September 7, 2011

Thought on Marriage 09.07.11

The church's role in marriage is essentially decorative. That is what solemnization means — to "dress up" with "solemn" ceremony. The church does not "make" the marriage; that is the work of the couple, whose vowed consent is the crucial element in the matrimonial confection, much as some hold the words of institution to be in the Eucharist. But the church's witness and blessing do not constitute the marriage. Rather they add a level of decorum and ceremonial gravitas. It is a matter of style rather than content, and the Episcopal Church (at least) holds that a couple is just as married in the city hall as in the cathedral.

In all of this the church follows the lead of its Lord, who didn't, as far as we know, ever do more in this regard than "adorn" a wedding feast at Cana of Galilee.

This is what makes the decision to allow clergy to bless same-sex unions or marriages, but not to officiate at the exchange of vows so very odd. The officiant over the vow exchange literally adds nothing to the vows other than the decorous and solemn ceremonial; the blessing, we hope, does add some real substance to the mix, and is surely the properly ecclesiastical share in the event. To allow clergy, in these cases, the exercise of the churchly ministry and bar them from the essentially civil functions of prompter and recorder appears to give more weight to the latter role than it warrants. One might well say that the blessing is as much of a "solemnization" as the assistance given in the exchange of vows and the pronunciation that what everyone has just witnessed has in fact taken place.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Deacon Charlie Perrin said...


Your post makes such good sense; and that is the problem. We can't be about making sense; we must be about ensuring that we don't get anyone upset. (Except, of course, those who are impure or unworthy. They don't count.)

Robert Brenchley said...

Church marriage is a medieval invention, so it would be strange if it was seen as adding anyhting!

I had a similar problem when I married. Namissa is a devout Muslim, and the official advice given by the Methodist Church at the time was that interfaith weddings should be held at the registry office, with the church blessing them afterwards. As you say, however, the church doesn't make the marriage, and the theological content of the blessing and marriage services was in any case the same. We were married in my church.

Brother David said...

To allow clergy, in these cases, the exercise of the churchly ministry and bar them from the essentially civil functions of prompter and recorder appears to give more weight to the latter role than it warrants.

Or, more important I think, it mistakenly hints that the clergy person is doing more in that civil role than the clergy person is actually doing. Then clergy get pushed off into the realm of magic.

wv = thaingst
I think that It's Margaret has inhabited Blogger.

Anonymous said...

Well, this account is just a little too thin inasmuch as their is some robust intercession going on in the service which, for me, keeps a sacramental dynamic going.

Peter Menkin said...

Wikipedia says this of the Sacrament of marriage. Shall we loook at our Prayer Book, too: Matrimony

Holy Matrimony is the blessing of a union between a man and woman, acknowledging the presence and grace of God in the life of the couple. The form is manifested as the vows (contrary to popular belief, the blessing and exchanging of rings is customary, and not necessary for the rite of matrimony to be valid). In marriage, the husband and wife seek God's blessing, and through the mediation of the priest, the prayer is answered. Although the couple are thus generally regarded as the ministers of the sacrament through their voluntary exchange of vows, the sacrament must be celebrated under the presidency of a clergyman, who witnesses and mediates the prayers.

Matrimony was the last sacrament added, having arisen as a result of civil necessity in the Middle Ages in order to regularise intimate relationships and legitimize children. In many parts of the Anglican Communion, there is provision to bless civil marriages (on the understanding that a couple cannot be married twice). Although some Anglican Churches will marry divorced people, some will not or will require the permission of the bishop of the diocese. In some dioceses, particularly in the US Episcopal Church, there is approval for the blessing of same-sex marriage.[1] In the Continuing Anglican churches of the world, such unions are not permitted.

Peter Menkin said...

Sorry. I clicked too soon to end the comment on the 7 Sacraments of the Church. Marriage is one. Here is a definition off the internet as posted by a random Episcopal Church about the 7 Sacraments:

"Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage, in which the woman and man enter into a life long union, make their vows before God and the Church, and receive the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows." The Book of Common Prayer, p. 859

Simply stated, the purpose of marriage is to give life and love to the world. A married couple, by the way they fulfill their marriage vows, will love, honor and nurture each other. But in Christian marriage, the relationship is also meant to be for others -- an example (or an icon) of what it means to be loving and faithful to another human being.

emeritus said...

Wise words, Tobias. I have long believed clergy should not have the civil function of witnessing and registering marriages in this country - period. As in France, and recently shown in Monaco, the church ceremony of blessing comes AFTER the secular civil contractual fact. Better constitutional and theological sense.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Deacon Charlie. And yes, Robert, the fact that marriage is a late addition to Christian "doings" is testimony to the fact that any purported "sacrament" is not essential, but a matter of secondary elaboration. Bro David, indeed this is what happens as soon as the clergy are involved.

Anonymous, please identify yourself should you post again. As to prayer making something sacramental, I don't think that works. We pray in all sorts of situations and that does not make them sacramental. 'Sacrament' involves far more. In any case, my point is that all that is sacramental in marriage is in the hands of the couple, not the priest. And that is doctrine and law, even for RCs (CC 1108.2; note that the canon states that the cleric "assists" the couple to marry!)

