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A Promising Propostion

We’ve heard a lot, in recent years, about all the social change that faith-based organizations can effect. We’ve heard a lot about the need to strengthen and champion marriage.

The Revs. Greenleaf and Sangrey, Unitarian Universalist ministers, seem to have taken this advice to heart. They’ve recently performed a number of same-sex marriages in downstate New York after New Paltz mayor, Jason West, was brought up on charges for doing so.

Unfortunately—ironically—Greenleaf and Sangrey’s faith-based initiative to honor marriage and work for social change has landed them in some hot water: Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams brought charges against the pastors, arresting them for solemnizing marriages without a license.

District Attorney Williams claims that, while he didn’t want to “interfere with anyone’s right to express their religious beliefs” these ceremonies were illegal precisely because Greenleaf and Sangrey considered them to be legal, as well as religious, unions.

According to the standing interpretation of state law, mayor West violated it in solemnizing marriage without licenses.

But Williams acknowledges it’s going to be a little trickier enforcing these charges against the clergy since, as opposed to elected officials, they do not swear an oath to uphold the law. (So how can Greenleaf and Sangrey’s opinions—which have no legal standing—put them in violation of a law they have not sworn to uphold?)

Anyway, this all strikes me as an interesting, slightly Brave New World-esque approach: arresting clergy who solemnize marriages without licenses.

But it’s also a problematic approach. Because if clergy start getting arrested for all the things we do without licenses, it could get ugly.

Marriage is one of those weird institutions where church and state cross paths. Thanks to our ancestors, the Puritans, marriage became a matter of civil concern; pastors, in marrying couples, became the de facto representatives of the state.

Who knows what the Puritans were thinking? Maybe they didn’t like weddings. Too much dancing. Too much cake. Or maybe they were making an anti-Roman Catholic gesture by saying that not only is marriage not a sacrament like the folks in Rome say it is, but it’s not even church business.

In any case, that’s the one area where the state takes its cue from the clergy: I am acting on the state’s behalf when I preside at a marriage. Without my signature on the license, it isn’t legal. That could sure screw things up come tax time, widowhood, hospitalizations and the like.

But I don’t know a single clergy person who performs marriages because they want to make things legal.

We perform marriages because it is our job—calling, if you will—to promote love, compassion, gratitude and service to humanity, quaint as all that may sound. The best marriages involve love, compassion, gratitude and service.

On top of that, people count on clergy to do many things that don’t require licenses, and clergy do them without giving so much as a passing thought to licenses. Not because we haven’t sworn to uphold the law of the land, but because you can’t license a promise. And our business is the stuff of promise.

Promises are invisible, but we need them. They comfort us. They provide continuity and safety. A wedding ceremony—or a funeral, a house blessing, the baptizing or naming of the child—serves as the visible manifestation of the invisible promise of love, of abiding together through time.

Presiding at ceremonies that make promises visible is not illegal. It’s what we do.

It’s what we do at funerals—commit our loved one to God’s hands and say aloud our common hope for their eternal safety and rest.

It’s what we do in baptisms or naming rites—commend a child or an adult to the care of the community in which she is baptized, saying aloud our belief that through God we are all joined to one another.

It’s what we do at weddings—bless the couple making their promises to love each other, to be with and for each other, no matter what the years may bring.

These are vital actions over which clergy preside every day and all without a license. So when the state starts coming into the sanctuary with arrest warrants, forgive me, but a hell of a lot of clergy are going to chuckle. Or fume.

Besides, aren’t there better ways to arrest the clergy? History teaches us there are. Over the years the state has brought charges against clergy for acts of civil disobedience, for giving sanctuary to illegal aliens, for smuggling slaves, for illegal trespass, for violating color lines. All of those things broke laws. None of those things were the usual pastoral acts. But given their context they made a bold witness to the world.

What the Revs. Greenleaf and Sangrey did is one of the usual pastoral acts: presiding at a rite of promise.

What makes it a bold witness—even bolder since they’ve been charged—is that Ulster County would attempt to hamstring the right of clergy to preside at marriage solely on the basis that marriage is a legal contract.

And while it’s true that they were performing these marriages because the mayor was no longer able to and that, in presiding at them, they were making a political statement, they were—primarily—witnessing the commitment of people to love faithfully and abide with one another. And in performing this rite, they were doing what they regularly do. Theirs is the business of making the promise visible. No context, no law, can change that.

Marriage is more than a legal contract (even the Puritans knew that). And the power vested in clergy by the state is far less significant than the power vested in the rituals over which clergy are privileged to preside.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at

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