During my ministry career I have presided at dozens and dozens of weddings. And I’ve done my fair share of marriage preparation too. However, apart from service entries in the vestry book, I’ve never registered a marriage; I’ve never “married” anyone.
When I moved to Canada in 2011 and took up my first posting in the Anglican Church of Canada one of the first things I needed to do was register with the provincial authorities to be authorized to perform and register the weddings at which I presided. The paperwork was included in a stack of other forms presented to me by the diocese and, to be honest, I didn’t give it much thought until I received the return letter from the BC Vital Statistics Agency extending my authorization and giving me a license number to include on any submitted marriage registration forms.
It was then that I unearthed a personal conviction I had never before had the occasion to give any serious thought to: I don’t believe the Church should be marrying anyone.
For the first 10 years of my ministry I lived in the Netherlands, one of the countries in Europe where churches have no role in the legal aspects of marriage. All wedding ceremonies are conducted by a civil registrar, normally at city hall, and only afterwards may the couple proceed to a church, if they wish, for a secondary ceremony. This second event looks exactly like a standard church wedding, with the exclusion of the legal rubrics. It is a purely religious event.
Upon moving to British Columbia I discovered that my experience to date was not merely a reflection of my Dutch context; it was also consonant with my sense of Church / State relations with regard to marriage. Fortunately I had a bishop who was sympathetic to my sensitivities and I was granted the request to have my name withdrawn from the civil registry. Practically, this has meant that any couple wishing for me to preside at their ceremony must first engage the services of a civil registrar, or allow me to work in tandem with another minister who will complete the legal necessities.
What, other than historical precedent, makes us believe the Church should have anything to do with deciding who may or may not marry in a society? There are no other legal issues in Canadian family law – divorce, custody, wills, taxes, estates, death, you name it – where the State extends a legal function to religious representatives. Why, then, should this right be given at the initiation of the marriage relationship?
“It is a sacrament!” I hear you say. Yes, I agree. A visible sign of an invisible grace. At least that is how I have experienced my own marriage. I wish that every couple would want to have their marriage relationship acknowledged, celebrated and blessed in the context of a faith community. However, I see no reason for the Church to continue debating the minimum qualifications for marriage or remaining a servant of the State in performing the legal function of registering marriages. Marriage is an experience common to the entire populace; let that populace, in the form of the elected government, decide its parameters and provide for its legal bureaucracy. (And let the Church be free to maintain its prophetic voice vis-a-vis the government with this issue as it does with any other.)*
The Churches of the Anglican Communion are awash with marriage debates. Perhaps the problem stems from a presumptive authority which no longer has any basis in reality in our modern societies which have moved beyond the Church/State relationships of the era of Christendom.
As for me, it is rather straightforward: if you want me to preside at your wedding, to lead the worshipping community in celebrating with you and seeking God’s blessing in your relationship, I will do it gladly.
Just show me your Certificate of Marriage first.
*Naturally, in countries with established, or “state”, churches – such as England – the issue is somewhat more intricate; thankfully we are free of that complication in Canada.