Main content | Sidebar | Links

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Episcopal diocese: Get married by someone else.

A profoundly misguided resolution is on the agenda for the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, to be held in Boston October 27-28. Here it is in its entirety:

1. Resolution Regarding the Ministry of Blessing Marriages, submitted by The Rev. Barbara Edgar, The Rev. Mally Lloyd, The Rev. Steve Smith, The Rev. Pam Werntz and the Rev. Skip Windsor.

Resolved, that it is the sentiment of the 221st Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts that beginning January 2008, Episcopal marriages be presided over by an agent of the state; and be it further,

Resolved, that it is the sentiment of the 221st Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts that marriages in the Diocese of Massachusetts be limited to the blessing of the union as a holy act and that clergy not act as an agent of the state for any form of civil marriage.

("Resolution 1," Delegate's Handbook, page H-12 [pdf])

What this seems to mean — ignoring any conflicting definitions of marriage in the resolution's two halves, not to mention the front-page Boston Globe article about the "sexual justice" issue motivating the sponsors — is that the diocese would instruct priests not to sign wedding licenses for any couple under any circumstances and to instruct all couples seeking to be married in an Episcopal service to arrange for a civil officiant who would marry them and sign the license before the couple's "union" could be blessed by a priest.

Oh, the questions this raises! Living in Cambridge, Mrs Philocrites and I know several seminarians and priests who support this proposal — dear friends among them — but it sure strikes me as a bad idea on multiple levels.

But before I get to my objections (which I offer, of course, in the spirit of ecumenical good will and the deep personal interest that comes from having been married in the Episcopal Church to one of its future priests), let's look at the arguments I've heard in its favor.

Agents of the state.

The phrase "agent of the state" seems to have intense emotional significance for the supporters we've talked to. There's something illicit, some theological offense involved in being recognized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the officiant at a wedding. Here, for example, is the complete one-paragraph defense of the resolution sent to delegates in the official convention packet:

It is time to question whether clergy ought to act as agents of the state in Massachusetts. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States enunciates the importance of the separation of Church and State to protect the religious liberties of all Americans. The Church and its clergy are in the ministry of blessing, and not in the vocation of conducting, marriage ceremonies. In many other parts of the world the role clergy play is strictly that of blessing civil marriages or unions.

Let's assume that the goal of the First Amendment really is to make sure that church and state have nothing to do with each other. (I tend to think it's really a guarantee that the state won't interfere with your right to practice your religion and won't try to make you practice an "official" religion.) How does the current practice in Massachusetts work? Does it really violate the free exercise of religion? Does it create an establishment of religion? And how onerous is being an "agent of the state" when it comes to officiating at a wedding?

The Commonwealth has chosen to recognize each and every designated religious leader of each and every religious community in the state as equally authorized to conduct weddings. The state doesn't discriminate. Catholic priests, Mormon bishops, Orthodox rabbis, clerks of Quaker meetings — the state doesn't examine religious leaders to ascertain their worthiness. It doesn't charge them a fee. It doesn't deputize them, give them a badge, or pay them a penny. It asks nothing of them, extracts no fee from them, and gives them no powers or authority beyond recognizing one thing: that their signatures represent an official acknowledgement that a wedding has taken place.

A priest is, in other words, the least powerful "agent" the state has. Not only that, Massachusetts allows any citizen of the state to apply for a "one-time designation" as just such an "agent of the state." I've dirtied my hands in this very way three times now in Massachusetts (and once more in Vermont). Let me tell you, that's some awesome power the state gave me, allowing my signature to let the town clerk know that the marriage two people said would take place on such and such a day did, in fact, take place.

The state defers to the free exercise of religion by recognizing that people, in practicing their diverse faiths, prefer to be married in their own houses of worship or at least according to the customs of their religious communities. The state doesn't care which one. It doesn't care if it's a granite church presided over by an ordained priest with an M.Div. wearing a stole and swinging a thurible; it doesn't care if it's a wooden chapel with a rock band led by a minister with a certificate from a Bible college; it doesn't care, in fact, if it's your backyard and the "minister" got her "ordination" over the Internet from the Universal Life Church. If it's a religion and you're one of its duly authorized leaders, Massachusetts recognizes your signature as legitimate. That's what it means for an Episcopal priest to be an "agent of the state."

