Getting Out of State-Sanctioned Marriage… for All the Wrong Reasons

US map showing status of same-sex marriage

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A lot has happened lately on the marriage equality front. Thirty-seven states now extend recognition of legal marriage contracts to same-sex couples.

With each state’s decision to recognize same-sex marriages, my Facebook news feed is flooded with MCC pastors, excited by the prospect of officially marrying couples to whom they previously could only offer Holy Unions. (For the record, MCC founder Troy Perry has been joining same-sex couples in covenantal relationships since 1968.)

Then there’s the Eastern Orthodox…

Just two weeks ago, a Chicago-based priest of the Orthodox Church issued a statement in his parish newsletter, bringing to an end his involvement in the legal business of state-sanctioned marriage.

Fr. Pat Reardon of All Saints Antiochian Church writes:

Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor’s office, has now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago.

In a rare moment of convergence between conservative and queer religious sensibilities, I applaud Fr. Reardon’s decision to cease to act as an agent of the state by signing any marriage certificate, even as I decry his reasoning.

Friends know that I’ve long been an opponent of the easy union of church and state in American society. When it comes to clergy signing marriage certificates, my theological warning sirens come to life.

My reasoning goes something like this:

The state recognizes marriage in the hopes of fostering stability in society. Couples pledge to care for each other, and many will also serve as parents and guardians to children who will, in turn, grow up to be citizens. As an incentive to fulfill these tasks, state recognition bestows upon the parties to a marriage contract a host of financial privileges and powers to make decisions on behalf of spouse and minor dependents.

On the other hand, religious communities may have different reasons for the recognition of marriages. Some see them as a God-ordained relationship for creating families. Others see them as the building blocks not only of the current life, but the life of the world to come. My own particular tradition sees them as a sacramental commitment through which God imparts grace to a couple as they push one another on towards theosis, or participation in divine-human communion.

Finally, most religious groups that ordain clergy do so primarily in recognition of religious and spiritual duties that these ministers will subsequently perform. More specifically, within the Christian tradition, ministerial ordination is often characterized by pastoral care for a community, proclamation of the word, and administering sacraments (or carrying out ordinances in churches without a sacramental tradition).

When a clergy member signs a marriage license, s/he blurs the line between ministering to people and acting as an agent of the state. I see two problems:

  • First, when acting on behalf of the state, clergy run the risk of being understood to endorse all of the state’s activities, including those which are in direct conflict with the message of the religious faith they represent.
  • Second, once legitimacy has been connected with service to the state, clergy and the institutions they represent often have trouble fulfilling their initial purposes for fear of losing state recognition.

With these dangers in mind, I suggest that folks seeking legal recognition for their relationships, together with the privileges and responsibilities the state confers, should look to the county court clerk or a justice of the peace to perform the necessary paperwork.  Those seeking recognition of their relationship from their local church community or larger religious tradition can look to the appropriate ministers within their faith. And if they want both, then let them pursue both.

Until now, clergy could live in a dream world, blindly conflating the political services they perform for the state with their religious sensibilities. But now that same-sex marriage is a legal option, the heteronormative paradigms of most churches can no longer be easily mapped onto the interests of the state.

Fr. Reardon suggests that the Illinois state legislature and governor have changed the definition of marriage. And they have, but only the state’s legal definition. No change in Illinois law can or should have the slightest effect on the Orthodox understanding of the sacrament of marriage—a definition which never matched the Illinois state definition to begin with.

I hold no ill will towards Fr. Reardon for his decision to step out of the state’s system of legitimating relationships. And I recognize his responsibility as an Orthodox priest to discern whether or not to offer an Orthodox wedding rite to a particular couple.

Yet I also hope that the sea change sweeping through the country will offer Fr. Reardon and many other clergy the opportunity to step back and reevaluate all of their tacit agreements with the state.