Surrendering My Wedding Credentials

Jason Micheli —  May 1, 2014 — 30 Comments

cake_topper_c-445x287This past weekend I presided at the wedding of a friend and former youth in my church, Taylor Mertins.

While I officiated the worship service, I signed no license from clerk of court nor did I announce during the liturgy ‘by the power vested in me by the State of Virginia.’

That’s because, tired of marriage being a political football, I gave up credentials to serve as an agent of the state when it comes to weddings.

Since the blog readership is about 10x what it was when I posted this over a year ago, I thought I would pull it out from the vault…

 

Two exchanges with congregants have been running through my mind the past week. This may agitate some.

Take a deep breath, give me the benefit of the doubt, and trust that this is all the fruit of a good faith wrestling of theology and conscience.

Exchange #1

There’s an engaged couple in my congregation who recently asked me to perform their wedding ceremony this summer.

Nothing unusual about that, right?

I do weddings all the time. It comes with the territory.

Here’s the thing.

They’re already getting married in May.

In the Caribbean.

When they stand in front of me- in July- to exchange vows of Christ-like, sacrificial love they will already be married.

As far as the State goes, they don’t need to do anything else. Their- secular- wedding in the Caribbean is good enough for the State of Virginia.

It’s just not good enough for them.

For this couple, Christian marriage isn’t the same thing as marriage as its defined by the State.

And how could it be, really?

Christian marriage is marriage in the name and likeness of Jesus, a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah.

By definition that sort of marriage will (or, at least, should) always be distinct and peculiar from the wider pagan culture.

This couple is intentional enough about their faith to sacrifice the time, effort and expense to do, essentially, a do-over in our sanctuary with me presiding in the name of Christ.

I do weddings all the time. And I can tell you that’s unusual as hell.

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

How is it that Christians spend so much time and vitriol in the public square advocating for the preservation of “biblical/Christian marriage” when even this couple in my congregation knows, or at least intuits, that the present legal understanding of marriage bears no resemblance to what Catholics call a ‘sacrament’ and what Protestants call a ‘covenant?’

Exchange #2

Last week a friend, who shall remain anonymous, lamented to me how their child soon will be getting married to their partner in a locality in which same-sex unions are legal.

This friend lamented not their child’s wedding.

This friend lamented that their child, a lifelong United Methodist and who’s been with their partner nearly as long as I’ve been married, cannot have a Christian ceremony.

(I’m not going to get into the arguments pro/con about homosexuality. You can do a search on my blog and read everything I’ve ever written on the question.)

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

What if it was the other way round?

What if my Church didn’t have this position on marriage? What if the United Methodist Church permitted committed, faithful homosexuals to marry?

If it did, then I still wouldn’t be able to perform those weddings because the State, the State of Virginia, would still consider them illegal.

And that, we would say, is crazy.

My Conclusion from Exchanges 1 and 2?

Why in the world is the Church allowing, and in very many cases encouraging, marriage to be kicked around like a political football?

I don’t want conservatives telling me marriage is between a man and a woman when Abraham had more than one wife and Jesus didn’t have any.

And, I don’t want liberals tellings me that marriage is a right. We can debate whether it is in the legal sense, but for Christians, marriage is much more than that. It’s a vocation.

No matter how one feels about marriage and homosexuality, surely Christians should find it odd that we would allow the secular State or the pagan culture to tell us what constitutes the definition of marriage.

Just as we can disagree about homosexuality, Christians can disagree over the particulars of the Eucharist.

But would Christians EVER turn to the State to define the meaning of the Eucharist for us?

Would we EVER think it normal for a government document to be signed by the pastor every time the sacrament of communion or baptism is performed?

Would we EVER waste time lobbying the government to define the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation or immersion as the proper mode of baptism?

Of course not.

But then every time a couple gets married, I have to sign a marriage license.

And every time I do I’m acting not as a vicar of Christ but as an agent of the State.