If my Episcopalian friends are really worried about ways that the state might be giving special privileges to priests, perhaps they should instead consider giving up their clergy housing tax exemptions. (And if they feel the state has already silenced their prophetic witness and bought them off with tax exemptions, they should unstop their mouths rather than gingerly avoiding the IRS's restrictions on political activity by 501c3 nonprofits.) Separate yourselves from the state, by all means, but if you're going to withdraw from the world, don't place the burden of your righteousness on couples who want to marry.

Equity for sexual minorities.

But could this resolution really be about something as purely principled as a desire to keep priestly signatures off of government documents? Of course it isn't. Although none of the supporting materials distributed to delegates of the convention makes this explicit, the resolution is apparently intended as a "justice" gesture toward gay and lesbian people. A front-page story in the Boston Globe made this clear:

"I feel this is a way to equalize an inequity in what Episcopal clergy can do for gay folks and straight folks," said the Rev. Margaret (Mally) E. Lloyd, rector of Christ Church in Plymouth. Lloyd is one of five Episcopal priests sponsoring the resolution.

"Right now, we can only offer blessings for gay folks who are married, and it's not fair," she said. "The church moves slowly to make changes in canon law, so what can we do in the meantime? This is something good for the diocese to wrestle with."

The idea, apparently, is that it's unjust for the church to allow priests to officiate at the marriage of a straight couple in Massachusetts when it does not allow them to officiate at the (civilly authorized) marriage of a same-sex couple. As anyone who follows religion news these days knows, the Episcopal Church is in no hurry to make the canonical change that would allow priests to marry same-sex couples. So some Massachusetts Episcopalians have instead hit on the idea that the church should not allow a priest to officiate at gay or straight weddings ever again.

But Lloyd's "in the meantime" is a phrase that suggests that supporters see the resolution as a temporary measure. Wait a minute: Right now we're up in arms over the separation of church and state, a crucial constitutional principle that leads us to seek the end of clergy involvement in declaring two people married — but down the road when we get around to changing church law to allow wedding liturgies for same-sex couples, we'll forget all about the separation of church and state and gladly sign the same-sex couple's license? A self-consciously temporary "principle" is no principle at all.

This couldn't be what they mean. Or could it? In the Unitarian Universalist Association, my home turf, a tiny fraction of UU ministers say they won't sign marriage licenses until same-sex marriage is legal in their state. (Religious ceremonies for same-sex couples are already widespread in the UUA.) It's immoral for ministers to participate in a discriminatory state practice, they say — although it appears not to be immoral for a justice of the peace to sign the license, or for a straight couple to sign up for immoral matrimony, or for a minister to celebrate a union that partakes of the state's immoral preferential treatment. In the UU case, however, the ministers are holding out for the day when the state will recognize their signatures on licenses for same-sex couples as well as straight ones. It's a boycott (however ineffective) with an end: these ministers want to be agents of the state, I suppose, for every couple that seeks to be married. The diocesan proposal, however, is much more radical than any proposal that has come before a Unitarian Universalist body, and that's really saying something.

So how would the diocesan proposal help same-sex couples? There's the short-term spin value that would allow progressive Episcopalians to claim that the diocese had "done something" for gay rights, but I don't see the step forward. The equity it brings comes by extending an inconvenience to straight couples that the church currently places only on same-sex couples. The diocese's current requirement — that a same-sex couple must first be legally married by someone other than a priest before being blessed by the priest — would be applied to all couples. The only real beneficiaries here are purity-minded priests who have an unusual ideological aversion to signing wedding licenses.

Curiously, although Lloyd explicitly links the resolution to gay rights in the church, another sponsoring priest denies any such connection. Michael Paulson writes in the Globe that the Rev. Skip Windsor "said the resolution really has nothing to do with the same-sex marriage issue, but is about concerns over the separation of church and state."

The inhospitable church.

So now let's consider the real-world consequences of this change. The very last paragraph of the Globe story shows the supporters making a peculiar assumption about their proposal:

Windsor and Lloyd both said that, under the current system, many couples seek to have church weddings because they like the setting. They said they hoped that if the church stopped officiating at marriages, couples that sought a religious ceremony in addition to the civil procedure would be doing so as a reflection of faith.

The headline I put on this post — Get married by someone else — boils this proposal down to its essence. The theological and ecclesiological assumption is that the church's blessing is a reward for the faithful, the really and truly faithful, the insiders whose faith is reflected in their decision to have two ceremonies rather than one. If you're just a couple wanting to get married, the Episcopal Church doesn't welcome you. What a short-sighted vision of the Episcopal Church's charism.

