Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Getting Out of the Marriage Act

Yes, I took a break. I stopped going to Facebook for almost two weeks, read nobody's blog, and decided to live life during the Christmas break (And yes, as a campus minister, it really is mostly break time for me.). This month, the Diocese of North Carolina meets in Convention. Among the resolutions we will be discussing is one which says in essence that we clergy should get out of the business of performing weddings for the state.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, and you're wrong. You assumed that the primary purpose of such a move would be a kind of protest over the fact that gays and lesbians cannot get married. I have heard of people who refuse to do weddings or even to get married until this double legal standard gets changed. And, frankly, this would be plenty of good reason to pass such a resolution - a protest in which we actually sacrifice something. How original!

But believe it or not, there are even better reasons for clergy to get out of the marrying business. The main one is that whenever we sign a marriage license or ask if there is anyone ..., we are acting not as members of the body of Christ but as subordinate agents of the state. Sorry folks, but I don't work for the state of North Carolina, and if I do, i want to be paid for it (LOL).

The state (and the Feds) have an interest in marriage. Tax laws, some of them quite unjust, are based on it, and it is one more way we keep tabs on our citizens. Now, someone out there is probably thinking that the Church keeps records too, so we are also keeping tabs on people. And maybe that is the point. Do we really want to be a part of two systems of tracking people's lives?

One of the sponsors of the bill tells the story of an older couple who were living together without benefit of marriage because to get married would wreck havo with their retirement benefits. Seems absurd doesn't it. Let's stop getting our hands dirty with the state's business.

I first heard this suggestion in seminary 25 years ago, and at that time, no one (in my circle at least) was even thinking gay marriage. One professor noted the fact that even the Soviet Union had managed to get this one right. A couple there would go to the courthouse, fill out some forms, have a brief ceremony and be on their way. If they wanted something from the church, that was done separately.

And that is what we should be doing to, just like much of Europe does. The church is in the business of blessing people and declaring things holy. Marriage is not an act that we have an exclusive claim to.

The benefit of this approach is that we can feel much freer to choose whether or not we bless the relationship. In theory we already are, but I wonder how many marriages we clergy really refuse to perform, given the state of the wedded couples I see out there. It also changes the gay marriage business from a question of theology (i.e., Is gay marriage even possible as a sacred act?) to one of justice and equality (i.e., Do we really think some couples should get benefits from the state that other couples cannot?)

If the Episcopal Church were to do this alone, we will lose lots of couples as potential new members. That is called sacrifice people. You do the right thing and sometimes it costs you. We might just see some other people join us however, and the debate will surely cross over into other denominations as they begin to consider why religious groups in the land of separation of church and state want to be needlessly in this subordinate position.


Zach said...

Damn Kevin! Those honorariums were the only way I could secure pocket cash that doesn't get consumed by the mortgage, medical bills, groceries, and utilities. Come on man!

All levity aside....

This is significant food for thought. I have been frustrated by this very element of "social control" that is the state marriage mill. I've not given it much thought b/c I enjoy doing weddings. I'll resolve to thinking more on this.

Have you been reading Hauerwas lately? ;-)

Tripp said...

Good, no awesome post. So I guess you don't want to start a baptism and communion service fee?

Kevin M said...

Zach, I've thought this since before I had even heard of Hauerwas! (which at this point is almost 30 years ago. sigh)

But, I will admit, all those years studying with him probably have rubbed off a bit....

Jane R said...

So, are you going to post an update about what happened at Convention? (I'm partly being selfish, I missed that whole session.)