Keeping it Civil: Compulsory Marriage, Part 2

The marriage equality train has clearly left the station. After New York, it’s only a matter of time until it rolls through the remaining 44 states. This is good news and the Church has good reasons to board that train. But as I suggested last week, the Church shouldn’t leave its theological luggage sitting on the platform.

The freedom of religious expression in the U.S. means at least this much: The Church is not beholden to the State’s definition of marriage. And as Andre Gide once noted, “To free one’s self is nothing; the truly arduous task is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

So what could the Church to do with its freedom when it comes to marriage? Here are just three broad suggestions:

1. Let’s Keep Changing Marriage

Opponents of civil marriage equality insist that this movement will “redefine marriage.” Let’s hope they are correct. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Recall just two important ways in which marriage has already changed.

The Bible reminds us that “wives” were once considered a lovely form of property – and the more you could acquire the better. This took an extraordinarily long time to fix, and we still see hangovers of that legacy in today’s wedding rites: fathers “giving away” their daughters and women taking on their husband’s names. And do note that marital rape was not considered a crime in every U.S. state until 1993.

Let’s also recall that prior to the abolition of slavery Africans were forbidden from marrying at all. After abolition, “miscegenation” (mixed-race marriage) was illegal in this country. And it was not until as late as 1967 that state statutes forbidding such marriages were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (in a case rather deliciously called “Loving versus Virginia”).

Mildred & Richard Loving

For a very long time, the institution of marriage was an excellent tool for subjugating women and maintaining white supremacy. Thank God marriage changed. But we’re not done.

I hope same-gender married couples will continue the centuries-long evolution of the institution of marriage toward an egalitarian partnership and that those who benefit from this privileged relationship will use their privilege to dismantle the economic and social benefits that attach to it.

That’s an uphill battle, to be sure. The Church should be leading that charge, and a good first step is to keep civil marriage civil.

2. Let’s (Really) Separate Church from State

In most jurisdictions, clergy are agents of the state for marriage licenses just by virtue of being clergy. Others can be temporarily deputized to sign that document as well, but why should ordination to Christian ministry have anything to do with a State contract? It’s time for that to stop.

The minister’s signature on that document implies that the Church endorses the State’s definition of marriage. Do we really? Civil marriage is a contract and the State cares mostly about how to adjudicate the fallout when the parties break that contract. Surely the Church wants to say something more than that about marriage.

Imagine instead that day when the State no longer allows clergy to sign civil marriage licenses because the Church’s standards are too high. Imagine the Church offering a vision of the covenant of marriage that is far more robust than any legal contract. Imagine the Church celebrating many different kinds of covenantal life for the sake of its Gospel mission in the world.

We can take a small but important step in that kind of imagining by detaching the State’s contract from religious ceremonies. To that end, personally, I will no longer sign the state’s marriage license for any couple; let’s keep civil marriage civil.

3. Let’s Value God’s Blessing

This should be obvious, but for some reason the Church doesn’t seem convinced. Consider just two among many recent examples.

Presbyterian minister Janie Spahr got into trouble last year for signing California marriage licenses (when they were legal for same-gender couples). Since 2000, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has actually allowed ministers to bless same-gender relationships, but they can’t sign the state’s contract for them. Janie would not have stumbled if she had just witnessed the state’s marriage and then later blessed the relationship. The logic is distressingly clear: the State’s contract trumps the Church’s blessing.

Consider as well the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, where same-gender clergy couples are now required to get married, as the State of New York has made that option available. Many of those relationships were likely already blessed and affirmed in the Church. In the language of the new diocesan guidelines, the state’s marriage contract will “regularize” those same-gender relationships.

The logic here is equally distressing: merely blessed relationships are “irregular”; only the State can “regularize” them. Does the Church really have so little regard for its own pronouncement of divine blessing?

If we kept civil marriage civil, the Church might rediscover its theological voice and find something to say about marriage that the wider society might really like to hear. In the third and final part of this mini-series, I’ll suggest just a few things the Church could say.

I can’t do that alone, however. I do hope all of us who care about the queerly good news of Christian faith will plunge into this conversation and fine-tune that voice together. I believe more people than most Christian clergy realize are eager for us to listen carefully and then to speak….

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

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