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The clergy as marital agents of the state

The clergy as marital agents of the state

In celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage in Oregon, Bishop Michael Hanley of the Diocese of Oregon, has opened a conversation with the clergy of the diocese about whether it is appropriate for clergy to function as an agent of the state with regards to marriage.

Let me say here that I see the action of the state of Oregon as being a matter of justice and the ending of a practice that gave rights unequally to the dominate heterosexual majority and excluded a homosexual minority for no adequate reason. In the church there are issues to be considered that extend this debate beyond the issue of justice into the realm of theology and biblical interpretation. In the Episcopal Church today the majority have come to the conclusion that within these additional realms the work has been done to draw the conclusion that God is inviting the church to bless gay and lesbian couples who wish to live in a life-long covenant of marriage. We have approved a blessing rite for use with couples who seek this sacramental moment. There is also a minority who hold a divergent position and do not approve of this innovation. We continue to hold these positions in tension and with a generous pastoral spirit. Know also that not all gay and lesbian couples are seeking to be married by the state and thus we continue to live in a complex world where our assumptions need to be checked early and often.

Another discussion being held throughout the church today concerns the practice of clergy being agents of the state in the signing of any marriage license. In some dioceses clergy are being encouraged to consider ending the practice of being the agent of the state for any marriage they participate in. A best practice in this regard would be for a couple to be met at the back of the church by a justice of the peace, (in some cases a member of the local church!) The signing of the official state wedding license would occur there; the couple would be legally married and then process into the church for the church wedding service and the blessing of that relationship. This would clarify for all who attend the distinction between church and state. I invite you to consider this practice and to discuss this issue in clergy meetings. Please note, however, that you continue to be able to sign marriage licenses as you have in the past.

Read it all here.

The Diocesan policies, which indicate that this has been on Bishop Hanley’s mind from well before the court ruling this week, are found here.


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Charlie Sumners

Since the state gives me no role in the dissolution of a marriage, I would rather have no legal role in its creation. I tell couples I am a master of ceremonies for most of the ceremony while they marry each other. When I “pronounce” I am not creating the marriage, I am commenting on what has just happened.

Since Texas is a common law state, if a couple state in public that are married and then live together, they are married. My only priestly role is the blessing at the end.

My stance on this also makes it much easier to sort out those couples who really want the blessing of the church in contrast to those looking for a venue.

Gary Gilbert

I found this odd: “Know also that not all gay and lesbian couples are seeking to be married by the state…” In New York State a married couple gets about 1324 rights and protections and about 1138 at the federal level. If one has children, marriage can make a big difference.

Of course, there are couples for whom marriage is a bad financial decision, such as where one of the parties needs state aid. But in general, marriage offers lots of protection. I don’t know why the bishop had to say this.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary Gilbert

The solution to the problem of civil and church law being different would be to reform church law so that same-sex couples were treated like all other couples.

I have never sought a church wedding because I wouldn’t accept second-class treatment. Murdoch and I have an act of marriage from Montreal which treats us like all other couples.

Civil marriage is generally entered into differently from civil unions and domestic partnerships. Civil unions and domestic partnerships are contracts, which can be signed by the parties on different days. The couple need not appear together, whereas marriage requires the presence of both parties. Both must promise to take each other as spouses.

A case can be made for the church to get out of the civil marriage business, but doing so now looks homophobic.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Ann Fontaine

Yes – Paul – interesting and the same pattern when any disenfranchised group becomes part of the dominant group — note professions where women now have a place – salaries go down.

tobias haller

Michael, I don’t disagree about the wisdom of at least actively exploring separating church and state in this area, as is true in much of Europe and the rest of the world.

However, I’m not sure you are correct about the effect of signing the license. You may be correct that the law is different in MD and CA, but in NY the law is clear that the marriage is solemnized by the exchange of vows and the declaration that the couple is married. They are married from that moment. The signing of the license “certifies” that the solemnization of marriage has taken place but it does not “make” the marriage. In NY too we can be fined for not filing the license — but that would not mean the couple are not married.

As far as the liturgy goes, the “moment” is established by the liturgy itself: as the officiant declares that since the couple have done the requisite things they are now married.

In NY law it is this moment that establishes that the marriage has happened. Failure to sign the license will bring a fine to the officiant, but will not void the marriage, at least as I understand NY law.

But I agree that I would just as soon not be an agent of the state in all of this. Historically, marriage is a civil phenomenon that the church blesses; the entanglement of the Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation notwithstanding!

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