Pastors in my denomination are on their own when it comes to marriage. Most do not enter ministry with a well-thought-out theology of marriage. They develop a practice one case at a time as people request them to preside at weddings.
In my first pastorate the situation was that my predecessor had no discernible standards. He had the most liberal marriage policy in town. No notice or counseling was necessary. If you showed up with a license, he would marry you. When I started requiring enough notice to have three premarital counseling sessions, I got a lot of push back. It turned out that draft-avoiders in exile in Canada had been slipping across the border for a few hours, getting their marriage registered in the U.S. and then slipping back into Canada.
But I felt responsible to do some counseling.
One day a woman came by to ask if I would be willing to come to the jail and marry her to one of the inmates. I did a little checking and discovered that she was a prostitute and that the marriage was needed so that she could have conjugal visits for which she would be paid!
This was one of the few marriages that I refused to perform on moral grounds. Usually, once I had made sure that the couple had engaged in conversation about religion, family, sex, and money, I treated them as adults and did the wedding even if I thought the marriage ill-advised.
But over the years I have cringed at this more and more. Sometimes, through counseling I have been pleased to see a couple call it off. But I have presided over doomed marriages–starter wives and starter husbands oblivious to their fate. In recent years there have been a lot of extravagant, expensive weddings. I have noticed that the bigger the wedding, the sooner the divorce. So I have become cynical. I am glad that I am retired and do not have to do weddings anymore.
My first reaction to the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act was that it is way too late to defend marriage. I would have drawn that line at no-fault divorce 50 years ago or so. Social conservatives are going to blow a gasket about DOMA. But they ought to consider that what they think they are defending is long gone.
I am sick of the homosexuality debate. In my church people have talked past each other for decades. Some people see homosexuality as a behavior. Others see homosexuality as an identity. If it is a behavior, then it is either right or wrong. But if it is an identity, then it is a civil rights issue.
During 80’s and 90’s I more than once sat by the bedside of a gay person with AIDS. I tried to comfort them and their families. There have been gay couples among the membership of most of my churches just as there have been straight couples living together without benefit of clergy. There was never an issue about accepting these people. Some folks in the church just did not want to know. Others knew and saw no issue.
Yet I hesitate to use the word “marriage” for gay couples. Lots of people have come to think of talking about male and female roles as gender-binary language and a relic of a past age. Yet Christians have to grapple with the biblical notion that a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and that the two shall become one flesh. This is both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus. And it is full of gender-binary language.
Clearly homosexuals who live together can constitute a household. Also people in various forms of communal relationships can constitute households. When the government or insurance companies or hospitals give advantages to one kind of household over others, that seems like discrimination.
But it also seems like discrimination if the people who just shack up do not get the advantages that married people get. With the pitfalls of marriage today, shacking up actually seems like the best and most honest solution for a lot of people. Unmarried people cohabitating constitute a household too. So should the lack of a marriage license mean you won’t be allowed to visit your partner in the hospital?
Military chaplains are afraid that the striking down of DOMA will mean that chaplains who do not believe in gay marriage will now have to officiate at such marriages. In my denomination, we have been assured that pastors who cannot in good conscience perform gay marriages will not have to. But there are already some voices calling for such pastors to be disciplined. After all, if it is a civil rights issue. . .
My preferred solution would be to disentangle marriage from the government, shut down the divorce courts, and allow people to enter into whatever covenants or arrangements they want to, whether traditional marriage, same-sex unions, communes, harems, living together or whatever. Pastors should just quit registering marriages for the state. Will these things happen? Of course not.
Meanwhile, I have been in a traditional marriage for 44 years. It has survived the death of a child and my wife’s ovarian cancer. My parents were married for 70 years. So I am only cynical about other people’s marriages.
And I am glad to be retired and personally free from the dilemmas.