Why are people drawn to an Episcopal church for one of the most important transitions in their lives? As you've no doubt noticed, many Episcopal churches are incredibly beautiful. (The "setting," as the Globe puts it.) And then there's the Episcopal wedding liturgy, which has been influential for centuries out of all proportion to the number of Episcopalians. Its phrases are part of our shared cultural heritage and have helped shape popular ideas about the meaning of marriage. And even when people haven't been attending church in years, even when their religious beliefs seem rudimentary at best, they are demonstrating some degree of receptiveness when they want the church to celebrate their marriage.

When people come to a church to ask about getting married there, the church is being offered an opportunity to share the gospel and to plant the seeds of faith. The beauty that is part of the Episcopal Church's distinctive heritage is one way it draws people to a life of faith. My dear Episcopalian friends, let your heritage draw people to you. Especially let it draw younger people to you, people making one of the most significant decisions of their lives. They may not pledge right away; they may not become regular attenders. But your hospitality to them plants a seed that may flourish elsewhere. Do not put up hurdles that they cannot understand, especially hurdles that are focused on your own purity and that treat the church's blessing as a reward for the true believers.

There are other reasons one could oppose this resolution, of course. It will further divide the church, not only by exacerbating divisions between "progressives" and "conservatives" but by introducing a new principle to fight over. It may impose a restriction on priests that runs contrary to the canons of the church, which allow priests to perform weddings. (What if a priest in the diocese wishes to continue signing wedding licenses?) And it may limit the modest income some priests and churches earn for conducting weddings.

But what are the compelling arguments for it? Am I missing something that would make this proposal make more sense?

("Episcopal diocese may quit marriages," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 10.8.06, reg req'd)

Update 10.29.06: At the annual convention, the diocese tabled the resolution and adopted a substitute resolution calling for a year of conversation about the church's involvement in civil marriage. Good call!

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 21 October 2006 at 2:08 PM

Previous: Romney's quasi-official Mormon outreach initiative.
Next: This week at Pentagon Papers at 35.




October 21, 2006 03:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

P.S. The more important resolution is Resolution 4: Resolution on Marriage Rites in Civil Jurisdictions that Permit Same-Sex Marriage, which asks the national church to authorize rites for use in places (currently only Massachusetts) where same-sex marriages are legal. This resolution, submitted on behalf of the vestry of Emmanuel Church in Boston, would have the diocese "request the 76th General Convention to authorize use of the rites for Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage and The Blessing of a Civil Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer for same-sex couples in those civil jurisdictions that permit same-sex marriage, and to authorize modification of gender references in the rites to accommodate such marriages."

Personally, I think developing appropriate rites involves more than "modifications of gender references," but this resolution at least recognizes that the important matter to work out is the church's conduct of its own religious prerogatives. What is the right way, religiously, to bless these newly-recognized commitments?

Chris T.:

October 21, 2006 04:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Speaking on the last point in your comment, Chris, I wanted to mention that I am working on an Independent Catholic missal with others in the movement, and I've written a single marriage rite for all couples. However, one of the liturgies I was basing the rite on, written by my bishop, had an absolutely beautiful prayer during the blessing that is intended for two men.

Rather than cut that prayer or try to make it gender neutral, I decided to have two prayers for same-sex unions, depending on gender, and one prayer for opposite-sex couples. I do think one should use substantially the same rite for all couples, though -- this nonsense of having "holy unions" for same-sex couples and "marriage" for opposite-sex ones rubs me the wrong way. Marriage for all, I say. :-)

Anyhow, here is the prayer I mentioned above:

O Lord God Eternal, you made us after your image and likeness, and have granted us eternal life. You thought it right that your glorious apostles Peter and Paul, as well as Philip and Bartholomew, be joined as brothers: not by birth, but by faith, love, and the Holy Spirit. In like manner, your holy martyrs Sergius and Bacchus were made brothers. Now bless your servants N. and N. who are to be joined in the holy brotherhood of marriage: not by birth, but by faith and love. Grant them mutual love without envy or temptation all the days of their lives, through the prayers of your saints who have pleased you throughout the ages. For yours is the Kingdom, now and forever. Amen.


