The Problem for Clergy
Whether one has a high view of ordained clergy, as many of my friends do, or a low view, as I do, performing marriage ceremonies that result in a legally binding contract is an extremely problematic role for a clergyperson to be in. When I was talking to Doug Pagitt about this last week, something became clear to us: there’s a higher bar to being a notary public than there is to being a member of the clergy.
To wit, a notary must pass and exam, take an oath, and renew her license annually. As a result, a notary is able:
to administer oaths and affirmations, take affidavits and statutory declarations, witness and authenticate the execution of certain classes of documents, take acknowledgments of deeds and other conveyances, protest notes and bills of exchange, provide notice of foreign drafts, prepare marine or ship’s protests in cases of damage, provide exemplifications and notarial copies, and perform certain other official acts.
What a notary cannot do is bind two persons in marriage. That’s left to a clergyperson who, in many states, is not even required to prove his ordination or his standing in an ecclesial community.
Secondly, it is profoundly problematic that a legal marriage can be initiated by a clergyperson, but it cannot be undone by a clergyperson. In my own marriage, a clergyman bound me in marriage at the stroke of a pen, but it took lawyers, judges, and guardians ad litem to extricate me from that legal arrangement. I’m not saying that it should be easy to get divorced. I’m just saying that religious professionals should have no part of this civil function.
If anything, we should let notaries public start performing marriages.
There has been lots of criticism, voiced especially by the Hauerwasian Mafia, that mainline Protestantism of the mid-20th century became a “chaplain to the culture.” That’s a valid critique, and we’ve largely changed that. But the regular occurrence of clergy voluntarily acting as agents of the state is a strange vestige of a bygone era.
It’s time for clergy to take a stand and tell couples, “I’ll happily perform your wedding ceremony, but I will not sign your state-issued marriage license.”
That’s what I told my brother and his fiancée, and they took it fine.
See all the posts in this series here.