Churches don’t marry people …

And neither do pastors. This was the surprising news of October 27, 2000, in Dr. Nancy Gorsuch’s Ministry of Pastoral Care class. The topic of the day was the pastor’s role in premarital counseling and other preparations for marriage, and – almost as a side note – Dr. Gorsuch mentioned that pastors don’t marry people: in a Christian context, people marry each other, in the eyes of God. A wedding is a worship service in which two people make a covenant in the presence of God.

Oddly enough, in this circumstance, the pastor functions on behalf of both the church and the state, officiating the creation of a contractual state on behalf of the state, much as a civil servant might, and also mediating the blessing of God on the two people’s covenant. But the wedding is done by those wedded. I was struck by this, upon first hearing it; suddenly the noun “wedding” felt much more like a verb. A verb I have come to know intimately, and with which I grow more intimate every day. And which I have been thinking about in the context of some other terms, like church and state, and marriage and equality.

I married a man when I was 21, and stayed married for 21 years. It was sometimes happy, usually functional, but not what I thought marriage would be. There were places in my soul that seemed unreachable, by God or by me, much less by my husband, despite our best efforts. Nonetheless, while watching the marriages of many of my peers come apart, we stayed married, and I began to say an ongoing marriage was based in large part on the determination to stay together: sheer stubborness.

Well, I guess I was the stubborn one. It took years for the truth about me to surface, and when it did, so did the realization that there was a fidelity I had to attend to that preceded my marriage vows. My faithfulness to who God created me to be.

I had never truly wedded this man, even while building a life and buying a house and having two kids with him; despite our best efforts, there was always some part of me that was not available to the relationship, and that felt wrong in it. When the realization of being gay became inescapable (on some levels I had known since childhood; I just had no frame for it), there was some relief there, in the midst of the grief and fear over what would end and how. “Maybe I’m not failing,” I thought. “Maybe I am just in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.”

Over the next few years, I learned a lot about myself, this man I had married and was now divorcing, about my children, and most especially about God. The greatest gift of realizing that I am gay is the way it has transformed my spiritual life. Those gray, hidden areas that I could not seem to reach, and that it seemed even God did not enter, all opened up. Most incredibly, I realized I was feeling God’s love in a way that had never happened before.

I had spent years in conversation with my spiritual director, always coming back to the same question: “I know God loves me. Why can’t I feel it?” It was like looking out onto a rainy day, hearing the rain, seeing the rain, smelling the rain, then walking out into it and staying completely dry. Feeling not one drop. As though an invisible umbrella dashed away every drop of grace.

When I accepted the truth of being gay, it had very little to do with sex, and a whole lot to do with being a child of God, and being able to accept God’s love and feel it. Funny thing … one of the ways God loves us is through our love of self. When we don’t love ourselves, because we can’t accept ourselves, we have cut off a key avenue of God loving us. Little did I know. Learning who I am has let me learn whose I am, as well.

A couple more years down the road, and I met this woman. Over a period of months, a correspondence turned into an attraction turned into a courtship … turned into a wedding.

I claim that word for us. There has not yet been a state-officiated civil service – although we may take a trip someday to a state or a country that offers such a distinction. Nor has there been a communal worship service, though we continue to dream of that celebration, and know that it will happen. But we are wedded. And we are wedding.

No political debate about marriage equality can change that. Such a nebulous term: marriage equality. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but the straight world has some work to do in its own house. No, I don’t want a 57-minute Britney Spears junket; no, I don’t want a 50-50 chance of splitting up; no, I don’t want a situation of domestic violence or child abuse, which happen in all too many families headed by “straight” couples. Of course, I know many healthy strong heterosexual marriages; some of my best friends are heterosexual.

But the presence of a man and a woman in a marriage is no panacea, no assurance of the equality, respect or mutual interdependence present in healthy relationships. It’s not the genders in the partnership that create equality; it’s the partnership of the persons that creates equality – and something far more precious and life-giving: mutuality. Which is not something church or state can convey.

* * *

A few thoughts on church and state … state first. A marriage isn’t made by a state or a nation: all governments can do is offer licensure, economic inducements and rewards for the kinds of relationships governments prefer. A state can’t put two people together if they don’t want to be; and it can’t hold two people together if they don’t want to be; and it can’t keep two people apart who want to be together. It is love and faithfulness that make a relationship; everything else is legalities for managing economic assets and the wellbeing of children. Important points, but these are not what create marriages worth having or keeping.

Church … I do wonder sometimes how long churches will cling to the hypocrisy of calling gay relationships immoral while withholding marriage ceremonies. And I sometimes wish all the gay children of God would walk out of the churches that don’t accept us: there’d be a lot of empty organ benches and piano stools and more than a few empty pulpits. Why serve a community that isn’t, that won’t let you be all of who you are, all of who God created you to be?

* * *

Let me rejoin the current of my main concern: I am learning the meaning of wedding, the verb. Despite years of trying every way the world told me to try, I never did manage to be wedded to the man I was married to for 21 years.

I am wedded now, intimately, and ever more completely, to the woman I love. I marvel at the way she seems made just for me; she has her own amazements, her own awareness of the special grace of this relationship. Although we are not allowed to marry by state law, we are wedding in the eyes of God. We fulfill every aspect of God’s intent for human communion: care, commitment, creation, compassion, community … covenant.

We have made our covenant before God in the hush of a church … we have said the words of promise with joyful laughter among trees … we have pledged permanence through tears the night before another parting.

Every year our lives twine closer, like two trees planted and growing together. Her roots hold me strong; my branches encircle her. We are wedding each other, every day, in human joy and fidelity, and in the eyes and hands and heart of God. We say our little prayers; we are sustained.

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2 Responses to Churches don’t marry people …

  1. Carl Gregg says:

    Well said. I’m going to reflect on what parts of your blog I may need to incorporate into the initial conversations I have with couples — gay or straight — who are interested in me presiding at their wedding. About a year ago, I started using some a variation of the following language: “As an ordained minister, I preside at marriage ceremonies in which your relationship will be blessed by a community of faith; however, in support of the separation of church and state, I do not sign marriage licenses. You can contact City Hall to have your marriage recognized by an agent of the state of Louisiana.”

  2. tam121 says:

    Thanks, Carl. It is also in my notes from that day of class that the idea of officiating on behalf of church and state was one that Dr. Gorsuch acknowledged created significant tension for some pastors, such that they were not willing to be the agent of the state … very much in line with your comment.

    I have been thinking about what it would be for straight people to be in solidarity (really) with gay people not allowed to marry or enjoy the social and financial benefits of marriage. May have some more to say about that.

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