October 21, 2006 05:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Could you clarify the issue for those of us unfamiliar with Episcopal Canon Law. The original motion seems to imply that the Episcopal church has an institution known as "blessing" but no formal recognition of marriage. If this is already the case, what is the issue? If canon law doesn't have special rites of marriage, what is there to amend?

Most of the commentary suggests that the church actually does have marriage rites, that canon law denies these rites to gay couples, and that this is a big issue. If that is the case, why is it easier to amend canon law to abolish straight marriage than it is to amend canon law to recognize gay marriage?

Another possibility is that the resolution would keep in place separate church rites for gay and straight couples but eliminate the signing of a particular form, or rather transfer that job to some non-ordained church employee, maybe the choir director. So how does that establish equality?

As you can see, I know little of Episcopal law but am very interested.

From a purely political point of view this seems a very bad strategy. One of the libels constantly thrown at marraige equality advocates is that we are enemies of straight marriage. I don't think headlines like "Gay Rights Advocates Convince Massachusettts Episcopalians to Abolish Church Weddings for Straights" are really helpful.


October 22, 2006 09:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

uuwonk, the Episcopal Church does have official rites for marriage. They can be found in the Book of Common Prayer and in supplemental rites authorized by the national church. In addition to the Book of Common Prayer, which provides the ritual requirements, there are also canonical requirements.

I'm no expert on Episcopal church law, but I do happen to have my wife's copy of the "Constitution and Canons" of the church (1789-2003).

Canon I.18 governs the "solemnization of Holy Matrimony." It says:

Sec. 1. Every Member of the Clergy of this Church shall conform to the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also to the laws of this Church governing the solemnization of Holy Matrimony.

Sec. 2. Before solemnizing a marriage the Member of the Clergy shall have ascertained:

  1. That both parties have the right to contract a marriage according to the laws of the State.
  2. That both parties understand that Holy Matrimony is a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman, entered into within the community of faith, by mutual consent of heart, mind, and will, and with the intent that it be lifelong.
  3. That both parties freely and knowingly consent to such marriage, without fraud, coercion, mistake as to identity of a partner, or mental reservation.
  4. That at least one of the parties has received Holy Baptism.
  5. That both parties have been instructed as to the nature, meaning, and purpose of Holy Matrimony by the Member of the Clergy, or that they have both received such instruction from persons known by the Member of the Clergy to be competent and responsible.

A third section adds other stipulations for Holy Matrimony, and a fourth declares that "it shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize any marriage."

I take the following to be the case: That marriage is a civil status which the church can "solemnize." In the Book of Common Prayer, which governs how sacred acts are performed in the Episcopal Church, there are two forms this can take: The clergy can solemnize and bless a marriage (including meeting the civil legal obligations that establish that civil status) or the clergy can bless a civil marriage that has already taken place.

In both cases, however, the priest has to determine that the couple can legally contract a marriage. (The second resolution being offered to the Diocese of Massachusetts would ask the Episcopal Church to modify this canon to allow churches in a state where same-sex couples can legally marry to also have their marriages solemnized. At present, same-sex marriages can be "blessed" in Massachusetts but not "solemnized.")


October 22, 2006 02:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

The UU minister in my town, the same one who has so soured my family that we are now members of the CLF, is doing this.
Nothing like being told that we straight married employed non-drug using couples with well-behaved children who play contact sports and get good grades to piss off, we don't respect you any more, as a way to build UU.
I'm sick of the "Mary Moon" wing of UU....


October 23, 2006 12:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the details. I was intrigued by the Globe's comment that this was "commonly practiced in Europe." I am pretty sure this is a reference to the policy in much of continental Europe of almost completely separating civil and religious marriage. In France or Italy if two people want to get married they must first be married in a civil ceremony. They then have the option to go to the church of their choice and be married again there if the church approves. (Church and state aren't completely separate. The state will punish any priest who performs a religious wedding not preceded by the civil ceremony.)

But the church has no obligation to approve. In practice, the Catholic church in Italy denies church weddings to all sorts of people whom the Italian state regards as married.

This is one of those "excluded middle" conumdrums. It seems entirely possible that the church and state issue could be resolved with a European solution that does nothing for gay people.

Perhaps the key part of the proposal is the line that " limited to blessings". That is, the idea is to eliminate all church weddings altogether. The civil versus religious business is just a smokescreen. After all, civil and religious weddings can easily coexist. They have in Catholic Europe for at least a century.

