Thursday, April 03, 2008

By the Power Vested in Me

With the sloppy complicity of clerics, the folklore of marriage permeates our legal system, as surely as a drop of dye on a potato. I saw it again a week ago at the symposium, The Culture of Same-Sex Marriage in New England. I've subsequently calmed down (a little). Yet, the problem affects the drive for marriage equality and even the best hearted sorts can be factors.

The short of it is that many legislators and other politicians muddle religious ritual with civil marriage contracts, laws and regulations. Ministers and other clerics are often just as guilty. In fact, their rambling generalizations prime the wild cannons of the anti-marriage equality forces.

Pulpit Power

As far as I know, people do not bring charges or sue clerics for sloppy homilies or even lies from the pulpit. This should not be an issue, except for the fact that clerics may be underpaid but have an elevated social status. Many of us listen to them. We tend not to challenge their statements and misstatements. Lawmakers and Presidents alike may cite a religious sort in justifying a policy or vote.

The ongoing state-by-state and national campaigns for marriage equality often see the effects of this conflation of ritual and law. From lawmakers, gormless pronouncements about what God intends and the way it's always been invariably pivot on Christian sacraments. Even well-intentioned liberal clergy can play into this with their confusion about who has the power to marry couples.

At the dawn of Goodridge, I noted here that Massachusetts was the ideal laboratory for same-sex marriage definition and development. Despite what many clerics clearly let themselves believe and no matter how many marriage licenses they have signed, they remain disconnected from the reality of marriage.

This makes it much easier for anti-gay and anti-marriage equality politicians to describe and discuss marriage as something performed under the authority of churches, temples and such. Depicted that way, marriage can become imbued with all manner of religious cant.

Instead, let us (and clerics) keep in mind:
  • Throughout the country, state and local governments authorize marriages by licensing couples.
  • Any of a large number of various categories of officials and clerics can solemnize the marriages, that is act as agents of the government by signing the licenses.
  • State and local governments record the marriages, thus making them legal.
  • Couples definitely do not need any ritual of religious marriage. In fact, a solid majority marry without it, at a town hall or before a justice of the peace for example.
  • In the United States, churches and similar religious institutions do not have the power to marry anyone; that is reserved for government.
  • Likewise, even if your religious institution forbids divorce or requires a religious dissolution, that has absolutely nothing to do with the legal divorce, which only the government controls and can grant.
Let's say it together, marriage is a civil contract.

How It Goes Wrong

Even at the symposium last week, I left wondering what effect Rev. Richard H. Taylor's vague comments had on the law students and professors in the room. He was an excellent example of laxity with which many clerics speak of marriage in general and same-sex marriage in particular. He's a great object lesson as well, because he has been involved in efforts for marriage equality, even while he blunders through his comments on the subject.

Moreover, he has a veneer of scholarship. He is a retired UCC minister who bills himself as a "church historian and activist for equality rights in RI," according to the symposium agenda. From what I could find, his scholarship resulted in a series of directories of Congregational churches in various U.S. regions. That's kind of academic and a nice intellectual stretch for a minister, but it does not make him a marriage expert in any terms.

In the symposium — seemingly law students and a few professors in the main — was the only extemporaneous speaker. He was loose and chatty, cartoony in appearance, quite extroverted, and very pleasant. He seemed gregarious and had all the traits of a good drinking companion. As a personal side note, he reminded me of my father, who had several graduate science degrees and a house with a stock of conversational goodies like a whale vertebra and a tanned human scalp.

The symposium centered both on Massachusetts SSM and the possibilities of it in Rhode Island. At his turn, Taylor spoke boldly and confusedly (and without attribution) of things colonial and legal. He even brought up a concept of Charles II in the colonial era of imposing Anglican priest control over marriage.

If he knew, he certainly missed a good opportunity to tell the future lawyers the background that included:
  • Puritan New Englanders fled religious prosecution and intrusion in their government and private lives
  • They feared clerical involvement in both civil and civic matters
  • Their governors forbade ministers (and later when they arrived, both Catholic and Anglican priests) from involvement in marriages
  • When clerics were finally allowed to say anything at a wedding, they could offer a prayer or homily, but certainly not solemnize the union. The marriage remained by statute the job of magistrate or other government official
  • When colonies grew and expanded graphically, the need for literate people to attest to marriages and sign licenses, clerics finally were allowed to solemnize marriages — only as agents of the government
I was befuddled by his references to the Church of England. I had to do some additional work, as I have concentrated largely on Massachusetts and New England. There are a few sources specifically covering just the religious aspects. The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, has a lot of colonial Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Neither of those, however, backs up Taylor.

From the panel table, he waved about Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press 1991, by David Hackett Fischer, a Brandeis history professor). This has sections on Massachusetts and Virginia "Marriage Ways." This appears to be where Taylor got his concept, although it was the much more traditionally English Virginia colony rather than a New England one. It was certainly not Massachusetts, where no church has ever had the authority to legalize a marriage.

