The Marriage Pledge: A Gratifying Step on Civil vs. Ecclesiastical Marriage

It’s been a bit since Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz “crossed the Rubicon” and set forth The Marriage Pledge, which calls ministers to stop officiating civil marriages.  Reactions have been mixed.  The fact that I can say that shows that the steady legalisation of same-sex civil marriage has forced Christians–who have been working to “preserve marriage”, i.e. civil marriage as the union of one man and woman–to face reality on this issue.  From my perspective, it’s at least a decade later than it should have been.

It’s been a long, lonely trudge through the wilderness on wanting a formal break between civil and ecclesiastical marriage, and there are a few things I’d like to say about it.

In spite of some who have received the Marriage Pledge well, there’s still not general unanimity on the subject. Much of that is sheer inertia; we’ve always done it this way, why should we change now? I think that option has run out for many things in this country and in the West in general. It’s time we stopped playing checkers with our opposition and start playing chess, and Radner and Seitz’s Marriage Pledge is a chess move.

In many parts of the world, churches don’t have a choice. Following the tradition established by the French Revolution, the state does not allow ministers to solemnise marriages, so you end up having to “get married twice.” Somehow Christian churches have managed to thrive in this environment; given the crêpe some hang on ceding the officiation of state marriages, one wonders how. I think this kind of provincialism needs to stop. If they can do it, we can too.

Part of the problem is that Protestant churches, having cleverly desacramentalised marriage, lean too heavily on the state to cover the void of their own creation. Some even invoke “natural law”, an invocation that I, whose intellectual formation was as a Roman Catholic, find amazing.  In going through the gyrations they do on this subject, they overlook a few important facts.

The first is that, no matter how you slice it, marriage antedates the state. Even if we attempt to link marriage in church with “natural law” marriage, there is no good reason we should equate civil marriage with natural law marriage. The reason we do so is that the overpowering modern state has conditioned us to think in this way. If we’re planning on being real salt and light, we’d better lose this idea quickly.

Beyond that, in the marriage fracas, Evangelicalism in particular has revealed a serious weakness that results from their loosey-goosey “authority” structure. Because of this they are too dependent on the state for all kinds of things, and marriage is one of them. It’s no accident that one of the calls against the pledge came from a Southern Baptist, although their ability to create a tightly knit, conformity-obsessed system with the decentralised, congregational system they have makes one wonder why they couldn’t come up with a workable solution for marriage without the state. (That is even more true for the RCC and LDS churches; why they even need civil marriage is beyond me.)

Yes, there are the chickens in church hierarchies (I won’t name names, but you know who you are) who have urged/instructed their ministers not to sign the Marriage Pledge.  When their ministers get hauled into court for refusing to officiate same-sex marriage on the basis that they are agents of the state, they might have second thoughts. Then again, as Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori has proven, some people never learn.

The Marriage Pledge is a step in the right direction. It is not the beginning of the end for our ministers acting on behalf of the government but perhaps, as Winston Churchill put it about El Alamein, the end of the beginning. Who knows what could happen?

With that under our belt, if we could now get the Baptists and other Evangelicals to cut out the Clintonian “what is is” rubbish and see the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that would be glory. But, as Col. Hogan used to say, one miracle at a time.

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