(I admit that I find the details of religious law fascinating. But a bit of a subtext here is that I feel that it is very disempowering to hide one's true motives. We are for gay marriage because we think that oppressing gay people is wrong. It bothers me that so many people find that hard to say, that they want to hide behind obscure legalisms that don't actually add up. And I say that as someone who really likes obscure legalisms.)


October 23, 2006 08:01 AM | Permalink for this comment

You're exactly right that the intention here is to end church weddings (meaning the end of marriages conducted in churches which the state recognizes as civil marriages).


October 23, 2006 11:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm actually of the opinion that the Church should not be sanctioning marriages as legal, civic entities. It should be blessing unions, and not conducting a liturgical action that also confers tax and legal benefits. Of course, American society doesn't agree with me on this.

Pat McLaughlin:

October 23, 2006 01:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm missing the fire, Chris.

What's the problem with following the common practice (as discussed above, which I was already familiar with) of having marriage--as a legal entity--be held exclusively in the province of the state? You want to be married, legally? Get the state to provide you the license and meet their requirements.

You want a church wedding, with the ceremony, etc.--in which the blessings of the religious community are achieved and the approval of God is called for? Get a church wedding service; we offer it to all those who meet our requirements, the firest of which is that you have (or will have, prior ot the service) a civil marriage legally.

Seems to me to avoid various sticky issues and the entangling of church and state.

The argument that this cuts into the income of ministers looks really, really tenuous to me. People can ALREADY go and get a civil wedding and be done with it. Plenty of folks do. It's people who WANT a church ceremony (for themselves and/or for family) who seek ministers out.

I'd be shocked if it made more than a 1% difference.


October 23, 2006 02:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

The extremely widespread common practice (which the proponents of this resolution want the diocese to opt out of) is for ministers to sign the wedding license. In the U.S., the state recognizes the religious ceremony as meeting the requirements for a civil ceremony.

And my point is exactly consistent with something you're saying: "People can ALREADY go and get a civil wedding and be done with it. Plenty of folks do. It's people who WANT a church ceremony (for themselves and/or for family) who seek ministers out."

What these Episcopalians are saying, however, is that people who want a religious ceremony in an Episcopal church must first go and get a civil ceremony. No other mainstream church requires people to do this.


October 23, 2006 04:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris said:

"You're exactly right that the intention here is to end church weddings (meaning the end of marriages conducted in churches which the state recognizes as civil marriages)"

But that does _nothing_ for same-sex equality. It just adopts a practice common in Catholic Europe. Yet the measure is explained as somehow promoting equaliity. I am suggesting that the intention is to end "church weddings", meaning the end of marriage rites conducted in churches which the _church_ recognizes as religiously meaningful.

I suspect deliberate obfuscation on the part of the proposers.

Dan Harper:

October 24, 2006 01:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I like this part of Resolution One: "...that clergy not act as an agent of the state for any form of civil marriage."

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am in the process of discerning whether or not I should sign wedding licenses for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Am I qualified to serve as an agent of the state in this matter? --maybe, maybe not. Do I want to represent laws about marriage that may or may not represent my theological position? --and doesn't that mean that I should know a lot about marriage laws in the commonwealth?

One thing that has affected my discernment process -- I was deeply affected by the arguments Stanley Hauerwas makes in his book "Resident Aliens." Hauerwas argues that religious folk (he's specifically referring to Christians, but I think his argument aplies more widely) nedd to act as separate from but engaged in society, at least insofar as they are religious.

Chris, I recognize that you have valid reasons to criticize this particular resolution. But as for the wider question, I think there are some deeper theological questions that could be addressed.


October 24, 2006 05:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

In response to comments by UU Wonk and Mike: I absolutely agree that a church, a minister or a diocese that refuses to officiate at straight weddings gives the impression that he/she/it is somehow above such ceremonies and does more to alienate otherwise sympathetic people than to heal the wounds of anti-gay discrimination. I can't say loudly enough that I hope this proposal is roundly defeated in the Episcopal Diocese in MA for the sake of Episcopalians around the country. And I really wish that UU ministers would not make the choice to "boycott" traditional (viz. straight) marriage ceremonies. The UU is already attacked by many fundamentalists and evangelicals for being "anti-family," and this just encourages thinking people to conclude that perhaps the attacks have some merit.

