The essays you read here are based on my own preparatory notes with some of the conversation from the class considered.
What follows is part FOUR of this discussion, which looks at the Marriage Canon itself.
For part ONE of our discussion, which focuses on the Bible and how we Episcopalians view/read it, please click HERE.
For part TWO, which looks at what the Bible has to say about “homosexuality”, click HERE.
For part THREE, which looks at marriage in The Church and how it developed over the centuries, please click HERE.
So, we’ve finally arrived at the place we’ve been journeying: the Episcopal Church’s new canon on marriage.
The Episcopal Church’s canon on marriage has a storied history. This current amendment is hardly the first one made since the first canon on marriage was adopted by The Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 1868.
The story of The Episcopal Church’s understanding of marriage is reflected in the development of our canons on the matter. We have moved from a “taken-for-granted” view of marriage and into an instructive view—a move that has coincided with the shifts in American culture away from an understanding of America as “a Christian nation.” As we’ve become less Christian, the need to articulate Christian marriage has become more paramount.
This canon is shorter than the out-going one, which reflects an important shift in tone for our understanding of marriage. The Taskforce on the Study on Marriage noted that the canon we’ve had tended toward a more “credal” type format, a series of “we believe” statements in regards to marriage. Further, the Task Force also noted that the out-going canon (and the marriage liturgy in the 1979 BCP) tends to focus more on who can perform the marriage ceremony rather than stating what marriage is all about.
To better examine this work, it will probably be better to look at the new canon section by section (the full text will be found in the essay that follows, but if you desire your own copy free of commentary, click HERE or HERE).
Amend Canon I.18 Marriage
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That Canon I.18 is hereby amended to read as follows:
Canon 18: Of the Celebration and Blessing of Marriage
Our first change is the name. The out-going canon is called “Of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony.” The reasons for this change are, first, rooted in a move away from an understanding that clergy are the sole arbiters of “marriage” (serving as agents of the state). Partly, this reflects the reality that The Episcopal Church is not found only in the United States of America (where clergy solemnizing marriages is more of a norm). That the Episcopal Church has a strong presence in Europe (as well as in Guam, the US Virgin Islands, Taiwan, etc.) demands that the Church’s canons on marriage reflect that reality. Europe, in particular, is not known for clergy solemnizing marriages. Rather, the practice is more in line with “blessing” civil marriages.
This allowance of room for/emphasis of “blessing” in marriage is part of an interesting development in The Episcopal Church. From 1868 until 1973 a marriage was considered “irregular” if not solemnized by The Church (specifically, the language suggested, The Episcopal Church), and was grounds for excommunication. A special addition was made in 1931 that allowed for a “civil marriage” (that is, a marriage performed by the state and not The Church) to be considered within the bounds of “the word of God and the discipline of this Church” if approved by a bishop and church court. What this all tells us is that, for most of our history, The Episcopal Church only recognized marriages as being “valid” if they were performed by a minister in The Episcopal Church. Room was made for exception, but any priest could refuse the sacraments to any person married outside of The Episcopal Church. This ruling disappeared in 1973 when we had our last major overhaul of our canons on marriage.
Secondly, this provides a clearer language that is more consistent with the name of the liturgy as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer.
Sec. 1. Every Member of the Clergy of this Church shall conform to the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also these canons concerning the solemnization of marriage. Members of the Clergy may solemnize a marriage using any of the liturgical forms authorized by this Church.
The original wording of this was clarified. “Holy Matrimony” was changed to “solemnization of marriage” and “laws of the Church” was changed to read “these canons concerning…” Further, the notion of including “every member of the clergy” allows for deacons to officiate a wedding, which some jurisdictions allow.
The most important change here was the addition of the last sentence. This allows for not only the wedding liturgies in the BCP, but also the liturgy that was developed for same-sex unions (The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, which we will look at in the next part). This means that all liturgies can be used for all marriages.
Sec. 2. The couple shall notify the Member of the Clergy of their intent to marry at least thirty days prior to the solemnization; Provided, that if one of the parties is a member of the Congregation of the Member of the Clergy, or both parties can furnish satisfactory evidence of the need for shortening the time, this requirement can be waived for weighty cause; in which case the Member of the Clergy shall immediately report this action in writing to the Bishop.
This is where the changes start to get significant.
The original Section 2 has been completely omitted and re-written. Much of the language from the original Section 2 has been re-used for the amended Section 3 (below).
Section 2 simply states that there must be a minimum of 30 days notice before a member of the clergy can officiate at a wedding—unless there’s some kind of emergency, or one of the people getting married is a member of that clergy person’s congregation. In other words, if you’re a member of The Chapel, you don’t necessarily have to wait 30 days for me to do your wedding. I still have to get the bishop’s permission for shortening the time though.
