The summer wedding season is on in our churches. And this year in many states there is a particular joy in the fact that court houses are no longer withholding a legal right that ought to be available to all. Marriage equality is having a good run lately. Judges in several states have declared bans on same sex marriage unconstitutional and politicians are discovering that their calculated refusal for years to embrace gay marriage has suddenly become a liability. Witness Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical fumbling with NPR interviewer Terry Gross over her painfully slow “evolution” on this issue. The Presbyterians have just voted to allow their pastors to conduct same gender marriages in states where same sex marriage is legal. Can the Methodists be far behind? Well, probably.
In spite of hold-outs, the shift in law and attitude has been nothing short of breathtaking. In 2005 when the United Church of Christ General Synod voted to support marriage equality, we believed we were the forerunner of a major shift in theological stance and legal practice in this country. But most of us, I think, imagined it would be a twenty-five year shift, not one that would take less than a decade. A lot has changed in a hurry.
All of this is to be celebrated. Let the wedding bells ring! Now, as marriage is increasingly an opportunity for all, perhaps it’s time for the church to ask another question about marriage: Shouldn’t we get ourselves out of the business of serving as agents for the state in the creation of a legal marriage? Why are we doing this? There is no good theological reason for clergy to take on this legal responsibility. In no other way are we state agents (the role of state authorized communion wine purchaser ended with the repeal of Prohibition!). Why retain this last vestige of the legal establishment of the church? And why should we allow the state to determine, as the Presbyterians seem willing to do, who can receive the rite or sacrament of marriage in our churches? If the church chooses to solemnize or bless a union that the state continues to legally bar, why should that legal prohibition intrude on ecclesial prerogatives? In fact, the United Church of Christ General Synod is raising this very question in a challenge to current North Carolina law.
In addition to surrendering a certain degree of control over religious rites to the state, it’s hard to see any other reason for retaining our role as state agents for marriage than a mere concession to custom or the protection of an old and odd privilege. Why not let the state do its thing – issue licenses and create a legal relationship – and let the church do its thing when desired, namely, bless a marriage, legally recognized or not, when couples and the church agree that it is desired and appropriate? Many European countries have it right. Have a civil ceremony at the town hall and then, if desired, a religious ceremony some time later at the church.
I don’t know too many ministers who would mind giving up this privilege which, frankly, is often more of a burden. Nothing is more annoying than being asked to perform a wedding when it is quite clear that all a couple really wants from us is our legal authorization to sign a license and perhaps access to a lovely venue for an event and backdrop for photography. Is this what ministry should be about? As for couples who truly desire a religious context for their marriage celebration, who want to affirm a spiritual dimension to their union and acknowledge a larger set of relationships in which their promises will be lived out, and who want to express that this marriage is not just a legal contract but also a covenantal bond, a church wedding, with benefit of clergy, is always possible. All that would change is a transfer of the legal transaction from the altar to the court house.
So let the wedding bells ring. But let’s also disentangle an old confusion of roles that is the last vestige of an outmoded privilege and a long ago abandoned legal and cultural privilege. I suspect that the only ones who would truly worry about this change would be the folks at the Universal Life Church who rake in the bucks for “ordaining” people who can claim state agency by virtue of an online transaction. And frankly, why should any of us care about that? Meanwhile, florists can still provide their flowers, bakers their cakes, caterers their parties, photographers their pics, and DJ’s their, er, music whether a family celebration is held at a church, on the beach, or at the country club. And if in the process some poor, overworked clergy person gets a free afternoon to spend with spouse or children on a beautiful summer Saturday, all the better!
John H. Thomas
June 26, 2014