Mr. Menkin, I'm not sure what this adds to the discussion. I affirm all that the BCP says about marriage -- but recognize it was written at a time when the question of same-sex marriage was not even on the horizon. The church is now in the process of addressing that reality. Nothing of what you offer here changes the fact that the role of the church in marriage is to witness and to bless; not to "make" the marriage.

The whole question of sacraments was hotly debated at the Reformation. In Anglican traditional law (the 39 Articles), and more explicitly in the teaching of the Episcopal Church, marriage is not a sacrament (it fails to meet the definition of a sacrament in the Catechsim, q.v.) but is held to be a "sacramental rite." A "sacramental" is something capable of being a symbol, but not necessarily ordained by Christ or necessarily productive of grace. These were the reasons the Anglican Reformers declined to name marriage a sacrament.

Emeritus, the Napoleonic solution is more rational.

Brother David said...

Señor Emeritus, I think that there are far more nations of the world where civil marriage is the order of the day, than nations where clergy are allowed to fill the civil role, as in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.

In Mexico, no legitimate clergy person would perform a church wedding, until the couple produced evidence of a prior civil marriage. It is the same for most all of Latin America.

Peter Menkin said...

Perhaps you have a better understanding than I of Sacrament, and afterall, I am a parishioner not theologian. Yet I thought people were married in Christ, which means if in a Church like either an Anglican or Episcopal that means they are married in the Church, by the Church, in Christ. Why else need of Church, or Priest?

Re Sacrament, I thought those were important things and something of the making and blessing of the Church. Otherwise, why call it a Sacrament. I grant the vows of the couple are also made in Christ, in the Church so think they have a sacramental value--if not a part of the Sacrament itself. But then I think it a Sacrament, why then does my Rector refuse to perform the Sacrament of marriage out of conscience to favor Gay Marriage, if it is not a Sacrament. Just part of his reason?

Re use of Book of Common Prayer as a standard for the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion: in its various places it uses an older version (even to 1662--is this right?) I suspect The Book of Common Prayer (1979)is a clear statement of marriage being made in the Church, and further that there is some who wish to change the Anglican Church to accept other forms, as Gay Marriage, or that the Church does not sanctify marriage etc. does not make it not so. I've quoted the 1979 Book of Common Prayer previously.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mr. Menkin, I'm having a little trouble following you here. Let me try to clarify Anglicans (unlike the Eastern Orthodox and in some situations Roman Caholics) do not require a "church wedding" to recognize that a marriage has taken place. A couple who marry at City Hall may choose to make use of the service in the BCP called "The Blessing of a Civil Marriage" but that doesn't have any effect on the marriage's validity or its status as a "Christian marriage" -- assuming the couple are Christians. In fact, the BCP allows deacons to perform marriages where the state allows it, but they are not permitted to pronounce the blessing!

Anglicans do not, I think, mean to say that those rites once called "sacraments" by RCs are not "important." But they are not Sacraments in the fullest sense for the reasons I laid out above. Marriage is a good and holy thing, but it is not a sacrament in our understanding of the meaning of the word. I don't understand your question about your rector. I do understand that some clergy have refused to officiate at any marriages out of conscience until and unless same-sex marriages are also permitted. But calling marriage a "sacrament" is not really accurate in a strictly Anglican context. (Though many do!)

As to your last paragraph, yes, according to the BCP marriage can take place in church, but it is not required that it take place in church (unlike the RC and Eastern Orthodox view). And there are some who would like to see the church also allow same-sex marriages to take place in church, in those places where such marriage is possible in the state. Note that the church is forbidden to perform marriages that are not allowed under civil law.

Hope this helps clarify...

Peter Menkin said...

Dear Reverend: Thank you for your kindness in answering and responding to my comments. It is beginning to dawn on me that you want the Church to perform same sex marriages (Gay Marriages) and make them holy.

Indulge me, for as a Religion Writer for Church of England Newspaper, London who has written more than 40,000 words on the subject of Gay Marriage (web only) for that paper and two other web sites, including San Francisco, I have not asked this question that I am beginning to wonder about:

How come or why is it so important to divide and even split both the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion over this issue? What makes it so vital to God in Christ? My recent post touches on the schism in the Episcopal Church.

Further, if I can remember five minutes ago what I've read, you say other venues (secular) say okay to what I suppose are non-sacramental marriages--as in the State doing so, marrying men to men. Yet, many believe the Bible finds holy marriage (shall we say in Christ) unfavorable to homosexual marriages, man with man. A theologian who is conservative and part of a group of Baptist denominations finds the Bible unforgiving in this matter. The interview with that theologian is here, and Baptists number around 30 million Americans or so.

Of course, our Bishop in San Francisco dissents in many ways, and encourages by Diocesan letter to his priests that they conscientiously oppose and not practice the sacrament of marriage. The Rt. Reverend Marc Andrus is adament on this subject of homosexual marriage being adopted and that blessings of them be okay--not a sacrament, I think.