How It Goes Wrong

Like every cabby and waitress sincerely says, "I could write a book," every minister seems willing to make pronouncements about matters of faith and ritual. These are, after all, what they do and know.

Regular readers here may recall a similar waving of the hands pseudo-history from a high-ranking local R.C. cleric, described here. I have no doubt that Monsignor Kelley honestly believed the tales he told me of Massachusetts Catholicism's role in marriage here. He was wrong and showed no context of either history or law, but I'm sure he wasn't trying to deceive. Such clerical folklore passes around in seminaries, divinity schools and church gatherings. Repeated, it becomes real to those who say and hear it.

I used to get self-righteous about such attitudes and statements, but I eventually came to accept that many clerics are so close to marriage rituals that they muddle them with legal matters. Again, the unfortunate side effect can be lawmakers falling prey to the concepts and trying to regulate civil contracts in religious terms. The willingness to do so can intensify when voters who don't know or bother to think about such distinctions urge their legislators to vote this way or that to match their religious principles.

Yet, I saw in Taylor the disease that infects many clerics and by extension, many legislators. In confusing ritual marriage with the civil contract of civil marriage, they conflate religion and law in ways that hurt many, particularly GLBT couples. It bad enough that homosexual couples striving for marriage equality have to confront those who would deny them their rights in the name of rites. When they also have to overcome the effects of well-meaning clerics who speak in such terms of marrying couples, it becomes both a legal and a PR problem.

Ubiquitous Clergy

As a disclaimer, I must write that I know far more than my share of ministers. My family grew up in a very active church family (high church Wesley Methodist, back in the day before the United Methodists, who to me are just Southern Baptists who sprinkle instead of immerse). Moreover, as an adult, I became very involved in the polity of UU churches and chaired the board of an influential one, the Arlington Street Church (ASC). Back then, over 10% of the members were ministers. The UUA headquarters a quarter mile away called us the UUA chapel because so many of the minister employees attended. I keep regular contact with such as my friend from those days, Rev. Farley Wilder Wheelwright, the wise and delightful 91-year-old native Bostonian.

I'm not anti-cleric by any means. However, I have church/state and related debates with Farley as well as other ministers. I am a long-time member of the ASC, where Senior Minister Kim Crawford Harvie does understand. She married many of the original, post-Goodridge same-sex couples, and is herself married to a woman.

Often the issues hinge on the same anal retentive specificity and other hair-splitting. Most ministers I have known tend toward sweeping generalities. Close is good enough for many, while not for tech writers such as me. Quite simply, few challenge a minister or other cleric's assertions, no matter how off-base or vague.

Marriage is one of those hairs we split, except it shouldn't be. Many ministers let their loose lips speak words that might come from a right-wing lawmaker. They imply that they legally marry people, with the implication that they do so under the authority of their church or similar institution. Despite the words in the ceremony such as, "By the power invested in me by the commonwealth of Massachusetts..." they and the newly weds couples simply don't look at that just happened...and its implications. Hey, there was a marriage here!

It is exclusively that license signed by an okay agent of the commonwealth that makes it a legal marriage. The ritual is the couple's business.


Legal marriage in the United States and in Massachusetts since colonial times is and has been a civil contract. The government authorizes the license, records it signed by the solemnizer as evidence of the marriage, maintains the records, and is the sole dissolver of a marriage.

There are a long list of solemnizers here, which eventually came to include clerics. However, make no mistake. No matter who the permitted solemnizer is makes no difference. A wedding may be a grand affair in a cathedral led by the local archbishop, or and more typically, it might be a trip to town hall or a justice of the peace's living room. It is exclusively that license signed by an okay agent of the commonwealth that makes it a legal marriage. The ritual is the couple's business.

Most clerics believe that they marry people. Their doctrines claim they do, almost to a one. So, I don't hold a lot of hope that as a group, the clergy will suddenly awaken to the distinctions between ritual and civil contract, even when it slows the progress toward marriage equality.

It would help if each of us who attends some type of services regular has a little chat with the priest, rabbi, minister or whomever. Mention that it's right and righteous to keep it clean, while acknowledging that many couples like both the ritual and civil marriage in one wedding event, and how the cleric is key to that can go a long way.

A few clerics have made a pledge not to perform marriage rituals until same-sex marriage is legal in their states. I don't know that will have much effect. Wedding fees are such an important source of income to many clerics, and couples can always find another willing to provide the rites of their particular institution if one is "on strike."

It would be great though if all of them regularly said that legal marriage is the province of the government, while their own rites are for the couple, family and congregants. It won't hurt if legislators and the public hear that constantly and keep a perspective on marriage.

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