20 May 2012

A Minister’s Wedding Vow

After performing weddings for 35 years I have had a conversion.  Clergy should not sign licenses. 



I believe we should perform weddings, mind you, but we should not have the authority to make it legal as well as religious. 

What prompts me to say this right now is a report on our local TV station about the proliferation of online clergy.  They ran a story this evening: Do ministers need a license to wed? | WOOD TV8.  Do read and watch, but my conventional clergy colleagues are in high dudgeon about the fly-by-nighters horning in on the biz by these ordination mills.  They don’t have the training and expertise, you see? 

But strictly speaking, there is nothing we learn that trains us to be legal agents of the state.  It ultimately comes down to being a notary, someone authorized to witness oaths and promises that become legally binding.  The sexton of my last church was a notary.  He had a bunch of cool seals and ribbons.  I didn’t have that.

It is simpler to have a one stop shop, I know.  But in many countries civil authorities do most of the weddings, and in some the clergy are expressly forbidden the authority to make a couple ‘legal.’  In fact, the United States and other former British holdings are among the minority that give parity to religious authorities.  Several historically Christian nations such as Mexico and France and Germany are among the most secular when it comes to marriage. That does not mean there are no religious weddings, only that the religious ceremony is not legally valid.  And yet, somehow, people in all these nations (secular and religious, Christian and Muslim) get married no less than we do, despite having to do two ceremonies. 

The reason we allow clergy to sign licenses is because in British holdings, Anglican clergy could and that authority was extended to others over time.  In short, it is a vestige of established religion.  We may not prefer one religion over another, but we privilege religion when it comes to marriage. This privilege does not extend to birth, though baptismal records were once considered legal.  This privilege does not extend to death, which does not allow clergy to declare people dead as it once did.  Why do we keep it when it comes to marriage?

If clergy and religions did not have legal standing when it came to marriage, would we have such a protracted battle about ‘gay marriage?’  If clergy and religions were not acting as agents of the state at all might we have a clearer consensus about issues of ‘church and state?’

It was fun to sign my first licenses, a sort of acknowledgement of my status in society,  But the excitement is long gone,  And now that the same honor is available to Dudeists and Universal Lifeists in a matter of minutes, that tiny honor is completely gone.  And why should we depend in any way on our legal status to dignify our religious status in the first place? 

I say it is time for clergy to renounce their authority to legalize marriages.  It is not necessary, not healthy, and occasionally in conflict with our primary sacred duties.  It’s been fun, but justice trumps ego every time.  So let’s resign our worldly power, colleagues. We lose nothing and gain both honor and integrity. 


Sherron said...

I'm sending your link to several groups of friends who have been discussing the same issue. There have been at least two completely secular weddings in my own close family, and the average duration was equivalent to those "blessed" by clergy.

Marge said...

Good for you! We need to have a sensible wedding system that protects everyone's rights.

Anonymous said...

I realize that this may date me, but my parents did not have my grandparents permission to marry... so the church/clergy would not marry them. They were married in a "civil ceremony" by whoever (j.p. or ?). You're correct! The clergy/church has no business being an agent of the state!

Jefferson Seaver said...

Thanks for speaking out on this issue. The Michigan law is discriminatory against those of us who are atheists, agnostics, or otherwise unaffiliated with religion. The Center for Inquiry's Indiana branch, along with ACLU Indiana, is challenging a similar law in that state: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/secular_group_challenges_indianas_religious_privilege_in_solemnizing_marria/