Uncivil union

In 1969, a small mission hospital in Tennessee burned down and all of its records were lost. As a result my ex-wife, who was born in that hospital, did not have a birth certificate until she was 23 years old.

This created an unforeseen problem at St. Albans (Episcopal) Church, where our wedding date was fast approaching in the summer of 1991. It seems that while it is quite possible to be born without a birth certificate, you need one in order to get a marriage license. And without a marriage license, Father Bert said, he could not perform the wedding.

Father Bert's position had a certain Anglican logic. This was a tradition, after all, created by a King's assertion of dominion over ecclesiastical authorities, specifically over the matter of marriage.

But to my Baptist — and therefore more American — sensibilities, this logic was infuriating. Marriage was a sacrament, Father Bert insisted, yet he was unwilling and unable as a priest of the church to administer that sacrament without the proper paperwork from a low-level functionary at the county courthouse.

How is it, I asked, that we were permitted to receive the Eucharist each Sunday without a notarized certificate from the clerks in West Chester?

My proposed solution was inconceivable for Father Bert. If we can't get the license by the wedding date, I suggested, then just perform the church wedding and we'll take care of the county paperwork later, when we get back from the honeymoon. That stuff's just for tax purposes anyway, and we don't have to file our taxes for another seven months.

This Baptist logic fell on deaf ears in the Episcopalian church. Without a valid marriage license duly notarized by the county clerk, the good priest insisted, our honeymoon would be fornication. Along with the notary's stamp, that clerk apparently also held the keys of St. Peter with authority over licenses, deeds, sins, sacraments and monthly parking permits.

The county bureaucrats eventually came through. We got the birth certificate and consequently the marriage license in time for the wedding day and this Baptist duly, if unwisely, received the Episcopalian sacrament of marriage.

I was still bothered by the church's abdication of its religious authority and its subservience to the state on this matter, so I asked Father Bert, as a compromise, to omit one phrase from the ceremony's conclusion: "and by the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." After all, I said, if he declares us married "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," then what does Harrisburg really have to add to that? And, I pointed out, the Commonwealth hadn't really "invested" him with any such powers. It retained those powers for itself, as evidenced by the many hours I had spent in line at the county courthouse over the previous weeks.

Father Bert didn't see that one my way either. The phrase stayed in.

A few years later the matter was settled by that same county clerk, who was the sole and sufficient authority for dissolving that marriage. "What God has joined together" does not, in Episcopalian eyes at least, withstand the Almighty notary's stamp of the clerk of Chester County.

("Too young" is overly simple, and perhaps overly charitable, as an explanation for the longer story I'm not telling here. But let it suffice.)

The point of all this personal history is that the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical understandings of marriage is vitally important. The two are complementary, and often overlap, but they are not identical.

When these two, distinct ideas are confused or conflated we encounter the same problems that arise whenever we fail to keep church and state separate. That failure is bad for the state and disastrous for the church and for whoever does not subscribe with patriotic devotion and devout patriotism to whatever becomes the official civil religion.

More on this later, particularly on how I think this relates to the question of same-sex marriage and the murky, unhelpful language that clouds much of that debate.

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  • Get HR2239 Passed Now

    I think I’m a simpleton because I just don’t see the problem here. If you get married in a civil ceremony, what does the church have to do with that at all? Nobody is asking St. Jerome’s to through a gay couple a party. I used to go to Catholic mass – I don’t remember any part of it dealing with married people differently than the single people there. This is a civil rights issue, not a religious rights issue. I must be missing something.

  • Bruce Garrett

    A good one. Thank you for relating that story. I must be incredibly out of touch with the world I live in, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a church deferring to the government issuance of a marriage license on the matter of its own marriage sacrament. Of course, I was raised a Baptist too, so that might have something to do with why I’d never heard of it. I wonder now, how many other churches have this sort of rule. Do the Catholics defer to the state marriage license?
    My sympathies on the matter of your divorce. My own parents were divorced (I remained a steady part of both their lives afterward), and it always stuck in my craw growing up, how my mom was occasionally treated by others in our church because of it. But she held to her faith right up to the end.

  • Constantine

    I believe that in some states, it is illegal for an officiant to perform a marriage for couples without a marriage license. This is why, even in churches that will talk up the sacramental side of marriage, a priest/pastor/etc will not marry a couple without the proper paperwork.

