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Perhaps The Time Has Come

By George Sumner

It is an idea which has been mooted on each side of the marriage debate aisle. It has in the main garnered no popular support. But the time has come once more within the Church to debate whether we should cease to perform any marriages—whether same-sex or traditional—which are also legal acts of the State. Should we cut the final Constantinian tether by which the priest serves simultaneously as civil agent? Should we “go European” such that the couple would be declared to be married when they go to get their license, and then receive a blessing, with vows and rings, in a nuptial liturgy in Church.

Let me clear up some immediate misunderstandings. Yes, your child can have the very same service (and reception), except for a few small liturgical emendations. And no, this does not really change much the divide between traditionalists and progressives on marriage.

I have been led to reconsider this question by the recent, breathtakingly ill-informed comment on revoking religious tax exemption by Beto O’Rourke, the “destroyer of worlds” for his fellow Democrats. Does he really want to dictate doctrine? Are sacramental judgments reducible to “discrimination?” How can a congressman from El Paso know so woefully little about Roman Catholicism? What effect does he imagine this would have on African-American churches? or mosques? or Salvation Army soup kitchens? I wonder if he cares to know more.

O’Rourke has, since making this proposal, dropped out of the race, but the truth is this: his shot is a harbinger. So goes our culture, not during my active ministry, but probably that of the younger clergy I have ordained. Maybe start getting ready now. Maybe let church weddings, distinguished from civil licensing, take place in the separate space of the Church. Do not withdraw from solidarity, witness, dialogue, or service to your neighbor. But on the question of marriage do take one step back toward Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Perhaps we will either move to higher ground, or suffer the flood waters.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Having presided at a few marriages living in France over the past four years, I do think it focuses the mind. Couples have to decide what it means to then get married in a sacramental context, receive necessary instruction, and most importantly they can decide against it. It is also very rarely noted that civil marriage in France is an extremely somber, public undertaking where the duties and responsibilities are front and center. It is no visit to the Justice of the Peace. French visitors to civil marriages in the US are frankly stunned at the zoo like character of what is now a mainstay in our secular NA context. And as Sumner notes, the next likely development in NA is forcing churches to do same-sex marriages. It is certainly a stalking horse in the UK.

  2. Dear Bishop Sumner,

    There may be good reasons for clergy to stop serving the state’s interest for the briefest moments during weddings, but I don’t think Beto O’Rourke’s unguarded remark is one of them.

    Let’s recall the words he chose:

    Don Lemon of CNN: Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?

    Beto O’Rourke: Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone, any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights, that denies the full civil rights, of everyone in America. So as president, we’re [sic] going to make that a priority. And we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.

    Given how loosely our culture now defines rights, this remark is a vast dragnet affecting everything from adoption policy to hiring practices to whether the Little Sisters of the Poor should be forced to buy abortifacient drugs for their staff members.

    I accept whatever state benefits come my way because I am married to Monica. I would have married her regardless.

    While I realize the importance of having a marriage license, even for something as mundane as Monica obtaining a new driver’s license, I considered us married the moment we stood before God in our church, pledged our commitment to one another, and received our priest’s blessing.

    What I find troubling in most advocacy for the European model is the emphasis on going to the state first, as though Leviathan is the most important actor in the drama. He is, in reality, the least important.

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