Sign that marriage license? Ancient sacraments vs. battles over civil contracts

This week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen in) grew out of my latest "On Religion" column, rather than a GetReligion post, so here is a bit of background on the subject -- which is the growing debate about whether clergy in traditional faiths should continue to sign marriage licenses from the state.

If you want to know more, a good place to start is with "The Marriage Pledge," a document posted by the conservative, interfaith journal First Things. The key statement therein: "Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage."

At that point, move over and scan some of the short essays included in the journal's forum called "The Church and Civil Marriage," in which eight scholars and popular writers -- Evangelical, Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic -- debate the merits of religious congregations cutting the ties that bind their marriage rites to the current legal debates about marriage and sex.

As you do so, I hope you notice something interesting, which is that some people who are normally stuck under the simplistic "conservative" umbrella do not agree with one another on this issue. I will go further and say that there are progressive reasons, as well as conservative reasons, to separate civil unions and holy matrimony. This is -- no matter that the newspapers say -- not an issue that is simply left vs. right.

To demonstrate, let's play a game. The following quotations are from two Southern Baptist leaders. One is a progressive position and the other conservative. Which is which?

Pastors should stop signing state-issued marriage licenses. They should stop immediately. ...
Our society has been redefining marriage for a long time. There was a time society expected couples to care for each other, but now privacy laws shield medical information from spouses. There was a time when couples had to live together to be married, but now cohabitation is optional. There was a day when getting out of a marriage required a cause, but now “no-fault” divorce has eroded longevity in marriage and, I believe, much happiness.

Somewhere along the way we parted waters. We have been using the same word, but meaning different things.

The church needs to shake itself free of old definitions of marriage. We must reject the state’s contract view as its view.

And then there is this Southern Baptist point of view:

... Churches should only marry those who are accountable to the Church and to the gathered witnesses, and who are held to their vows. ...
When a congregation certifies a biblically married couple to be also civilly married, the congregation is not affirming the state’s definition of marriage. Instead, the Church is witnessing to the state’s role in recognizing marriage as something that stands before and is foundational to society. We are bearing witness to the fact that these unions are the business of the larger society in ways other unions aren’t.
We are witnessing that the state has no business in recreating marriage, but the state does have a responsibility to safeguard children, by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.

So who is who?

The first option, the one that calls for cutting the tie that binds with the state, is from the Rev. Kyle Henderson of First Baptist Church of Athens, Texas, in a commentary for the progressive Baptist News Global website.

Then that's the Rev. Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a doctrinal conservative, arguing in favor of clergy continuing to sign state licenses, even in the current age when some states now affirm same-sex marriage.

This brings me to my column this past week, which focuses on the decision by Father Patrick Henry Reardon, an Orthodox priest in Chicago, to stop signing Illinois marriage licenses. Here are to key chunks of the column that framed my podcast chat with host Todd Wilken:

The veteran priest was convinced that he faced a collision between an ancient sacrament and new political realities that define a civil contract. His goal, he said, was not to "put my people in a tough spot," but to stress that believers now face complications when they get married — period.
The question priests must ask, when signing marriage licenses, is "whether or not you're acting on behalf of the state when you perform that rite. It's clear as hell to me that this is what a priest is doing," said Reardon, reached by telephone.
"Lay people don't face the sacramental question like a priest. They are trying to obtain the same civil contract and benefits as anyone else, and they have to get that from the state. It's two different moral questions."

It's crucial to realize that different churches -- congregational vs. hierarchical, in particular -- approach marriage in different ways. The Orthodox past that helps shape Reardon's decision, for example, includes centuries of performing marriage rites in cultures (think Islamic lands and the Communist era in Russia) that were not friendly to the church and its beliefs. When it comes to thinking about conflicts between church rites and civil realities, this is not Orthodoxy's first rodeo. However, not all Orthodox leaders agree with Reardon.

This is a complex issue. The key for me, in terms of journalism, is that newsroom leaders simply must -- if they have any interest in accurately covering this debate -- look at this as a theological and religious debate about marriage, not a showdown about gay rights and politics.

Back to the column, which ends with an important statement from a leader of Orthodoxy here in North America. Read carefully:

The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman, ... or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith, our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."
At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. ... I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."

Note: Heresy "within" as well as threats "from without." There are news stories ahead in both parts of that equation.

Enjoy the podcast.

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