Eric Posa:

October 25, 2006 12:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

You know, I think it's basically a bad idea to give clergy these "agent of the state" powers to sign civil marriage licenses--the practice violates church/state separation, leads us to discriminate against BGLT couples (or more accurately, to grnt special rights to heterosexuals), and has other problems that others (including some ECUSA priests in Mass.) have already named. So will I continue to exercise this power as a minister, when I officiate weddings for different-sex couples?

Yep. Sure thing. Got my pen right here. (Did you remember to bring the license?)

Why? Because we live in a messy world. Some battles should be fought to the death, while for others it's better to reach compromise at the battle, when it helps you fight the bigger war more effectively. As I see it, marriage equality is the big picture here. As a seminarian, I seriously considered refusing to sign marriage licenses. I still think there are just reasons for such refusals...but those reasons are not the only issues. If I abdicate my power as a legal officiant at marriage ceremonies, I disempower my advocacy for extension of marriage recognition. No one will listen to my efforts to change the rules of a game I refuse to play.


October 26, 2006 07:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dan, what are the deeper theological questions? The only two I've come up with are: Do Unitarian Universalists believe that marriage is an important and good social institution? And do UUs have any particular theological insights into marriage that distinguish our practice or interpretation of marriage from the culture at large?

But because clergy have no authority as "agents of the state" beyond the recognition the state grants them to sign licenses -- yup, these two got married all right -- I don't see what's so offensive about it. No minister is ever obligated to marry anyone they don't wish to marry. And if you think civil marriage is inappropriate, you don't have to perform any at all. But what is the theological tangle about the state's attempt to recognize all religious communities' freedom to perform weddings as they see fit?

On another point, Hauerwas's position is unusually hard to apply to Unitarian Universalism, given our strong disposition toward civil religion and away from eschatalogical hope. Unitarian Universalists (under the influence of the Unitarian tradition and as reshaped on the Universalist side by Clarence Skinner) look toward law and culture for justification, not toward God or some transcendent norms. We've had a tendency to see the "coming republic of man" as a satisfactory replacement for the "kingdom of God" -- an idea that has led many UUs to think of international law or the U.N. or even some form of world government as the eventual (rational) salvation for our ills.

I'm actually sympathetic to a strong critique of this tendency, but I'm not sure how a Unitarian Universalist congregation takes a Hauerwasian stance toward the world -- especially not when we put on our clergy collars to witness for specific legal and political transformations of society. We're in the world and of it. I'm not sure where we'd root our countercultural prophetic criticism.


October 26, 2006 02:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

But because clergy have no authority as "agents of the state" beyond the recognition the state grants them to sign licenses -- yup, these two got married all right -- I don't see what's so offensive about it. No minister is ever obligated to marry anyone they don't wish to marry.

But aren't you diminishing the power that this entails? You're shrugging it off as mere notarizing power, yet it is the act of notarizing the union that bestows significant legal benefits. It's not just an imprimateur. In fact, look at it the other way. Instead of saying, "so what if they endorse it?" how about "what happens if they refuse to endorse it?" Then we see where there is, in fact, some credible power. The cleric who won't marry a couple isn't just saying "my faith community won't support this," the cleric is saying, "I'm not going to help you get what the state entitles you." Sure, they can go elsewhere. But the clergy shouldn't have that power at all, in my opinion.

I don't take offense at the notion, so don't conceptualize it as "offensive." There's nothing (to me) offensive about it. But it also isn't right. A religious rite should not confer tax, legal, or medical benefits, which is what we're talking about.

Dan Harper:

October 26, 2006 11:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hiya, Chris! You ask:

"Dan, what are the deeper theological questions? The only two I've come up with are: Do Unitarian Universalists believe that marriage is an important and good social institution? And do UUs have any particular theological insights into marriage that distinguish our practice or interpretation of marriage from the culture at large?"

Boy, those both sound like deep theological questions to me. Wish I had come up with them.

Do we Unitarian Universalists believe that marriage is a good institution? Well, under the influence of radical feminist theology, some of us do not. My partner (who is a woman) and I have remained unmarried for 17 years in part because of my questions about the possible negative impacts of marriage on women. Opposite-sex marriage laws have been liberalized to the point where women are mostly treated as the equals of men, although when viewed from the frame of reference of how the legal system treats married women who are victims of domestic violence I remain less sure. The wider social construction of marriage still seems to place women in a mostly subservient position, and I don't see how current marriage laws address that basic inequality. So no, I can't unequivocally say that marriage is a good social instituion. (This, by the way, is one example of how I as a religious person, informed by feminist theology, remain in serious tension with civil society.)

