May 26, 2018
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State ignores importance of marriage

By John S. Holt, Special to the BDN

From my perspective as a clergyman of 37 years, I encourage the voters of Maine to vote No on Question 1, so that the state of Maine will permit me to marry persons I believe “God has joined together.”

Clergy are among the persons whom the state authorizes to perform marriages within its borders. One of the first things I did following my ordination in the fall of 1972 was to contact the Secretary of State to seek authorization to officiate at weddings. Though marriage was not a sacrament in my denomination, I wanted to perform marriages of persons within the church and island community I served so that I might join with them in celebrating their marriages as they lived in the community with all the rights and responsibilities related to marriage.

I never gave much thought to the reality that I had thereby agreed to be an agent for the state of Maine. I had unwittingly accepted the state’s right to tell me whom I was permitted to marry. Though as a minister I am not required to officiate at a wedding — the law permits me to decline performing a wedding for any reason I may choose — nevertheless I am permitted to marry only those persons who can present to me a valid state of Maine marriage license. That license is issued by a city-town clerk who, of course, can issue the license only if the applicants comply with state laws pertaining to marriage. The license requires personal information such as age, place of birth and current residence of both parties. And, under Maine’s law currently in force, one party is the groom and the other party is the bride. “No same-sex couple need apply.”

I find it interesting that the state doesn’t care about such matters as the setting for the wedding and the content of the ceremony. More significantly, the state shows no apparent interest in the quality of the relationship of the two persons being married. The state doesn’t ask the couple if they know each other well or even if they care for each other. The state doesn’t counsel the couple regarding mutual respect, faithfulness, and support. The state does not inquire whether the couple desires or is able to have children or will love and nurture them if they do.

Though the state displays no interest in these things, most clergy certainly do. These are among the “religious” dimensions of marriage that are of great interest to us and the religious communities to which we belong. We spend many hours working with couples to fashion wedding services that are meaningful for them. Many clergy offer, even require, premarital counseling to a prospective couple, intending thereby to strengthen their relationship and to alert them to important issues with which they must deal to enjoy a fulfilling marriage. Indeed, most clergy understand marriage as consisting precisely in the matters of love and caring, of mutual respect and support, and of providing the social womb of love and nurture for any child which may be brought into the family circle. In some of our denominations, marriage is of such religious significance that it is one of the church sacraments, a means of grace, as we clergy like to say.

What is clear to many of us clergy is that the qualities that characterize good marriages are hardly restricted to opposite sex relationships. They characterize as well the relationships of many same-sex couples. The research and the testimony of the vast majority of psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians and sociologists support that conclusion. Our own pastoral relationships with gay and lesbian persons as well as our studies of our sacred writings, theology and ethics have convinced us that same-sex couples ought to have the right to marry if they seek to do so. For years now, many of us have performed ceremonies of blessings for same-sex couples. Recently, two gay members of my present congregation celebrated their 40th anniversary, not of their marriage, but of their “blessing ceremony.” Though the state does not now recognize this, in my sight, and, I believe, in God’s grace, they are as married as any two persons can be.

The state of Maine, through its legislative process, recently has concluded that making the civil institution of marriage available to same-sex couples is the just thing to do. Many clergy are convinced that same-sex marriage ceremonies belong at the altar and warrant the blessing and support of both church and state. I long for the day when I can perform marriages, not just blessing ceremonies, for same-sex couples. Then I will be able to declare, as the ceremony concludes, that I have joined them in marriage both “as a minister of the gospel and by the authority vested in me by the state of Maine.”

The Rev. John S. Holt is the minister of the Union Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Hancock.

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