Friday, July 30, 2004

Waltzing with the Pig

Far from now and here, my soon-to-be-wife and I walked across the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot to the Citizen's Loan Company in Beaufort, South Carolina, to get married. To the locals, this was the Black Pig, even in 1976, because although anyone could shop anywhere and light and dark folk there buy pretty much the same groceries, the tradition of whose store was whose remained.



We had stayed at the motel at the other end of the lot. We headed to where a friend, Arthur Horne, chairman of the Beaufort County Council would perform the ceremony under his authority — as notary public. That may seem like having the clerk behind the counter at the post office conduct the marriage, but South Carolina is not the only state where the thinnest veneer of governmental authority legitimizes a civil contract meant to last a lifetime.

Arthur was craggy, an ex-Marine with the deep wrinkles of age, beating cancer, and too much Southern sun. Yet, he was deeply touched by being asked and cried as he did the deed. The authority invested in him as a notary public has lasted 28 years.

The Massachusetts version of authority is a bit more demanding. Recognized clergy can solemnize a marriage here, as can a justice of the peace. Otherwise, whether you are a Supreme Judicial Court Justice or a plain guy, you petition the governor for a one-day designation to wed a couple.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Clergical Folklore

As a non-Roman Catholic, I was stunned by the annulment petition a friend had his diocese send me as a witness. Later when I met with a priest, I was a bit amused by his take on Massachusetts marriage history.

The couple had been married for 30 years and had four kids. I was supposed to be a witness because I knew them when they were dating and could say they didn't know what they were doing when the married. To get to that required 72 essay questions, including what I knew of their sex lives.

When I filled in what I could, I was supposed to have a priest witness my witnessing. It's not that the investigator in Savannah didn't trust guys in trousers, but a priest would be better. Well, it's no problem finding a priest in Boston and I made an appointment with the (honest to God) Father Francis Kelley, the pastor.

He pored over the questions and answers with what seemed more than professional interest. When he found that I was not RC, he happily interpreted the process, and explained that different bishoprics used their own, generally shorter, forms. He is an investigator for Boston for annulments.

Then he held forth on the history of marriages in Massachusetts, claiming that the priests kept the records for a long time before the government took over. He wasn't aware that clerics were forbidden to marry couples here in colonial times. Of course, there weren't many Catholics in the area to pass along the oral history either. (The first New England Catholic church started in Boston in 1788, a century and one-half after the Puritans got there, though priests had visited before.)

While parishes did keep their records, before there were parishes, towns with formal governments kept their own. Of course, farming families maintained their own records in Bibles. I do like Father Kelley's image of the priests keeping ancestral continuity through records. It's not accurate in the main, but it is comforting.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Wonderful Seal

Picture if you will a tall, iron, screw-mounted press, larger than the duck presses in three-star French restaurants. This is black with gold handles on top and gold trim. It is over three feet tall.

There is one of those in the McCormack office building at One Ashburton Place on Beacon Hill in Boston. Its purpose is to emboss the state seal, to take a piece of gilded paper and turn it into a symbol of authority or in the case of a certification of solemnization, an official designation.

The seal when embossed thus appears as in my profile:


The certificate I got last year has this one it. When I paid my $25, and presented my picture ID and the letter from the governor granting my one-day designation, I got to wait in line while a thin, late middle-aged woman prepared the actual certificate. Her thinness, white skin and grey hair were significant because she was in pale contrast to the dark press, whose members where thicker than her arms. She seemed to wrestle with it and slowly win. She approached the press, placed the paper and gold sheet in it, and began screwing it down with one hand on each knob, contorting her mouth under the effort. It was an delightfully 18th Century image. The result was slightly irregular, higher on one side. The document was important enough to process by hand.

Lackaday, the new system seems to use pre-embossed seals stuck on the paper like so many gold stars for the good readers in the class.

The couple whose marriage I solemnize in August will be no less married because their version of the seal is mass produced. Yet...


Monday, July 26, 2004

Solemnize This!

I was not aware that plain folk could perform a wedding ceremony in Massachusetts until last year. Long-term friends who a delightfully checkered past with each other said that after several years of living together that they would marry. I was pleased, then more so when she said that any adult in the commonwealth could do the deed, so long as the governor approved.

Mirabile dictu!, as we used to say 1500 years ago in Rome.

Sure enough, you can see the details at the secretary of state's pages. You can also download the application as a PDF file.

The rules have change a little since I did that wedding last year. Now:
  • You can only do one a year.
  • You can get the form online instead of mailing a request to the governor
  • You have to pay your $25 up front.
  • You don't have to trot down to a state office to get the certificate embossed with the seal by hand.
  • They mail the certificate.

The basics remain the same, to wit:
  • You ask the governor for the right to marry one couple on one day in one town.
  • You fill in a form with the names, addresses and birth dates of the couple and yourself.
  • You cite the date and town of the marriage.
  • You write your check for $25.
  • You include a character reference letter from someone other than the couple.
  • You mail the package to the secretary of the commonwealth.
  • You wait up to six weeks.

Some kind of magic happens. Allegedly they check your criminal record and eyeball the reference. They may also check the couple to see whether either is already married in Massachusetts.