And every time, signing that document makes me feel weird because in both the Old Testament and the New prophetic critique of the government is part of the priestly role {See: Jesus, innocent victim of the government].

eucharistwallpaper1024So these two exchanges have prompted me this week to do something I’ve toyed with for some time now:

Today I called the Clerk of Court to surrender my wedding credentials.

This means I’ll no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples whom I marry will be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples will have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

My priestly role is now untethered from Red/Blue social politics.

It’s another hoop for couples to jump through, admittedly, but then it won’t take them any more time than they’ll spend taste-testing their wedding cake. 

And anyone who does jump through the hoop will be that much more likely to treat their wedding like that couple who’ll say ‘I do’ in July for second time. 

This time in Christ’s name.  

 

 

 

 

 

Jason Micheli

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30 responses to Surrendering My Wedding Credentials

  1. I fully agree with your decision and absolutely understand. I’m currently weighing those same issues for myself so this was a timely read.

  2. I might do the same. Got my first wedding this July.

  3. I think that was a courageous decision. I believe it will cause couples to see their commitment in a new way.

  4. Holly Boardman April 10, 2013 at 8:51 AM

    I question whether this is possible according to the United Methodist Book of Discipline. (I don’t have a BOD handy so I can’t quote chapter and verse.) But my understanding is that United Methodist pastors are required to follow the laws of the state when we officiate at weddings.

    I have been asked to marry couples in their 70’s who did not want to be married in the eyes of the state because of financial consequences. They would lose social security income by being legally married. But still, they were “in love”, living together, and wanted to be married in the “eyes of God.” I declined officiating at that ceremony since it violated our BOD.

    This is opening quite a can of worms.

    • The BOD states that performing weddings is “the right and responsibility” of pastors. Meaning, it’s our discretion who and whether or not we marry. It also states that we do so “in accordance” with the law, which means we can’t perform weddings that are unlawful (say, a polygamous relationship). It doesn’t follow from “in accordance” that I’m bound to provide weddings that are civil too; I just can’t perform weddings that violate civil laws.

      • Holly Boardman April 10, 2013 at 9:39 AM

        I understand “in accordance with the law” to mean that there is a wedding license from the state”. I suspect this may need to be a judicial council decision.

      • Can you refuse to perform a wedding? if you refuse to perform a wedding between homosexual partners will you be prosecuted by the state?

        • Of course I can refuse. In fact I do so quite regularly- church/pastor shoppers, grandkids of church members who aren’t committed Christians themselves. If I didnt have that authority/discretion I’d be forced to preside over people swearing false oaths. People forget the ceremony functions as an outgrowth of baptism and that the vows end in the name of the Trinity. I don’t want to preside over promises made in the name of a God people don’t believe in or follow.

          • Jason:

            While I respect your principled stand and share your vision of marriage as a sacred covenant between participants and God, I pray you can maintain it in the face of the coming culture.

  5. I have always viewed the dual role as a way to avoid two marriage events for those who see the religious ceremony far more meaningful than a civil one. The choice is with the couple. If they don’t want to have a religious ceremony, they don’t have to. However, if they want a religious ceremony, they don’t have to go through some additional bureaucratic procedure of which we seem to have an increasing abundance. In that regard, I have a question: If the first couple is already married in the eyes of the state, are you still required to report the religious ceremony?

    • I respect that perspective. I’m certainly not calling on others to follow my lead or anything. It’s just a personal decision I arrived at. To me, the inconvenience (which is fairly minimal considering everything else they prep for their wedding) is outweighed by the need for the Church to start articulating a distinct vision of marriage that doesn’t conform to the Left/Right political divide.

      • I support your decision, which I perceive as a logical although long-resisted follow-on to the separation (much eroded)of church and state. Thank you for your witness in this matter.

  6. Love this! Thank you for you clarity and your conviction.

  7. I for one am for loving monogamous couples to enjoy the same rights as all others do. If my own son finds love in a man I want that man to be at his bedside in the hospital with the same spousal privileges. I consider myself a good Catholic, but I can’t force my religion on him only show him what I feel is right. God has called us to faith and we have many avenues available to us. The only Christian denominations I reprise are those that hate all others if not of their church. For a government separate from religion there is certainly a lot of anti all but Christian’s views in our laws.

