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Withdrawing From Marriage

Earlier this week I mentioned that the Supreme Court of Canada has allowed legislation to move forward that would legalize homosexual marriage throughout Canada. As with the United States, we currently have some jurisdications that allow it and others that do not, but this law seeks to change that. Under the proposed law, which is nearly guaranteed to pass the House of Commons early next year, marriage would be allowed for homosexual couples, but churches would be protected from having to perform ceremonies they objected to on moral grounds. The law seeks to protect religious freedom.

There is another aspect to the redefinition of marriage that I had not considered. Roland de Vries, a Presbyterian pastor, has written an interesting article in the National Post outlining why he does not feel he can cooperate with the government anymore when it comes to marriage. While the details are specifically Canadian, I would recommend this article to Americans as well since this issues will be facing you soon enough.

MONTREAL – As an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, my position affords me certain responsibilities and privileges, though in truth it is long on the former and relatively short on the latter. Nevertheless, one of the significant privileges I have enjoyed in recent years has been the right to solemnize marriages in the province of Quebec. Hence I have had a government of Quebec Autorisation permanente a celebrer les mariages hanging on the wall of my office.

At this point in the national discussion of marriage, it barely needs repeating that the federal government has jurisdiction over the definition of marriage and provincial governments over its administration. I recall this fact in order to point out that every marriage ceremony conducted in a church involves no less than three institutions — the federal and provincial governments as well as the religious denomination of the presiding official. This shared participation of Church and State in the solemnization of marriage is one of the last vestiges (along with tax-exemptions for churches and the practice of giving “sanctuary”) of that 1,700-year-old reality called Christendom, within which the functions of Church and State were so inextricably intertwined.

The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, however, seems to entail a conclusion that this shared participation in the solemnization of marriage must come to an end. Whether or not the proposed Bill changing the definition of marriage is passed by the House of Commons, the default definition of marriage at the present moment has become “a union of two persons” in almost all provinces. The federal government accepted that definition by refusing to appeal lower court decisions, thus giving the impression that this has all been a nicely orchestrated affair on their part.

Under yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, there remains the theoretical possibility that the traditional definition of marriage could still remain entrenched in law. But should the current state of affairs prevail, I will most certainly remove my autorisation from its wooden frame and mail it back to the government of Quebec.

Why? Because under the new definition, the tenets of my faith simply will not allow me continued participation in this shared responsibility with the federal and provincial governments. I suspect that I am not the only Christian minister who has faced such a realization and who will take such action. Furthermore, should the proposed definition prevail, I expect and hope that many Christian denominations will respond with official statements instructing clergy that they may no longer perform marriages in conjunction with the state.

Why should a Christian minister feel that he or she can no longer officiate in a wedding ceremony? Hasn’t the proposed federal legislation carved out a specific protection for religious officials, who can continue functioning according to traditional convictions? Indeed, it has. In the spirit of paternalism, the Justice Minister has made an allowance for Christian churches to continue functioning according to a definition of marriage he deems discriminatory. We might ask how long such an allowance will last in the militantly secular state that Canada is becoming, but we don’t have space to answer that question here.

Notwithstanding the special protection accorded to religious officials, however, the proposed federal definition of marriage is incompatible with the Christian understanding of marriage as “a union of a man and a woman.” Throughout the debate over same-sex unions, orthodox Christian denominations stated unequivocally that the proposed definition is essentially at odds with their view of marriage. If the new definition prevails, Christian ministers will no longer be able, in good conscience, to officiate at weddings in conjunction with the state, for they would be doing so under a definition of marriage to which they cannot adhere.

Certainly, a Christian minister could choose to retain the traditional language of Christian marriage in any ceremony — “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When it comes to the signing of the register, however, that language would have to be abandoned, for the marriage licence that the religious official signs is issued in accordance with the federal government’s definition of marriage, not the church’s. I cannot, and will not, accede to such a hypocritical practice.

I am not so naive as to believe that the refusal of Christian denominations to participate in any new marriage regime would have a dramatic effect on marriage culture in Canada. Although the vast majority of marriages in this country are still solemnized in Christian churches, most who seek a “church wedding” do so for sentimental rather than substantive reasons. And the dwindling number of couples who persist in seeking access to the increasingly antiquated institution of marriage will learn to make do with the court-room setting. It might mean longer line-ups at first, but the bureaucracy will be accommodating enough.

My own Presbyterian denomination will be hesitant to withdraw from co-operation with the state in the solemnization of marriage. Many of our members and clergy still live with the confused idea that we are a fixture in Canadian society, that our participation in and with the state is essential to our identity. Of course, in 21st century secular Canada, this is no longer the case. And faithfulness to the Church’s identity, in this instance may well mean walking away from a hypocritical participation in the State’s marriage apparatus, and the construction of our own.

Roland De Vries – The National Post.

I found it a fascinating article and one that any pastor would do well to ponder. I would be interested in any input you may have.


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