First Things magazine has published a pledge for pastors to stop officiating at civil marriages:
“Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates.”
I have supported “disengaging civil and Christian marriage” before because I call myself an anti-Puritan and blame the Puritans for having rejected the idea of marriage as a sacrament and having made it just a secular contract. With no-fault divorce and the general acceptance that marriage is for as long as we both shall love instead of as long as we both shall live, civil marriage in the West is no longer in harmony with Christian marriage. (I am not sure why gays want marriage under current conditions. In several years we will probably have the same proportion of bitter, divorced gays as we now have of bitter, divorced straight people. Marriage equality at last.)
So if this pledge had come 30 years ago, it would have made more sense. As it stands, it is a reaction to same-sex marriage, not to the prevalence of frivolous divorce. Do the people who have been signing this pledge share the “soft on divorce” stance that has been common even among religious conservatives? If so, this pledge strikes me as hypocritical.
Pastors in different churches have different reasons for signing government marriage certificates.
Catholics, for instance, see it as recognizing natural law marriage. Civil marriage, as an ordinance of natural law, is valid. But the Catholic Church layers their canon law over the civil law, and for the faithful they provide a sacramental marriage which falls under the jurisdiction of the church. The church can annul such a marriage. And the church reserves the right not to recognize a civil marriage or a civil divorce. They would not recognize same-sex marriages, since they would see such marriages as contrary to natural law.
So the Catholic priest who signs a marriage certificate does not see himself as an agent of the state. He sees himself as recognizing a valid function of the state and adding a parallel, real, and holy dimension to marriage.
Protestants have a lot of different views. In the free churches with congregational government (the system that I have worked in) the theology and practice of marriage often gets left to the individual pastor. For instance, you can require counseling or not.
However, a pastor might well get into trouble for signing and adhering to the First Things pledge. Officiating at civil/church marriages is seen as part of your job description. If a member of your congregation wants to get married and you won’t sign the marriage certificate, that might be considered a dereliction of duty.
Also, low pay causes some pastors to rely on their role in marriages to provide some additional income. (In several larger congregations I have served, the honorarium for marriages and funerals get contributed to a benevolent fund. This is a trend.) I do not think a pastor could just sign the pledge without discussing these issues within his or her congregation.
Still, for pastors who have some independence there is room for separating civil and religious marriage. I know of some retired pastors in Florida who routinely provide unregistered marriages for people who would lose part of their Social Security if they registered a marriage. Retirees don’t want shack-up, but they often can’t afford to register the marriage.
I have no idea how this will shake out. I would really like to see pastors and churches seriously reconsider the role they play as providers of civil marriage. It would be unfortunate, however, if this came about only as a reaction to gay marriage.
By the way, being an anti-Puritan might make celebrating Thanksgiving problematic. While I admire the courage of those who sought religious independence by enduring sea voyages and severe hardship in a new land, the Puritans did not allow others the same religious freedom when they dominated New England. Their strong anti-Catholicism left a hurtful legacy. Puritanism has become a term to describe a desire to control and scold others.
So I choose to focus on a more generalized Thanksgiving that goes back to the Hebrew harvest festivals celebrated in several Psalms.