The Church’s (confused?) Role in Performing Weddings

Via Beliefnet – A judge in Pennsylvania has cast a shroud of doubt over the legal status of thousands of marriages performed in the commonwealth – including my own (see Suit Challenges PA Rules on Clergy and Weddings). 

According to Pennsylvania law, weddings can be performed by any "minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation."  The problem, of course, comes when a wedding is performed by a clergy person without a "regularly established church or congregation."  Such was the basis for the judge’s ruling against the validity of a wedding performed by a person "ordained" online.  Yet the ruling can potentially impact any whose wedding was presided over by retired clergy, chaplains, or any other clergy person without "a regularly established church or congregation."

Beside the fact that my own marriage may now be legally circumspect – an ordained pastor serving as a seminary professor without "a regularly established church or congregation" conducted our wedding in Pennsylvania five and half years ago – I love this ruling because it highlights the dangers of mixing the ministry of the church with the function of the state. 

When clergy preside at weddings, they are performing a state function by presiding at the union of two people into a legally-binding relationship.  Prior to the wedding, the couple applies to the court for a marriage license but is not legally wed until the license is signed by the clergy person who presides at the wedding.  With the clergy person’s signature on the marriage certificate, the couple is legally wed.

Of course, the clergy person is also acting as a cleric, a religious leader proclaiming the blessings of God on and the support of the church for the couple.  Many clergy take their role seriously, not just as a sort of relationship counselor but as a spiritual counselor, religious guide and pastoral caregiver during a time of great life transition and commitment.

I fear that when we join these two functions – that of state functionary and religious leader – the ministry we’re performing can be confused and open to meddling by the state (as in this situation in Pennsylvania).  If marriages presided over by clergy who do not have a congregation were to be invalidated, what do we make of the church’s blessing?  Might couples, fearing that their marriage is not legally recognized, fear that their standing before God and the church is equally in question?  And if the marriages are not legal, what exactly did the church bless?  And of course, for the church to even be in such a bind is an embarrassment.  Our own marriage to the state is troublesome.

I’ve written in the past that the church should get out of the business of legalizing marriages (see Traditional Marriage and the State’s Interests, particularly the final few paragraphs, written in response to a debate in New Jersey about gay marriage, and Defending Marriage, in response to an effort to ban gay marriage in Pennsylvania).  I don’t know how it would work practically – here are some ideas:

  • the clergy person could work with a judge or some other civil official who can preside over the legal marriage, leaving the clergy person to proclaim the blessings of God and the church on the legally married couple
  • if the clergy person were to perform both roles – that of church and state – the clergy person could
    • clearly demarcate the civil and religious roles by changing clothing (ie, by vesting after the legal declaration of marriage took place),
    • restructure the liturgy to provide for the state’s legalities and the church’s blessings in distinct parts of the service, and/or
    • make a declaration about the distinct civil and religious natures of the wedding. 

As I look ahead to ordination, I think seriously about this issue.  Would I do a wedding and take on the state’s authority simultaneously with my religious authority?  (Remember, I’m the kind of guy who refuses to take a legal oath because of it’s religious connotations within a civic setting.  Nor would I swear on a Bible in a court of law.)  I know that the grand majority of clergy in the world don’t worry about such things, and perhaps I’m making a great brouhaha out of nothing.  But the issues are not insignificant, to me anyway.

Finally, if I’m ordained before the New Year I will file taxes next year as a clergy person.  Would I seek the tax benefits of being clergy?  I admit to feeling funny about it – why should I receive a tax break that my minimum wage-earning neighbor does not – but I don’t know all the implications and issues involved, so I’ll reserve judgment on that issue for now.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

9 thoughts on “The Church’s (confused?) Role in Performing Weddings

  1. I’ve read that in many other countries the couple gets married by the state and then, if desired, a civil ceremony is a separate event. That makes the most sense.
    In the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, there are a couple of churches I read about that don’t do the civil part of weddings any longer. This has to do with protesting against the state not allowing gay couples to marry. I don’t remember the details of this, but it would probably come up on a news search.
    I think that a pastor should think long and hard about being an “agent of the state.” If he/she is for one type of function, does that mean that he/she represents the state in other ways or agrees with the state?

  2. Hey there PS,
    Thanks for the comment. I attended a wedding in Ecuador years ago where the civil ceremony took place at a party and, a few weeks later the marriage was blessed in a church wedding mass. It was a wonderful and clear what was happening in both ceremonies.

  3. Rock on. Thank you for having the courage of your convictions.
    My congregation wrestled with this one for a while, thinking that perhaps we would stop making our sanctuary available for weddings (civil proceedings), although couples in the congregation could still have their unions “blessed.” Ultimately we decided to keep doing weddings but also to bless the committed relationships of those who cannot legally marry.

  4. Richard’s description is still the norm in Europe: the state ceremony takes place at the courthouse, followed by the church ceremony. I’ve thought more than once that this would definitely be appropriate for the U.S. to adopt.
    There is always the “evangelism” angle (or “re-evangelism” if the couple are simply lapsed members of a church), but does anyone honestly become a more dedicated church member because of their wedding? I don’t know – it was never an issue for us, since my wife and I were both committed disciples before we even met.
    Great post – thank for sharing the court case.

  5. I also struggle with being an agent of the state. I agree with the suggestion that couples should get married at the courthouse and then come to the church for a blessing.
    And to follow up what I said, consider this: If the state of Minnesota should legalize gay marriage, does that make clergy legally responsible to marry gay couples even if the clergy person does not believe in gay marriage? If the clergy person refused to marry a gay couple, could they be sued for discrimination? It makes for a situation that raises some concern.

  6. Uh oh. Our marriage was officiated by a college chaplain. Better run off to City Hall so we can make it official.

  7. It seems to me that in the PA ruling, the question is really what the definition of “church” is and whether or not it is the same as “congregation”. Everyone is assuming a local definition: a “church” is a building with a regular worship service – which is what the ELCA would define as a “congregation.” In the ELCA, our definition of “church” is quite different and broad including the whole national (and some would say whole universal) church. Chris – I would argue that the officiant at your wedding was an ordained minister of an established “church” – that is, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – even if he was not a pastor in a “congregation.”
    If PA goes forward with this in the courts, it will all rest on the court’s assignment of definitions.

  8. Hey Jenn,
    Thanks for commenting. From the article: “That means a legal marriage must be performed by a minister who preaches to a group of individuals on a regular basis in a physical “place of worship,” according to York County Judge Maria Musti Cook.”
    That’s the court’s ruling, regardless of what we mean by church or congregation. This is the problem when we mix the function of the state with the ministry of the church.

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