April 27, 2009

marriage: job of the state or of the church

I found this conversation over on the Methoblog today.

TheoPoetic Musings: Same-Sex Marriage And Separation Of Church And State

I wasn't aware of the Puritan view of marriage as strictly a civil marriage...

"Massachusettes history reminds us that what we commonly call marriage today was initially, and quite deliberately, constructed as a form of civil union. Although marriage was a fundamental aspect of these highly religious people's lives and the foundational element of their social order, its reputation was separate from the church. The Puritan founders understood marriage as a social institution that needed adjustment according to changing circumstances, and they left the state to do this important work."

I also know of a few couples in my life who have been religiously married but not legally married.

The question is asked in the discussion TheoPoetic linked to whether clergy should be part of legally-binding contracts. The point is made that in baptisms and funerals and communion there are no other state functions being performed... so why weddings?

I want to keep thinking about this. I'm intrigued by the notion of having civil marriages and then any tradition can have whatever kind of ceremony/blessing it wants. But in many ways, I kind of feel like that's what we did when we got married anyway. We had all sorts of things we did to prepare for our wedding ceremony, and then had all of these paperwork things to do for the state. The piece that is the kicker- the state function performed is a signature on a document.

As I pondered this, I remembered a call I recieved a few weeks ago from a woman needing her father's baptismal record. The courthouse seemed to have lost his birth certificate and they needed official documentation in order to have the correct name on a death certificate correction (my prayers go out to that family and their paperwork battle in their time of grief!). An acceptable official documentation for that state was our church's baptismal record! In many places in Europe, it is the church who held the birth and death records - you can't find them all in a local civic authority, because it was the church who was recording these things.

I also am thinking about why it is that clergy are able to sign that piece of paper. It is because we are licensed by an approved body (the church). Or rather, it is because the state recognizes the license I already have. I could get licensed by the state to perform weddings, as a friend of mine did, but I already have a license. No need. Also - the only real "official" thing clergy does as far as the state is concerned is sign the piece of paper. The state has no idea what the ceremony was like and has absolutely no say in what occurs. All they care about is that there are signatures on the form when it comes back. Really - the county recorder is the one who holds all of the civic power. They give out the licenses and require all of the paperwork. Clergy is little more than a witness to the fact that the marriage took place (as far as our official role as the state is concerned). As for other strange people who are licensed to marry: captains of ships... why? who knows (well, I'm sure someone knows and I'm sure a google search will give me the reason, but I'm tired and should be working on the church newsletter).

As I think about my role in the marriage of two people, it is to bless them and to speak to the role of God in their relationship. And something that is very important to me is meeting with the couple and counseling them prior to the marriage. All of these are things that are purely religious in nature. They have nothing to do with the state. My "state" function takes all of a second and more than feeling like an agent of the government, I feel honored that the couple chose me to unite them, rather than the justice of the peace... because it means that I get the opportunity to be a part of their lives and bring God into their marriage as well.


  1. Does Iowa offer a discount on a marriage license if the couple has undergone premarital counseling? I know other states do, so you might be acting as a functionary of the state there, too.

    Of course, I'm sure you'd do a better job at both counseling and the ceremonies than most ministers around :)

  2. Thanks for the link keep up the good work.

    Ben Currin.