is "don't ask, don't tell." I do not ask couples whether they live together, but when they both report the same mailing address it sort of gives the game away. By far the majority of couples I marry these days are already cohabiting. That means that the contractual nature of the wedding is more prominent than ever; they are certainly not looking for the Church's sanction of their relationship. They really seek legal, not religious, recognition of their troth and all the legal benefits it entails. For them, the signature on the license is far more important than the words of the litany. The ceremony changes essentially nothing about their lives, except often to make the in-laws on both sides more accepting of the state of affairs. Reconciliation is certainly a role for clergy, but frankly, I sometimes feel like I'm being used for essentially selfish concerns on their part.

If a couple wants a marriage, not merely a partnership, then I'd rather it be because they have genuine impulses toward spiritual union with one another and God, under God's grace and the care of the Church, not because it simplifies other parts of their lives.

Homosexual partners who want to share the same legal rights as traditional married couples would be able to do so under this arrangement. It would not entail the state defining them as married, nor require anyone else to recognize them as married. There are denominations that would issue them marriage certificates, though, the Metropolitan Community Church being one (they already do, but the state doesn't recognize them as contractual documents). But Catholics, Baptists and Methodists, et. al. would be able to maintain their orthodoxy of what marriage is and devote their attentions away from the legal-political arena to where it belongs: the care and nurture of souls.


One issue that I recognize but don't want to lengthen the post to address is whether parishioners cohabiting with only a CIC would still be held by churches to be "living in sin." I would not, but whether yes or no, this is of no concern of the state.

Another issue is that if some churches refuse ever to recognize non-traditional pairings as marriage partners, would this not drive homosexual partners out of the church once they get a CIC? Probably, but I can tell you that no matter how the state decides to define "marriage," churches will continue to define it as they want and there is nothing the state can do about it.

A third issue is that the present system, for all its shortcomings, does define marriage precisely, even though many people obviously want to change the definition. If states did turn to CICs, then the definitions of marriage might multiply according to the differences between denominational understandings. Or maybe not; I am not sure that within Christian denoms there is very much difference in understanding what marriage is.

Finally, what is a sacrament? In general, a sacrament is a sacred rite instituted or blessed by Christ. Although Jesus never married, and marriage obviously existed before him, he did bless a wedding at Cana (Gospel of John). A sacrament is also an "instituted means of grace," by which if received in faith the believer may reliably receive the grace of God. (Catholic theology of sacrament, however, generally holds that the faith of the receiver does not inhibit the efficacy of the sacrament; hence, an unconscious person may be baptized as efficaciously as any person.) Look, I can't pare it down more than this. Whole books about the nature of sacrament continue to be written and I don't want to write one here.

Update: A point of clarification: I am not suggesting a total separation of the legal/contractual relationship from the spiritual relationship. In fact, I would not certify as married any couple who had not already completed a CIC. The mutuality of property and other rights is necessarily included in marriage. But all the legal mutuality is already accomplished by civil weddings now without regard to a couple's religious identity.

I repeat: all the property and legal rights that are made real by the signature of a marriage license can be obtained in other ways with other legal instruments, though with greater trouble and higher cost.

People who scream about the "sanctity of marriage" - a religiously loaded term - need to explain how sanctified Americans think marriage is when there far are more than a million divorces per year, 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock and a majority of birth for women under 30, and as I already said, the majority of men and women who do marry already are living together as de facto husband and wife.

The fact is that America destroyed the sanctity of marriage long before homosexuals became politically activist, and it was this destruction that led to gay activism - see my 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Save Marriage? It's too late