  8. Your blog was posted on Facebook by one of my classmates at seminary. All the way in Chicagoland! You’re nationwide! I took great pride in telling him “I know that guy!”

  9. If you have ever lived where there is a military base, you have probably run into this situation of the blessing of a civil marriage. There is nothing I read in the BOD that prohibits us from having a religious ceremony that essentially blesses the legal marriage already performed. In places with military bases you run into situations where couples get married because it is far easier to move to the new assignment as husband and wife than as a fiance. But these couples that recognize the covenant nature of marriage want the religious ceremony as well.

    When I have had this type of discussion with some very conservative in-laws, I ask them a simple question: In the eyes of God, who is more married- the one who goes before a judge and has the legal certificate or the couple who for whatever reason determines that the legal marriage would not be possible, but they are fully committed to each other and they make sacred vows before God in the name of Christ to love, honor, and cherish each other? Every one of them so far has said the second one.

  10. Nice, but the example is stacked.

    Further, the state should definitely NOT be in the religion business, (e.g., asking questions about a couple’s religious intention and qualifying the marriage on those terms as you have above) but as long as the state is in the business of encouraging stable heterosexual pair-bonding (for the benefit of children those pair-bonds nearly inevitably create) through the administration of incentive benefits, it does need to define marriage for legal purposes.

    The only way to get the state out of marriage is to remove all legal advantage to the institution. By doing so, we leave pair-bonding of stable bio-parents to cultural imperative alone. And experience demonstrates that when social stigmas against dissolving biological pair-bonds with children disappear, what we get is more fatherless/motherless children. And there is no survey in the world that demonstrates statistically that this is a positive thing.

    So I say nix on the state out of marriage thing.

    • Agree completely. In US history, marriage was promoted by the State because it was (at the time) the precursor to new citizens (babies), which the US desperately needed to fill a huge country (Louisiana purchase) and stem the immigrant tide (which was, in part, driven by a lack of able-bodied US citizens to keep up with labor demand during the industrial revolution).

      Now that in 2013, over 50% of kids are born to unmarried couples (hetero or gay), we’ve clearly demonstrated that we don’t need marriage to make resources (people). Thus, time for marriage to exist solely as a religious vocation, nothing else.

      People should file incomes taxes with “dependents,” not “spouses”, and SS should designate beneficiaries, like life insurance, which may or may not be relatives. Whether or not private companies follow suit would be up to them; the successful ones would certainly make the transition to attract the best workers.

      I suspect this would drive marriage rates way down — as well as divorce rates, as only people who have a religious foundation would bother to get married. I consider this a win.

      • Kevin Collins writes: “I consider this a win.”

        Terbreugghen replies: Glad we agree on some basic principles. But I must disagree. I do not “consider it a win” primarily because while marriage rates are down, and with the new plan they would go down further, childbearing will remain stable. What that means is more children will live in homes without the presence of either a biological mother and father or both. Surveys continue to demonstrate that stable bio-parent homes far outperform all other family structures.

        You know, I’ve always felt that the idea of children really brings home the point of a lifelong fidelity to your opposite sex partner. Odds are that with heterosexual intimacy, a third person will be brought into the equation sooner or later. And think of what we’re asking that third person to do. They will have a LIFELONG commitment to their biological mother and father, a commitment that forms the very fabric of their bodies. So how is it either right or moral to involuntarily force a third person, an unknown stranger to us, to make a lifelong commitment to us and our heterosexual sex partner, when we refuse to do so ourselves?

  11. Holly Boardman April 11, 2013 at 3:37 AM

    FYI and the information of your readers, every state’s law is different. When I was ordained in Florida in 1979, my ordination was adequate authorization to officiate at weddings in the eyes of the state. No separate credentialling was needed. During the 1990’s pastors were told by their district superintendents to register with the county clerk of their county as a clergyperson authorized to do weddings. I believe we were required to submit a copy of our ordination certificate, but I am not sure about this. It was no big deal, and actually I felt that it was a good way to keep people who had been ordained by a fly-by-night organization from claiming ordination. It was also a mandate of my district superintendent who I have vowed to obey.