  • vfc

    Prehaps your officiating priest’s fear or “issue” was that by performing the marriage, he could be instrumental in sanbctioning an illegal (under-age?) marriage?
    Were you also required to “post banns”?
    My parents told me that there used to be a law in Massachusetts that all marriages (even those performed in front of a judge) had to be listed in the newspaper (to prevent bigamy or other illegal unions?) which is why the eloped to New Hampshire.
    In HK, all marriages, whether performed in the marriage registry or in a church have to be filed at least 2 weeks ahead of time:
    Go here for details if you’re interested.
    Marriage – Notice of Marriage
    “Exhibition of Notice of Marriage & arrangement of the ceremony
    * The notice will be exhibited at the Marriage Registry where it is given and also at the Marriage Registration & Records Office for at least 15 clear days.
    * During this period any person who is authorised by law to object to the proposed marriage may do so by writting the word “Forbidden” on the copy of the notice produced by the Registrar for inspection, and by signing his name and the character in which he objects to the proposed marriage.
    * If the Registrar of Marriages considers that the person is not in fact authorised by law to object, he may allow the marriage to proceed.
    * If, however, he considers that the objection is valid, either of the parties may appeal against his decision by petition to the Court of First Instance to determine the matter. The decision of the Court of First Instance is final.
    * If no objection is received after the period of 15 clear days, the marriage may take place.
    * The exact date and time for the celebration of the proposed marriage should be fixed in advance in consultation with the Registrar in charge of the Marriage Registry where the marriage is to take place or with the officiating minister if the marriage is to take place in a licensed place of public worship.
    * After a Notice of Marriage is given, the marriage must take place within a period of three months, otherwise the notice becomes void and fresh notice must be given before the marriage can take place.”
    I think in the US, the strong protestant tradition of the Puritans (which was so important in the begining) set marriage *not* as a sacrament at a level with Baptism, but rather as more of a civil agreement.
    In HK, one of the reasons for what appears to be such strict laws was partially from the British tradition where Church and State have a fuzzier separation.
    It also may come from the fact that until the 1970’s (1972?) men could marry more than one wife via the “traditional Chinese marriage” and these rules were introduced to prevent bigamy and other illeagal marriages.
    Sorry if I went on too long.

  • Jon H

    Bible question:
    I note that Jacob was married to two women, who were sisters. At the same time. He had children by both women, and also by their two maidservants.
    I gather other patriarchs married more than one woman, and that the whole adultery thing was not much of an issue. (In Jacob’s case, perhaps the maidservants were considered slaves or chattel?)
    Anyway, I’m wondering if there’s a clear indication of a change of allowed practice in the Bible. I suppose the adultery part goes in the 10 commandments, but I wonder what caused the change?
    The whole concept of marriage clearly changed in the Bible, but is there a clear paradigm shift?
    In any case, since anti-same-sex marriage people often bring up polygamy as the next step on the slippery slope, it would seem they’d have to address the apparent approval of the Old Testament God.
    Which would put them in the position of saying we should follow the Bible’s example about homosexuals, but ignore Bible’s example on polygamy.

  • Slacktivist

    Always a good read, and I liked this entry a lot. I was still bothered by the church’s abdication of…

  • ymr049c

    Exactly right. This is one more case of rejecting the separation of church and state, with bonus points for homophobic bigotry. It is not the state’s place to enforce or uphold some notion of sacredness. The state is there (with respect to governing individuals, and to simplify) to support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Equal protection under the law is an important part of this.
    So, if a man and a woman can legally marry, and get the state-supported benefits thereof, 1) for whatever motives they choose (ruling out any arguments about the uniqueness of the marriage relationship); 2) get divorced and remarry with the same legal status (again, demonstrating that the state’s definition of marriage does not include sacredness); and 3) have kids or not, and still be married the same in the eyes of the law (ditto); while 4) a person born outside of marriage is not distinguished legally from one born in a marriage (a tangent, but it shows again that the sacredness notion is dispensable), then it is blatantly gender discrimination to say that two people of the same sex cannot form a type of legally recognized partnership that the state makes available to basically any two adults of opposite sex.
    (It just occurred to me- do any states have laws these days forbidding incestuous marriages? How would the ruling affect them?)

  • Church of the state

    Slacktivist is a daily read, home to some of the most thoughtful writing around, and today’s post on marriage is…

  • the dialectic

    jon, the the new testament bible verse I found related possibly to one wife is mark 10:5-9. I could be wrong, if your an elder in the church u must be, I know that.

  • Give Us a Rest

    Instead of making gay marriage ‘legal’, why not just eliminate government certified marriage altogether? To each his own, Uncle Same doesn’t need to know about it.

