Recognizing the unique quality of this arrangement, authorities extend certain rights to a partner of such a union that are not otherwise granted to individuals. States should get out of the wedding business. They should eliminate the words “wedding” and “marriage” from their statutes and write “civil union” in their stead. The church should be denied any role in this.
Only in English speaking countries are clergy permitted to make civil unions. Among the several states where I have performed weddings, the process of registering the legal document varies. I am, by oath, a “marriage officer” of one state; in another I paid $10 to the secretary of state to be licensed. In several states there are no prior requirements; I file the executed papers with the town clerk, or the register of deeds, sometimes showing I am an ordained minister. This should stop and I, not otherwise a government official, should be deprived of this role.
In most nations, a couple appears at the registry office; both parties state their intentions to unite and their freedom to do so, and take a civil oath. Whatever wedding or marriage ceremony the couple desires comes later and is of no matter to the state.
When one is born, one’s parents receive a birth certificate. Baptism may occur three days or a few weeks or 12 years later and is of no matter to the state. “Marriage” and “wedding” are words akin to “baptism.” They suggest pledges, intentions, and responsibilities different from — and more extensive than — what is declared in certificates of civil unions and births. Besides varying cultural implications, there are other considerations: adultery is not a crime but it is a sin, for instance.
At the Reformation in the 16th century, Reformed churches in parts of Switzerland and in the Netherlands and Scotland took on the whole marriage business, divorce as well as weddings. After a little time civil authorities thought better of this and appropriated divorce, supervising the separation of property; in most cases, marriage, too. But in Scotland, marriage stayed with the church and this practice spread through the English-speaking world where it remains a curiosity.
States will perform “civil ceremonies” upon request. Clergy are allowed, but not required, to do this work. My Session of elders and I may refuse a couple’s petition to be united in our church. We may have personal reasons for this; often we have formal reasons for doing so, saying “no” to requests for a secular ceremony “in your pretty church.” This is our right.
Civil unions and divorces are determinations about property and rights. I should have nothing to do with this. Like baptisms, weddings and marriages are my business and should remain so. They will be the more so if we separate church and state, keeping me from doing civil unions and the government, which does not record baptisms, from registering marriages.
Thomas Wilson is interim pastor to the yoked parishes of Powelton (Wachapreague) and Belle Haven Churches on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.