This piece wonders if Marriage is Worth Defending and speaks to established Church position and does not like homosexual marriage, so the paper reported on says. Yours is a progressive position, in minority in the Episcopal Church still, but even more so in the Anglican Communion. Would you agree? More so, your book is another of the books for homosexuals that has entered the popular discussion of homosexuality in American life, considered by mainstream press a civil rights issue. Do you agree your book appeals primarily to the homosexual community, by majority and was that your intent to write it. Sorry, I am always full of questions, but they do make clearer the reasons for your arguments. Though perhaps you, too, are married to a man and want a Holy Marriage.

Perhaps, too, and I am not trying to insult you, but I guess the order you are part of allows men to marry and calls it Holy. Benedictines do not believe in homosexual practices by monks, let alone marriage--by the way. I am a Benedictine.

At this point, as I jot down these thoughts as comment, I need to end by adding I found your blog post by way of my Facebook page for my Rector posted the link. And I joined Facebook mostly to stay in touch with the Parish life. He supports homosexual marriage in the Church, and even blesses those homosexual men when their anniversaries come on the calendar at a Sunday service. So it goes in Diocese of California.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Mr. Menkin, you have gone rather far beyond the issues in this post (which is primarily about heterosexual marriage and only was meant to point out the inconsistency in allowing blessing but not solemnization of same-sex marriages). That is fine, but most of the matters you raise have been better addressed in other formats. I think you reflect a point of view in the church, as do I, and clearly we are of differing opinions on many aspects of the life of the church, including the extent to which the issue need divide Christians from one another, and as to whether same-sex couples can be married. I know that such couples can be married, and that indeed these marriages are holy, founded in Christ and blessed by God, whether performed in the church or not (just as I believe that the civil marriages of heterosexual Christians are blessed by God whether they take place in church or not). Others disagree, and you have stated that disagreement with some enthusiasm. I have read the arguments of those who advance these positions, and found them seriously wanting.

As to my book, it was not written for "the homosexual community" and most of its readers are not homosexual, at least to my knowledge and based on those who have written to me, including a number of bishops who have found it very helpful. It was written for anyone willing to engage with the issue in an intelligent and rational way. I cannot tell from your comment if you have read the book, which takes a classical Anglican approach to the question.

Personally I would not take the approach of Bishop Andrus regarding a moratorium on mixed-sex marriage, but I understand his reasons for doing so.

rick allen said...

Much of the disagreement in this area is going to center on whether matrimony is considered a sacrament, a matter which has been contested for half a millenium, and on which all that can be said probably has been said.

I would comment, rather, on another assertion you make, that "The church does not "make" the marriage; that is the work of the couple." What I think you mean is that the cleric does not make the marriage.

But a Christian couple, choosing to make their vows in church, before the alter, as part of a Christian liturgy, is surely as much brought about by "the church" as if the marriage were considered created by the cleric's pronunciation.

There are of course those who may choose a "church wedding" for purely social, familial or aesthetic reasons. But my impression is that those who take their faith seriously--whether or not they consider marriage "sacramental"--choose to marry in church because the setting gives the vows the character of entry into a religious vocation which they would lack in a mere civil ceremony.

From that perspective, I don't think that most would consider the church's role primarily "decorative."

Brother David said...

before the alter (SIC)

Rick, you are turning a piece of furniture into something with magic.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Mr. Allen. I would add two things.

The question of whether marriage is a sacrament or not goes back much further than the last half millennium, since it was not from the beginning formally designated a sacrament (and hence it was a debated issue).

I was aware of the nuance in the word "church" as possibly including the couple themselves, but stand by my original statement, since not all marriages are actually between Christians -- there is provision for "church weddings" in which one of the parties is not baptized.

And it is also the case that The Episcopal Church fully recognizes that a civil marriage is a marriage --- a pagan couple who marry and later join the church do not have to have their marriage "christianized."

You may well preserve the nuance of a couple who are Christian are acting as "the church" in their marriage -- but frankly I find that level of detail confusing to the issue at hand, which is the minimal nature of marriage as the work of the couple -- churched or not.

You may balk at the word "decorative" but I use it in the sense of adding decorum and ceremony -- which is true, I take it, even of Christian couples, since they would be just as married if they weren't Christians.

G said...

"But a Christian couple, choosing to make their vows in church, before the alter, as part of a Christian liturgy, is surely as much brought about by "the church" as if the marriage were considered created by the cleric's pronunciation.

I'd not disagree, but surely on such an understanding we're even farther from having any clear grounds for saying that's true of only heterosexual couples - unless "Church" exists only where the "two or three" represent both (sic) genders.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Geoff. Not only is there no such thing as "Christian marriage" apart from the particular marriages of Christians, but since marriage lies in the consent of the couple, and same-sex Christian couples consent to their mutual commitment to a shared married life (whether recognized by the state or the church) their marriages are just as objectively real. The "impossibilist" argument fails on the grounds of circular reasoning and special pleading.