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.