Religious Clergy and Legal Weddings in Virginia

In preparation for conducting my first weddings as a pastor I'm reading the Code of Virginia (Title 20 [Domestic Relations] Chapter 2 [Marriage Generally]) and learning some interesting tidbits, especially in regards to the role that ordained clergy play in performing weddings:

  • Any "regularly appointed pastor in his denomination" may perform wedding ceremonies in Virginia (though this leaves open the question about retired pastors or other pastors who are not "regularly appointed.") (see § 20-23)
  • The law specifies no fee for clergy to obtain the order for authorization to perform wedding ceremonies, but in Arlington County (at least) there is a one-time $29 fee.  
  • People whose religious communities do not have clergy can also be married within their religious communities, but that'll cost someone from their community a $500 bond with surety (see § 20-26)
  • Non ordained persons may also perform wedding ceremonies, given that they receive an order from a judge and put up a $500 bond (with or without surety) (see § 20-25)
  • Officiants are not allowed to charge more than $50 for the ceremony itself (see § 20-27)

As some of you know, I have some serious concerns about church/state matters, worried that both get compromised when they get too close to each other.  But in conducting a wedding as an ordained pastor I simultaneously proclaim the blessings of the church and execute the court-issued marriage license in the same liturgy, making the marriage legal in the eyes of the state.  I am uneasy about this, and would much prefer a system wherein couples first get married by an official of the courts and then later bring their legal marriage to the church for its blessing (which, I understand, is how weddings are performed in much of the world).

But that's not our system, and I'm not going to buck it.  For a variety of practical and pastoral reasons I'm not going to insist that couples get married before a judge prior to a church wedding, nor will I invite a judge or bonded non-ordained person to conduct the "legal" part of the marriage ceremony within the church service.  Yes, I've considered these options, but I've concluded that it is not worth it.  Instead, as I suggested in the past in response to this dilemma, through introductory remarks and/or the homily I will make clear that marriage is both a legal and a sacred bond, with both legal and sacred responsibilities and privileges (which resonates deeply with our Lutheran understanding of the Two Kingdoms …).

The wedding day is not just about love and sentiments, or even the Spirit that has brought the couple together.  Rather, the wedding is an opportunity for couples to make promises that are legally binding and held in sacred trust, to hear the Word of God in Law and Gospel, and to receive the blessings of God and support of the gathered community.  It is a beautiful yet multifaceted occasion requiring careful attention be given to its diverse aspects … I hope and pray that I am up to the task!

Published by Chris Duckworth

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

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