On July 31, in response to the request by the Task Force on Marriage, a group of 22 clergy and laity from Madison’s Episcopal parishes gathered to work through the discussion materials prepared by the Task Force. We talked for approximately two hours. We didn’t reach any conclusions but our conversation did raise up several interesting issues. What follows is my summary of the main topics that we discussed, based on notes taken by Andy Jones.
One of the issues we discussed at length was the role of clergy and church in the state sanctioning of marriage. There were clergy present who expressed considerable displeasure at serving as “agents of the state” in the signing of marriage licenses. Other clergy and some laypeople reminded us of the emotional attachment many have to precisely that activity. In some parishes the license signing takes place on the altar.
We talked about our complicity in the “marriage-industrial complex.” In Dane County where Madison is located, the average cost of a wedding is $27000 (according to one of those present at our discussion). To the extent that we host weddings for people who are only nominally involved in the lives of our parishes, our churches and clergy participate in and enable such economic excess. Attempting to teach a spiritual meaning within marriage through pre-marital counseling or in the ceremony itself is rendered more difficult because of the alternative message being sent by everything else associated with weddings in twenty-first century America.
There are competing claims around the legal, sacramental, and cultural significance of marriage and we need help negotiating these claims. The conflicts around the ceremony itself are one thing; the role the ceremony plays in the relationship of the two people who are united in matrimony, the long-term success of that relationship, and the role the community of faith plays in couples’ lives also need further clarification. In spite of the fact that many weddings take place in churches and many more are officiated by clergy, congregations tend not to play important roles in the lives of many of the couples that are married in their churches. Strengthening that bond is important because the ultimate success of the marriage depends on the prayers and support of a religious community.
We also spent a lot of time talking about other relationships and other ways of being in community. We agreed that any discussion of marriage has to take place in the context of a larger discussion about the nature of Christian community itself and how to strengthen ties within such communities. A few quotations from that portion of the conversation:
“This is too narrow a conversation. If the church is going to have a role in marriage it should also have a role in other kinds of relationships and community building.”
“For the church to remain relevant in our lives it has to continue to build community – that is what makes us holy, different from the state”
“The church’s role in marriage lies in the exclusivity of the relationship. I will commit to loving ‘you’ for the rest of my life. It derives from Jesus’ words, ‘where love is, I am…’ This is what the church is recognizing when it witnesses and blesses a marriage.”
“The church has a big role or part in ‘community.’”
Just a couple of notes about the process itself and the materials provided by the task force. People who attended wanted to talk about marriage and want the church’s help in building life-giving and sustaining relationships. They appreciated hearing from others about their experiences.
I found some of the materials unhelpful as I thought about facilitating a conversation. We used the materials prepared for the ninety-minute session and reading through the handouts I couldn’t always figure out how someone coming to the session with no background or context could use them to generate their own thoughts. In fact, I found the handout on the historical background so unhelpful that I prepared my own for the group.
Some other essays on marriage:
Emma Green reflects on the precipitous decline in the number of Roman Catholic weddings (and it’s wider significance):
So while it’s simplistic to say that American Millennials are totally abandoning their churches, at least in Catholicism, the trend away church weddings might be an indication of how young people tend to see their religious institutions. As Gray said, it’s entirely possible that today’s young non-church-goers might return to the pews in a few years, just as their hippy parents did before them. But it’s also possible that beach weddings are an early sign of a generational shift among religious Americans, with more and more people finding meaning beyond the walls and words of a church.
Nathan Chase writes in response to Green:
. For this reason, the answer to the question “Are Church weddings a thing of the past?” is much deeper than it might appear at first glance. It cuts to the heart of modern humanity, and it should force us to reflect on ourselves, the Church, and the modern world. If we begin down that road we might not like what we see; however, we must have faith that no matter our brokenness God, who can do all things, can heal the wounds of the world.