Monday, June 6, 2011

Civil Marriage and Holy Matrimony

This past weekend I had an occasion to officiate at what I think has been an underutilized liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer, found on pages 433-434 - "The Blessing of a Civil Marriage." The couple were married by a Justice of the Peace six months ago, and then asked me to offer them God's Blessing, and the Church's Blessing. And then they had a wonderful party in our Parish Hall afterward that was far simpler and freer from stress than many wedding receptions I have attended.

The Church has been trying to figure out, in a post-Christendom context that is increasingly pluralistic and multireligious, what exactly marriage means. This includes, but is not limited to, marriages between two people of the same gender. It is rare these days, for example, for me to officiate at the wedding of two Episcopalians. At the very least, most weddings are ecumenical occasions, and more and more they are interfaith events: the non-Christian partner may be Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or Jew, and is increasingly "none."

At the height of Christendom, in the high middle ages in Europe where Church and State were inseparable, the Church took over the marriage business. But it is increasingly clear (wherever one may stand on the particular issues of our time) that there are two aspects of marriage. The first belongs to the state.One might in fact file all of these legal issues - taxes, property, inheritance, etc. - under the rubric of "Civil Marriage." But the fact that a couple can file their taxes jointly has very little to do with the sacramental aspects of marriage, and it feels increasingly odd to me that as a priest I am considered a "civil servant" when it comes to signing marriage licenses.

Most people that I know have come to accept the premise that all couples deserve these same legal rights and the accompanying responsibilities that go with them. Whether couples go off to a Justice of the Peace or license a friend to officiate for the day seems to me an appropriate way to cover these civil matters, particularly for people who have little to no connection to a faith community. I strongly disagree with my fellow Christians who feel they should be able to "legislate" their own morality about marriage when it comes to these basic civil rights.

What I did this weekend was to add something more to this "Civil Marriage." By gathering the community together, and giving the couple an opportunity to make their vows more publicly and within the context of a faith community, and by hearing readings from Holy Scripture, and with the blessing of their rings, we focused on what it is that I think the Church ought to be involved in when it comes to marriage. And of course, as also happens at more "traditional" weddings, the gathered friends and family of the couple also made promises to support them in their life together. And then we offered prayers and a blessing upon their life together. It was remarkably similar to most "weddings," but there was no marriage license for me to sign since that had already been taken care of. Because one of them was a Muslim, we did not celebrate Holy Communion. But if both members entering this holy covenant had been Christians, then it would have been totally appropriate for us to also share that Sacrament together.

We might call what I am describing "Holy Matrimony." It's the part of marriage the Church does have a stake in; the part that is sacramental. Among Christians, there are and will continue to be disagreements about who can enter into this covenant and what it entails. Some clergy would not be willing, for example, to officiate at the exchange of vows between a Christian and a non-Christian. And some clergy would not be willing to officiate if the couple both happened to be men, or both women. But we might have a more helpful and intelligent conversation about these matters if we could be clearer about what it is we are arguing about.

I live in a state that recognizes (civil) marriage rights for all people. And I happen to belong to a denomination that is increasingly open to offering God's blessing on holy matrimony to all of God's children who seek it; we'll see how that all unfolds at the next General Convention in 2012. While I recognize that there will continue to be (strong) differences of opinion here, it seems to me we could all benefit by getting clearer about making these distinctions. We might then be able to have an honest conversation about the fact that Biblical faith has little to no awareness of our Christendom notions of marriage, and that those on the religious right who argue for "traditional" marriage are not defending the Bible (as they suggest) but medieval European cultural and social norms. (Watching the recent "royal wedding" was a reminder to me of precisely this point.)

I expect to continue to use the more familiar liturgy for marriage for the foreseeable future, especially for those who are connected to the faith community and desire to be married in the Church. But I wonder if in the "emerging church" it might be helpful to begin to move toward this pattern that I was involved in this weekend; a pattern more familiar in many other parts of the world. I think, perhaps a bit naively, that we could find relatively broad consent in distinguishing between state and church interests, and our inability to do this to date is part of what has kept us from having the right argument. If we could further agree to leave civil matters to the civil authorities, then I believe that would allow the Church to focus on what we do best: pray for God's blessing, see in the covenant of marriage an icon of God's love for the world, and join together in the wedding feast that follows, as Jesus did all those years ago in Cana of Galilee.

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