    At any rate, I suspect that the law is different from state to state in this matter. In some states, ordination may still be adequate without additional credentialling by the state. In that case, a pastor who takes YOUR stance would simply decide NOT to sign the state wedding license and would require the couple to be married by the state prior to the wedding. I don’t see how marrying a couple BEFORE the civil ceremony would be consistent with the BOD. And I don’t think such a marriage would be valid in The United Methodist Church.

  12. “surely Christians should find it odd that we would allow the secular State or the pagan culture to tell us what constitutes the definition of marriage.”

    Not really, when you consider the fact that marriage has always been a secular thing. Religious “marriage” came after; secular marriage came first. Knowing that, I find it difficult not to laugh at folks who insist that marriage is “religious” in nature (or even “Christian”, which is an even more disturbing view, IMO).

    • I agree and know that marriage preceded the Church; in fact, the Church was forced to preside over marriages by Rome in the ancient world. That being said, it’s still the case that the wedding rite as it’s practiced in most churches is a distinctly Christian ritual, rooted in our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. There’s more than 1 version of marriage. Always has been. That was my point, and I think yours.

  13. In the UM Book of Worship under “Services of Christian Marriage”, there is “A Service for the Recognition or the Blessing of a Civil Marriage”. I believe it does a good job of acknowledging and declaring the difference between a secular marriage valid in the eyes of the state, and a religious covenant entered into in the name of God.

  14. Thanks for posting. This is really thought provoking.

  15. Hmmmm…I must take some more time to consider this extreme reaction to the clichéd idea of “putting the cart before the. Horse.” I mean, on the surface when I first started to read and form my opinion, I thought, indifferently, great idea… making a powerful statement on so many levels, but after I finished reading and started contemplating…I think “in my opinion” the answer may be much less complicated, and much less of an affirmation, or political statement, or moral view on marriage (same sex or otherwise) and that maybe it was a quick, knee jerk reaction, surrendering your ability to legally marry … I feel you must consider that there are those that will or would have considered you LEGALLY presiding at their wedding a true blessing, a joy, a special, anticipated part of their union….of course, then I come full circle and say, but you being able to “legally” bind them…not the point!!! 🙂 it kind of feels selfish to me 🙁

    Omgosh, Jason… I am so sorry, maybe I have overstepped my bounds…I ramble, i do, I DO 🙂 I hope you accept this as my personal thoughts inspired by your blog, and please know, I very much enjoy your sermons!!! (they keep me coming back to Aldersgate)…. I certainly respect your expansive knowledge, research, study and comprehension of GOD’S word …which, of course, dwarfs my own!!! I should have probably charged into my first “blog comment”with a little less vigor 🙂 sorry…LoVe YoU 🙂 …but hey, I just changed my name to anonymous ….so …yeah 🙂

  16. Congrats! Weddings are a strange combination of Christ and culture. At the center of the “spiritual” occasion is a legal transaction. Consider that before the 11thC weddings were not even permitted on church premises. A few hundred years later they were allowed in the church doorway and eventually into the sanctuary. I respect your decision.

  17. What? You mean that the church does not have a clear standard for what constitutes a Holy Marriage? Come on Jason; this is nothing new. The Old Testament patriarchs took as many brides as suited them. If something about a wife displeased them; if she was barren, if she had an affliction that made her “unclean”, or if he simply became bored with her, that man could divorce that wife and toss her out like a kleenex. This was true even up until Jesus’ time.
    Also, who does not recall reading about the old slave days in America when pastors wilingly changed the vows to “until death or distance do you part” lest one of the slaves got sold down river?
    While your move is not the norm, I do not believe it solves a thing. Change comes from within and we muxt work from within to bring change about.
    God bless you in your journey!

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    […] so my blogging worlds collided this week as my ‘Surrendering My Wedding Credentials’ post provoked questions from people about how I understand scripture and […]

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