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
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
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
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.
contact Jo Page at firstname.lastname@example.org