It's fairly painless for the annual thrill of being a minister without the heavy praying, sermon writing or counseling.

Mail-Order Ministers

A childhood chum with two daughters noted that her first married in Santa Fe. The officiator got ordained over the Internet. That's fine almost everywhere in the country. The mere cloak of clergy can legalize a marriage.

It's in Massachusetts where the roots of the civil contract still hold forth in the solemnizer. That even sounds lewd though.

In the commonwealth, the questions remain, who has the right to get a marriage license and who has the authority to perform the ceremony. Only here is the answer to the second one whomever the governor says can. So there.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Bestilling Doubts

At a Boston wedding in 1647, Governor John Winthrop spoke on the government's stance in the Bay Colony. "We were not willing to bring in the English custom of ministers performing the solemnity of marriage, which sermons at such times might induce, but if any ministers were present and would bestow a word of exhortation, etc., it was permitted."

Friday, July 23, 2004

Laughable Activism

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled for the same-sex couples that sued, it wasn't a judges' coup d'etat, regardless of what some radio screamers say.

The question was pretty simple -- who has the right to apply for and receive a marriage license? The answer is simple too -- the requirements do not limit gender, present, former or future. That's all folks.

In most states, religious values appear in laws like so many chipmunks in the forest. They just keep popping up wherever you turn.

In contrast, almost certainly because of its colonial culture of civil contracts, the traditional religious opinions of marriage never crept into law.

Amusingly enough, while the court was trying to make the legislature act in the past two years, the legislature and particularly Senate President Bobby Travaglini was doing the same. He wanted the court to stick its collective neck out. Well he won and that means he lost. The long-open window of opportunity for the legislators to limit marriage to a man/woman couple slammed. Once the court said it was a constitutional issue, the legislature had to accept it or start a lengthy amendment procedure.

Virgil wrote that fortune favors the bold. In this case, the court wasn't even bold, just playing by the rules. It was that fortune disdained the cowards.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Why There?

The littlest commonwealth snuck up on the nation with its same-sex marriage thingummy. It's reasonable to ask, why the devil is this going on in Massachusetts and not a cosmopolitan state, say New York or California, or maybe in a fringe one, like Vermont, that already has gay civil unions?

That's fair enough, but the answer is not that it is all that liberal or a leader in legislation. In fact, Massachusetts has a long history of regressive laws and culture. This is the place that bought you those irrational blue laws, censorship of books, movies and strip-tease (Banned in Boston), and seems absurdly forgiving of Kennedys, Curleys, and other smiling law breakers and rule benders. ("But he's so good to his mother...")

Boston a bit and the suburbs and exurbs a lot are populated with reactionaries. Many of them hate the idea of man/man or woman/woman marriages. Too bad. The laws say otherwise.

Let's return to those chilling days of yesterday in the Massachusetts and Plymouth Bay Colonies. The governors and other political leaders didn't trust ministers and with good reason. They left England to get away from clergy helping royalty oppress them, tell them what to think, and ordering them around seven days a week.

On their own turf, the colonists let ministers preach and earn a living, but not much else. Some academic citations will follow in other posts. Meanwhile, the major points are:

  1. Colonial governors originally only let civil officials, like judges, perform marriages. Ministers could say a few words at a wedding but their words or presence didn't make it a marriage.
  2. While ministers eventually got the right to marry couples in Massachusetts, the commonwealth constitution sees marriage as a civil contract and keeps a clean separation from the church.

The relevant part of the constitution is Chapter III, Article V.:

All causes of marriage, divorce, and alimony, and all appeals from the judges of probate shall be heard and determined by the governor and council, until the legislature shall, by law, make other provision.

Ticket Arrives

Bulletin...Bulletin...

Sometimes when you look for trouble, you don't get it. I was thinking that the anti-gay-marriage governor, Mitt Romney, would try to delay issuing certificates of solemnization that came to his office for approval. He apparently did not. I received mine yesterday.

Actually, it was a bit easier than the one I got last year for a straight marriage. They have changed the process so that you don't have to trot down to a state office to show ID, pay, and get the big state seal embossed on the certificate.

It's a pity you don't get to keep the framable certificate. It goes in with the marriage license to the town office to authenticate the wedding. I scanned a copy though.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Something Odd

New Englanders like to say they are cautious or reasonable. A lot of other people would call it paranoid or untrusting.

That goes way back to colonial Massachusetts. The early British-appointed governors were gun-shy about church and state issues, having just come from a country where the priests and royalty were too chummy.  On one hand, the locals around Boston said they were very pious. On the other, they forbade ministers from performing marriages.  It was okay for a minister to say a few words at a wedding, but he shouldn't worry his pretty head about the legal issues. The commonwealth was making it marriage; God wasn't.

The commonwealth constitution defines marriage as a civil contract, not a sacrament. Hmmm. That, if you pardon the expression, laid the ground for the recent decision saying that homosexual couples could marry.

Massachusetts also has an apparently unique process that lets any adult petition the governor the right to perform one marriage for one couple on one day. I've done that once for a straight couple and shall do it next month for a gay one.

Let's talk and think about why the laws and customs here are so queer.


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