  • Deana Holmes

    My parents’ marriage license never got filed (the preacher died the next week). So they weren’t “legally married” until I was nearly 13 years old, when we moved to a state (Texas) where common law marriage is recognized. Of course, during any of this, nobody asked my parents for their marriage license. When I was 36, my parents decided to take out a “certificate of informal partnership” (aka “common law marriage license”), because they were both approaching retirement age and wanted to have all their ducks in a row. The Social Security Administration also didn’t ask my parents for proof of marriage.
    But if you tell my parents (especially my mother) that they haven’t been married now for 44 years, they’ll jump down your throat. Which is why I am a bit casual about this sort of thing.

  • reverendref

    Was just introduced to your site through a discussion re:bad theology and “Left Behind.” Very interesting.
    I wanted to point out that in the Episcopal Church, canon law states: “Before solemnizing a marriage the Member of the Clergy shall have ascertained: (a) That both parties have the right to contract a marriage according to the laws of the State.” Additionally, the rubrics in the Prayer Book state in part that “the marriage conform to the laws of the State and the canons of this Church.” Hence the reason why the priest would not perform the marriage without a license.
    Why is it that separation of church and state is a doctrine of our society EXCEPT for this one issue? As a third-year seminarian, I’ve been thinking about out how I’m going to deal with this after ordination. My solution at this point is to require the couple to get legally married by the civil/state authorities first and then to bless that sacrament in the church. I’m not sure how well that position will sit with a future parish, but it is something that I will definitely bring up during the interview process.

  • Patrick (G)

    Note that Marriage is not a biblical sacrament…that came to be later.
    Likewise, the marriage license is an even more recent historical development.
    What this fight is about is the legal/social recognition of what are De Facto marriages.
    The pettiness of refusing to recognize/accept these marriages is thoroughly un-Christian.

  • Kevin Carson

    I may have already mentioned this on a previous thread–if so, I apologize–that marriage licensing was originally introduced in countries with established churches and large minorities of dissenters. The purpose was to prevent people from being married in dissenting churches. It was used against the Huguenots in France and against Catholics in England.
    The only remaining secular rationale for marriages licenses is the state’s supposed “compelling interest” in preventing marriage between close relations, syphilitics, etc. But that assumes the fiction that a marriage license is equivalent to a license for sex; and unless you want to bring back the anti-fornication provisions of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that just ain’t so.
    It’s time to get governments out of the business of licensing marriages. Let people make any kind of private contracts they want for sharing property and child-rearing responsibilities, and undergo any religious ceremony they want. Gays can make a contract, have a ceremony, and call it marriage; churches can perform or refuse to perform the sacrament on any grounds they wish; religious conservatives can say all they want that those other people aren’t “really married.” Everybody’s happy.

  • Tlachtga

    Just totally random–
    Dude, you’re in West Chester? I went to school there.

  • Stan

    In Germany (and I’m sure in many other places as well, but I’m familiar with Germany), it’s common practice to separate the church and civil weddings–on in the church, the other before the local legal authority–usually within a couple of weeks of each other. I’ve never before thought about whether one always does one before the other. Hm.
    If it would make the religious nutjobs happy, then let’s just call it ‘civil unions’ for gays, since, in fact, that what the current debate is about: whether their union is recognized by the government. I know it amounts to some sort of feeling of ‘separate but equal’, but if it helps reinforce the distinction between church and state, all the better.

  • Adam Kotsko

    In my opinion, the main problem here is that there essentially isn’t an ecclesial understanding of marriage. Church practice of marriage is always parasitic on state practice of marriage, and the “civil union” thing is making people so upset precisely because it’s bringing that uncomfortable fact to light.
    I’m sure that if Paul were here today, he would not be pleased that questions about marriage are on the forefront of every Christian’s mind.

  • vfc

    The state also has a compelling interest in orderly succession. So, if someone dies without a will (intestate) and there is a dispute as to who has the rights to the property – spouses are usually considered before parents and siblings.
    Historically (I am not sure about today) children born outside of a mariage were not considered legitimate heirs in inheriting property. So, if a man had a child (or children) with another woman during his marriage and he died intestate, that child would not inherit equally with the children of the marriage.
    The state also has an interest in marriage as it effects immigration and citizenship.
    People frequently die without making wills. I think people would be even less likely to make detailed contracts of sexual-financial partnership and childrearing responsibilities, which (in many cases) a marriahe license is a sort of catch-all for.
    I think the easiest solution is to allow civil marriage between consenting adults of any sex and even (gasp!) consaguinuity.

  • wedding and slacktivist: Uncivil union

    MBR Bookwatch – A Perfect Wedding – April 1, 2005 — a perfect wedding anne robins zebra isbn: 0821777017 $5.99 in 1912 marjorie mactavish leaves glasgow, scotland to catch the maiden voyage of.