Pew Research says support for same sex marriage has dipped a little. No surprise, I think. Everything human has ups and downs. Perhaps it indicates a little ‘cause fatigue’ or something else. Of course we shall hear some prophets on the right say it is a bellwether or some such thing. As there are still some who believe the Civil War is not over (Tea Party anyone?) there will be die-hards for traditional marriage for generations to come. Same –sex marriage, though, is inevitable despite them, and this tiny dip which is a sociological tip of the hat to an era that has come to an end. All we who protest now are doing is making sure the foot dragging doesn’t take too long.
That being said, I wish to start another odd conversation about the way our society works, and because same-sex marriage has been so prominent it made me look at a curiosity of our culture that I believe deserves to change. To wit, the legal authority of clergy to solemnize legal marriage.
Those training for clergy life are always eager for the moment when they can ‘sign licenses,’ which is the one official thing we do that make us clergy different from civilians. Virtually everything else we do can be done by lay folk, legally I mean. But signing those licenses is the proof of our station and status. What I did not know back then was that this authority to sign marriage licenses is not global.
It seems that modern clergy authority to legitimate marriage is mostly an British custom. In other parts of Europe and the New World religious and civil marriage have been divorced (excuse the pun) for some years.
If our American (and Canadian) practices are cultural legacies not universal law, and we clergy who boast of our radical reformation roots have stood strongly against the commingling of church and state, then why do we allow ourselves to do this? Some of us have refused to sign licenses until gay and lesbian couples can also enjoy legal marriage, which is noble but my question is why we ever sign them all?
The more I think about it, the more it seems that this convention violates the intent of separating church and state. By making clergy magistrates of marriage, then then wield civil authority not according to the law but according to their religion. There is no reason for clergy to have this civil power, though. No religion requires it, as every religion in the USA and Canada exists in places where clergy do not have this authority. The convenience factor is minor, again as billions elsewhere do not seem aggrieved. Its original purpose, which was to make it easier for those far removed from cities to have access to legal marriage, is now moot.
I believe it is time for clergy – from my UU tradition and others – to demand that the states remove this unhealthy and unwise practice. Losing it will not impede religious practice, does not impose impractical burdens on couples or society, and tempts religious leaders to mix theology with law and church with state.
What do you think?