In its coverage of the charges against two Unitarian Universalist ministers for celebrating gay marriage ceremonies, The New York Times shows an atypical concern for state intrusions into matters of faith. The Times article hints at a largely neglected theme in coverage of the gay marriage debate: Whether believers should look to their churches, or instead to the state, for defining and creating marriages.
How different people answer that question can be surprising. The always provocative Michael Kinsley proposed last summer that the state "abolish marriage" and leave the debate to churches.
The Rev. Barry B. Heath of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), writing in the Salem StatesmanJournal, agrees with Kinsley's proposal: "Marriage is a sacred covenant, and as such, belongs not in the county clerk's office but in the church or [another] religious institution." Heath expresses no objection to churches that wish to include gay couples within their definition of marriage.
But other clergy who favor blessing gay unions argue that marriage is primarily a social contract and therefore best administered by the state. The Rev. Lois Powell of the United Church of Christ expresses this view in a report by Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service: "A marriage is a legal, civil agreement between two people. The role of the church is to offer blessing to relationships."
If this were merely a debate about whether clergy should sign marriage licenses or cite "the authority vested in me by the state," the resolution would be easier than it is. But the debate goes much deeper than that. It's really about whether marriage is mostly a matter of sleeping arrangements, pooled finances and legal rights -- or whether there is, for believers, a covenantal aspect of marriage that only a house of worship can provide.
Some advocates of blessing gay unions have rooted their arguments in the concept of covenant. See, for instance, "Does God have a plan for same-sex relationships? by Andrew G. Lang of the United Church of Christ.
People may argue that they're already married, in essence, because they have made love or lived together, and that the church's role is to pronounce its blessing and provide a photogenic setting for a ceremony. For an image of where this consumerist understanding leaves the church, look no further than Peter Cook's Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride (QuickTime clip).
Other believers, however, maintain that a wedding, like baptism or Holy Communion, is a rite of transformation. Protestant churches needn't go so far as calling marriage a sacrament to appreciate the point. Two people begin the ceremony as autonomous beings. They make promises -- before God and before a community that will, ideally, hold them to those promises -- of sexual faithfulness and lifelong commitment. And they emerge from the ceremony as a new creation, as husband and wife.
Those clergy who speak of letting the state handle marriage and the church handle blessings raise a more central question: Do they want to expand the church's doctrine or marriage, or redefine it altogether?