Signing Marriage Licenses Again

Yesterday, I wrote a wedding liturgy for the couple in our church that got their wedding license at midnight last night. I will officiate their wedding on Sunday night on the steps of the capital building just across the street from the church. But, writing this liturgy was hard. Usually, I use the United Church of Christ Order for Marriage with some adaptations to personalize the service — but this is different. They’ve already had a blessing. (That’s what we called it in the church before marriage equality. We used a different word to distinguish something legal even though it was the exact same service and God was doing the exact same thing.) Now, it’s legal. It’s a wedding but they’ve already done that. This couple has already made promises to each other before witnesses. They’ve already wondered in amazement that God has brought them together and delighted in the life they share.

This is different. Still, this wonderful lesbian couple wants a wedding that praises God. They still want to exchange rings and kiss. They want some elements that are very familiar to what might be called a wedding — but the real event is the signing of the license. That’s what’s different. It’s not that God has changed her mind about their relationship. The state of Washington has changed. So, we are gathering to make their wedding legal before God and a few witnesses.

And this is why it’s hard to imagine a liturgy. Almost five years ago, I stopped signing marriage licenses. This was an action I took with my colleague when I was still serving in Maine. He no longer wanted to be an agent of the state. I wanted justice to come for gays and lesbians. They are only slightly different points because I knew that I would go back to signing licenses when marriage equality finally came. For me, it was a protest but my colleague truly struggled with the separation of church and state. And rightfully so. Since then, I have become very comfortable explaining why I don’t sign marriage licenses and not concerning myself with the awkwardness of legally signing a document that makes it more official than the ceremony I perform. Every couple I have ever married makes that comment when the document is signed, “Now we’re really married.” My heart breaks every time that that legal document is more sacred than what God has done in worship.

I want the worship service that honors this event to be meaningful and powerful but it’s strange. It’s bizarre to add a liturgical moment where we sign the license. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this so I spent a good chunk of the afternoon asking my local rabbi about what happens in the signing of the ketubah. But even that is different. And it’s weird. It’s really weird. This is a very bizarre moment when religion collides with the state — and it’s not clear where the line is.

As an ordained minister, the state recognizes my authority to sign these documents as if the only thing that I do is perform the actual worship service for the wedding. But, usually, I do much more than that. I sit with the couple and ask them challenging questions about what it means to be in a committed relationship. I encourage them to explore their relationship fully before their wedding day so that their marriage might last. The first wedding I ever performed ended in divorce only one year later. I feel responsible for that — even though it’s not entirely in my hands. I don’t take this lightly. This isn’t just about signing my name to a document or planning a liturgy. Marriage is serious stuff — and it is different now. Not because marriage has been redefined but because that holiness in marriage may be harder to find. Maybe it’s just my personal discomfort in becoming an agent of the state again. But, I hope that we remember what God is doing in the midst of this. Because I truly believe that this is all about what God is doing.

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2 thoughts on “Signing Marriage Licenses Again

  1. Hey friend. Can't believe this is the first time I comment here, but it is.
    Anyway. You're right to be uncomfortable. Take it from someone who is too old for that kind of crap 😉
    In my tradition, we are definitely agents of the state, but the license-signing is never a part of the ceremony. I do that afterwards and send the thing in to the state, and that's that. I've always reacted to the liturgical weirdness that is signing legal stuff in worship because of this.

    So I guess my question is – is it possible to do this outside of worship? It might be missed, because of the “now it's for real” aspect, but in time it could work out to be for the best. If the couple need the paper with them, I guess it's much trickier. They could sign beforehand, and you afterwards maybe?

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  2. Maria, I would NEVER usually sign the legal stuff in worship. That's something I have actually done at the rehearsal reminding the couple that the legal aspect doesn't determine the depth of their bond. That takes witness and God. So, I did this liturgy very particularly for this couple where we signed the legal stuff at the end of the service just before the kiss and benediction. It was more like a political protest in some regard. As if to say, we do this as people of faith no matter what the governments of the state or nation proclaim. We truly believe that love conquers all and we practice that by covenanting together. Legal documents be damned.

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