I’m old-fashioned. I grew up in a culture, both religious and family, that regarded marriage as forever. When my mother and father became engaged in 1949, her grandmother reminded everyone that there had never been a divorce in the family. She could only say that because they never told her about the beloved cousin whose marriage ended. My mother had broken an earlier engagement at her parents’ insistence because the man who loved her had been previously married to an English girl during World War II; his bride was too homesick to live here with him.
These sound like folk tales now, but they formed my view of marriage and divorce when I was a young woman. Marriage is forever, and if you should be so unfortunate as to get divorced, you will reside in limbo. Add on a layer of religious piety and you get the kind of nice girl (and I use the word deliberately) who marries the young man who asks her because clearly this is God’s hand working in her life and if only she will do her best to be a good wife, all shall be well and everyone will live happily ever after.
Really, these stories sound like fairy tales.
I never thought of them as being political.
But marriage is on the ballot in my state, Maine, again. It’s been three years since the legislature passed a measure allowing the issuance of marriage licenses to same gender-couples. It’s been three years since the governor signed it into law. And it’s been three years since a Citizen’s Veto petition ended in a narrow victory for those who did not want to extend this right to non-straight people. We’re trying again, this time going to the polls with a measure that would allow same-sex couples to marry legally in Maine. The Yes on 1 campaign has not focused on the legal benefits of marriage, but on the idea that love matters to all families. Television ads feature straight clergy, parents and grandparents affirming their support, saying they want their church members, friends, children and grandchildren to be able to have what they have. “When we were young,” says the woman married for 52 years, “we didn’t dream of a civil union or signing a piece of paper. We wanted to get married.”
Of course, same-sex couples are getting married in Maine all the time anyway. They just don’t have a civil license. They’ve made religious and emotional commitments, promises to love and cherish from now until there is no tomorrow. They’ve thrown beautiful parties and hired photographers and shared their news with the world. Their friends have “liked” their relationship status changes on Facebook. They’re already living as if the change has been made, even without the piece of paper.
In May I joined a Unitarian Universalist colleague to officiate at a wedding. One of her church members was marrying one of mine. It was the most touching, sincere wedding I’ve ever attended. My church member glowed with love, and her new spouse wore an expression of bemused delight. My part in the ceremony ended just before the vows, and as I went to sit down, my church member’s mother patted the seat beside her in the front pew. Soon, vows taken and new status declared, the couple prepared to descend from the chancel, and the organist broke into “Joy to the World”—the Three Dog Night version. Sara and Jeremiah were married!
When I was a young bride-to-be, living the fairy tale dream, an august Episcopal relative performed the ceremony. He told us then that a license didn’t matter. He could marry us without one, and it would be the same in God’s eyes.
Because of a complication around health insurance, Sara and Jeremiah married without a civil license. But they married.
It may sound like I’m making a case that the legal part doesn’t matter, but I’m not. I believe religious standards and civil standards can and should be different. I don’t want to have to perform a marriage for every couple, gay or straight, who might want a religious wedding before their reception at The Barn, a tenth of a mile down the road from my church. I don’t want to tell other pastors or priests what to do. I understand that some faith communities will choose to limit that exchange of vows in various ways: to members of their churches, or of their denominations, or to those who take a class or receive premarital counseling with priest or pastor. They have that right.
I want the right to do the same, to determine my willingness to marry a couple not based on their gender or orientation but based on their desire to make a faithful commitment to one another, in the eyes of God and the community of people who know them best.
My denomination, the United Church of Christ, voted at General Synod in 2005 to support equal marriage, but actual practices are left up to churches at the local level. This means we don’t always agree. In my own congregation there are people who have described to me their struggle with using the word marriage to apply to same-sex couples. If the law changes, then good Congregational UCC pastors will discuss the matter with their Deacons and work it out together. I suspect there are members who support the idea of equal rights, but hope it won’t have to be discussed in our church.
This has become personal as I move toward making a commitment to the woman I love. “I’m old-fashioned,” a dear member told me, affirming the goodness of my relationship and allowing that it would be fine for us to live together. “I just wish you wouldn’t call it marriage.”
But I’m old-fashioned, too. I can’t imagine calling it anything else. I’m getting married.
The Reverend Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ minister living in Portland, Maine, and a Contributing Editor to There is Power in the Blog for the First Person Politics series. She blogs at Reflectionary and can often be found around RevGalBlogPals, too.