It’s not the state that should get out of marriage, but the church

Yesterday, I read an article in Unherd by Giles Fraser in which he argued that marriages are not the state’s business. HIs argument heads towards his key point:

New arrangements continue the trend to turn marriage into a bureaucratic transaction, rather than a covenantal promise. The more the state gets involved, the more this glorious religious service feels as soulless as taking out a mortgage. It’s high time the clerics told the registrars what to do with their government spreadsheets. In the name of St Valentine and all that is holy, can we please have our ceremony back.

In short, Fraser argues that marriage is the church’s domain and the state should get their grubby hands off. Leave it to the church to determine what marriage is, how it should function and how it is delivered. Unfortunately, I think he makes a number of missteps in his argument and lands on a position that is not in keeping with traditional Protestant thought.

There is, of course, a case to be made for marriage remaining in the hands of the church if you are a Roman Catholic. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the church. And according to Catholic teaching, each is a mystical channel of divine grace that is rightly administered by the church. On such a belief, the state really ought not to have anything to do with marriage because it is the church’s domain.

But the Protestant Reformation did away with 5 of the 7 sacraments and, instead, recognised only two ordinances: baptism and communion. Philipp Melanchthon writes, in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, following Luther’s teaching:

If we define the sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking. For humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly speaking, because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace. Therefore signs instituted without the command of God are not sure signs of grace, even though they perhaps serve to teach or admonish the common folk. (Article XIII)

In his Institutes, John Calvin states:

The last of all this [discussion of sacraments] is marriage, which, while all admit it to be an institution of God, no man ever saw to be a sacrament, until the time of Gregory. And would it ever have occurred to the mind of any sober man? It is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving, are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments. For in a sacrament, the thing required is not only that it be a work of God, but that it be an external ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. That there is nothing of the kind in marriage, even children can judge.

Calvin uses the term ordinance here not in the sense of a binding command (as many Protestants would refer to Baptism and Communion) but as a shorthand for what God permits but not commands. That is, he is not saying being a cobbler is commanded by God, but it is permitted. Likewise, he says the same of marriage, something that follows obviously when we reckon that Jesus was not married.

By the same token, then, the XXXIX of the Church of England:

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God. (Article XXV)

All that being the case, what is marriage? Don Carson states here:

In the Bible, marriage is more than sexual union between a man and a woman, but it is not less. It also includes public commitment to each other in some public, legal, and culturally acknowledged way that sets this pair apart as husband and wife. In the nomadic culture of Abraham’s day, a part of the ceremony was for the groom to take his bride “into his mother’s tent” (so Isaac)—that was the equivalent of the wedding night. Under the law of Moses, if A and B sleep together, and if it is clearly not rape, the law does not say, “Oh, well, I guess that makes them married.” No, the dowry must still be paid (that was part of the public declaration of marriage under that culture), the two families are involved, etc.

He goes on to state:

When A and B are both Christians, it is normal, in this country, for them to get married in a church, and then we speak of a Christian wedding. But it is important to see that, strictly speaking, marriage (despite the Roman Catholic Church) is not a sacrament to be reserved for Christians. It is a creation ordinance—that is, it is part of the plan of creation itself, something that God has ordained for man/woman pairs everywhere, not something that flows out of the life of the church and that belongs only to Christians.

Taking all this in the round, marriage is not anything over which the church has authority or a monopoly. Protestants have come to view that marriage is a creation ordinance. It existed before Israel were a people and before there was such a thing as the church. It was presided over by God, in the Garden of Eden, as foundational to society. It is not the preserve of the church, or Christians, but a societal act. It is part of our culture and not distinctly Christian. To deny this is to say that non-Christians either cannot be married or, minimally, cannot have good, healthy marriages that contribute to society.

I apologise for the long introduction but I think it is necessary to get behind the missteps made by Giles Fraser. He bemoans the fact that ‘from now on, I will print a form from the web, everyone will sign it, the couple will take it to the Register Office who load the marriage on their database and then issue proof of marriage… what is [not] welcome is the state’s increasing involvement in what is fundamentally a religious ceremony.’ But, as we have seen above, Protestant tradition – including the Church of England tradition in which he operates – disagrees. Marriage is not ‘fundamentally a religious ceremony’ but a societal one. Fraser doesn’t seem to realise that when he conducts a marriage, like any pastor in any church, he is not acting as a gospel minister at all, but an agent of the state.

This is much easier for Baptists to recognise (and even easier for non-Christians). Whilst it is possible for Baptists to have a person who can register weddings, many simply don’t. To register a wedding requires a registrar to come to the ceremony and sign it off on behalf of the state. The reason why this is not required in the Church of England is because it is the state church. That is, the entire church is an arm of the state and its ministers function as agents of the state in reality. Whilst many don’t like to think of themselves in these terms, it is essentially why the Great Ejection was able to happen – those who dissented from the demands of the state were thrown out of their churches because the church itself was and is an arm of the state. The reason they do not need to bring a secular registrar to their ceremonies is because they perform that function themselves as agents of the state. It is a privilege that is not afforded to any other religious group. Any who don’t belong the the Church of England cannot have the banns read, but must register their marriage ahead of time with the registry office. This was the case for me and my wife some 13 years ago. Those who are from non-Christian faiths not only have to register this way, like everyone else outside the CofE, but are not permitted to have their own registrars either (unlike Baptists, for example, who can but often don’t).

For this reason, Carson goes on to argue:

In France, for example, all marriages must be performed before a civil authority. I see no objection to that; in fact, I think it is a good thing… they will get married before the local civil authority, and then have a separate ceremony within the congregation—a ceremony that has no culturally-defined legal standing… In America (and most Anglo-Saxon countries), when a marriage takes place within a congregation (and usually in a church building), the minister officiating is acting partly as a minister of the gospel and partly as a licensed official of the state. That is why it is not legal for anyone who chooses to do so to officiate: there must be some sort of legal standing. Fair enough; I can live with that… [but we] must not be hung up on whether the legal marriage ceremony takes place in a church building under the jurisdiction of a minister, or under the jurisdiction of a justice of the peace… There does not have to be a minister in order to be “done” properly. We have no interest in preserving the vestiges of medieval Catholic theology of marriage.

All of this is to say, contrary to Fraser’s argument, that marriage is not a matter solely, or even principally, for the church. It is a creation ordinance that exists, and is binding upon, all societies, all people, and is not a distinctly Christian endeavour. If that is true, suggesting the state get out of marriage is a grave mistake because, without their involvement, nobody is really getting married at all. For this reason, as I have argued here, I don’t think it is the state that should get out of the marriage business, but the church. I would much prefer it if the church had no hand in marriages at all. As I stated in that post:

If I had it my way, nobody would ever get married at the church. Weddings would take place only at the registry office, conducted exclusively and clearly by the state. The church wouldn’t be involved in any legal proceedings at all. The church may conduct a thanksgiving service for the wedding should it be wanted but it would not conduct the wedding itself…

…I don’t think it is sinful for churches to officiate weddings – I have done so myself – we have to be clear that when we do so, we are doing it as agents of the state not principally as ministers of the gospel. I prefer the French or Dutch model in which the state, and only the state, conduct marriages. The church may bless, give thanks, join together as a church family in celebrating the marriage in a service that has no legal standing, but it does not conduct the marriage itself. That is the role of the state and it helpfully clarifies that it is a God-given creation ordinance for all people across all time, not a specifically Christian sacrament.