Do we Unitarian Universalists have any special theological insight into marriage, such that our practice differs from the practice of the culture at large? Well, maybe yes, in a small way. Speaking only for myself, as a Universalist I know that all persons will enjoy the final end of ultimate union with the divine (no hell in my theology). As a result of that eschatological vision, I believe we are all called to treat all persons with equal (and radical) respect and dignity -- which is precisely why I am a radical feminist. I am pretty sure that at least two opposite sex couples who came to see me about officiating at their wedding chose not to proceed with me because of my radical stance, especially because that means I refuse to use the formula "man and wife," or any of that old traditional language.

Chris, you also write: "Hauerwas's position is unusually hard to apply to Unitarian Universalism, given our strong disposition toward civil religion and away from eschatalogical hope." I don't think we are quite so strongly disposed towards civil religion any more. The UU churches in New England that still see themselves as a part of the civil religion are the ones which are bleeding members, while the UU churches in the midwest and south which see themselves as a liberal religious haven in a hostile land are the ones that are gaining and retaining members. As for politics, you yourself have pointed out repeatedly how few Unitarian Universalists are now serving as elected officials at the national level. I think in other parts of the world, outside southern New England, Unitarian Universalists really do resonate with Hauerwas's image of "resident aliens" -- in those places, we are a people who are guided by a theology that is not consonant with the surrounding political reality. There's a reason why so many UU kids in those areas are homeschooled.

As for eschatological hope -- as I said, I am a Universalist, and there are an increasing number of days when my surety of universal reconciliation is about the only thing that gets me through the day. (Not that I'm strict in my interpretation of universal reconciliation -- on his death bed, Socrates said that he was either going to go to the Elysian Fields and hang out with the heros, or death would be a final oblivion like the perfect night's sleep, and I'm willing to accept that as easily as what Hosea Ballou said). Sure I'll keep fighting aginst wars and rumors of wars, global warming and the destruction of Nature/Creation, violence in our streets and in our homes, etc. -- but a little eschatological hope turns out to be just the ticket to prevent this Universalist from burning out.

Sarah S.:

October 27, 2006 02:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

On the UU clergy not signing marriage license issue:

I am one of the NH UU clergy, serving a congregation, who has decided not to sign marriage licenses. It is not to shame the state into doing anything (the state is probably unaware of my stand, although our local representative is not). It is to provide the same services for the same fee to straight and gay couples. It is also to indicate that I expect the same vows (of lifelong fidelity, however they are phrased) from everyone I marry--that I expect no less from non-legal marriages performed by me or in my church just because they're not legal. I had an experience where I felt a same-sex couple initially wanted to get married in the church, without me or any other cleric officiating, without promising forever-and-ever. As though because it were not legal, their union would be "marriage-lite." But the church should stand for a stronger form of marriage, I believe, regardless of what the state allows. I feel steadier on my feet making this argument if I provide exactly the same services, and have exactly the same expectations, of all couples I marry.

The best wedding I have done since making my non-license-signing pledge was for a MA couple who wanted to marry up here. I explained my policy, they talked it over, and they called me back to say that especially wanted me to do the service because of my stand. I actually legally married them in their apartment, before a witness, in MA, and then performed the public ceremony a month later in NH. I talked in my homily about what we had done and why.

I wonder all the time about the efficacy of my pledge and its consequences (the main one is that I don't do many weddings). I could be convinced that it's not worthwhile, but that hasn't happened yet.


October 27, 2006 06:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

It is true that it is common practice in Europe that the civil and religious ceremonies of wedding are separate. In Western Europe (I do not know about Orthodoxy), getting married in church is a Catholic thing, linked to old privileges when the Church was inextricably linked to the State. I know Spanish Protestant ministers of the Reformed tradition who strongly object against validating marriages in a Protestant church.

BTW, those much-beloved (by Americans) Puritans of New England also considered marriage a civil contract, as I have read recently.


October 29, 2006 10:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

The diocese tabled the resolution and adopted a substitute resolution calling for a year of conversation about the church's involvement in civil marriage.


October 31, 2006 07:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here's a recently updated list of Unitarian Universalist ministers who won't sign marriage licenses — until they can also sign licenses for same-sex couples.

Comments for this entry are currently closed.