Sec. 3. Prior to the solemnization, the Member of the Clergy shall determine:
(a) that both parties have the right to marry according to the laws of the State and consent to do so freely, without fraud, coercion, mistake as to the identity of either, or mental reservation; and
(b) that at least one of the parties is baptized; and
(c) that both parties have been instructed by the Member of the Clergy, or a person known by the Member of the Clergy to be competent and responsible, in the nature, purpose, and meaning, as well as the rights, duties and responsibilities of marriage.
As stated above, this section is made up of similar language to the original Section 2, while also shortening elements from the original Section 3. The language of the original Section 2 has been mostly collapsed into Section 3 (a) above.
In the out-going canon, this section is focused on issues of compliance that has bearing on the clergy. It basically read “the priest can only marry the couple if they have done such and such and agree to such and such.”
It is also redundant in its original, out-going form. The Taskforce (rightly, in my opinion) felt that the above-mentioned “credal” elements of the out-going marriage canon were extraneous, due to the general expectation that priests be required to instruct a couple about the nature of marriage prior to performing the ceremony. This is somewhat picked up in the new Section 4 (below) with the Declaration of Intention (which appeared as part of the out-going Section 3).
It is the duty of the clergy (as representatives of The Church) to instruct and communicate the work and purpose of marriage to God’s people—not the duty of a piece of written law. This, in my opinion, is a welcome change.
This section also upholds the out-going form’s requirement of at least one member of the couple being baptized. To offer my own feelings on this, I’ve long held opposition here. I am of the mind that proper Christian marriage requires that both persons are baptized as it has been proved overwhelmingly true to me that “mixed faith” marriages are largely problematic and prone to failure. If Christian marriage is to be understood as union of mind, body, and heart (as the Taskforce overwhelmingly asserts in multiple places) how is that union possible when the vocation of marriage itself begins in a divided state?
The defense of this stance on baptism of only one person would look to what Saint Paul writes in I Corinthians 7:12-16, where he speaks of marriages having only one believer amongst the couple. But this is clearly Paul commenting on Christians who have already been married prior to their conversion(s). He’s saying that if one’s spouse hasn’t been converted (yet) then that is not grounds for divorce. He is not making concession for a “mixed faith” marriage here.
But my issues with this part of the canon are not exclusive to the amended version we have before us as this concession existed in the previous, out-going one. (I’ll take this up further in a later part of this series where I will offer some personal, final reflections on the matter at hand.)
Some elements of the original Section 3 will also appear in the new Section 5 (below), particularly the requirement of witnesses.
Sec. 4. Prior to the solemnization, the parties shall sign the following Declaration of Intention:
We understand the teaching of the church that God's purpose for our marriage is for our
mutual joy, for the help and comfort we will give to each other in prosperity and
adversity, and, when it is God's will, for the gift and heritage of children and their nurture
in the knowledge and love of God. We also understand that our marriage is to
be unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong; and we engage to make the
utmost effort to accept these gifts and fulfill these duties, with the help of God and the
support of our community.
As with the original canon, the amended one includes a Declaration of Intention. This declaration is where the “definition” of marriage, as The Episcopal Church understands it, is found.
Unsurprisingly, this is where the most controversy will arise.
The most noticeable change here is that the language is personal rather than “objective” or “credal.” What I mean by this is that the language does not adhere to a sense of an ideal marriage, but is rather reflective of a more dynamic understanding.
In the out-going canon the language reads: “We believe that the union of husband and wife, in heart, body, and mind, is intended by God for their mutual joy…” Such language casts roles and expects the couple to fulfill those roles.
Further, you will notice that “husband and “wife” is no longer written. Again, the language of this section of the canon no longer focuses on “objective” notions of marriage, but rather is “reflective” of the couple. “We understand our marriage to be…” rather than “Marriage is this or that…”
The Taskforce reframes this notion by emphasizing what Saint Paul writes in Ephesians 5 and states “The issue is not, ‘if you want to know something about Christ and the Church, look to marriage,’ but ‘if you want to know how to make your marriage holy, look to Christ.’” (see p.18 in the Taskforce’s report, which can be read HERE).
What this means is that, for The Episcopal Church, marriage is broader and the new Declaration of Intent reflects that a couple has been instructed in what Christian marriage is all about.
Sec. 5. At least two witnesses shall be present at the solemnization, and together with the Member of the Clergy and the parties, sign the record of the solemnization in the proper register; which record shall include the date and place of the solemnization, the names of the witnesses, the parties and their parents, the age of the parties, Church status, and residence(s).
This section is identical to what has appeared before, just moved in a new place.
Sec. 6. A bishop or priest may pronounce a blessing upon a civil marriage using any of the liturgical forms authorized by this Church.
This is in addition to Section 1 where “every member of the clergy” is mentioned. This section recognizes that only bishops and priests have been ordained to pronounce blessings. Further, this limits the blessing of a civil marriage (meaning, a marriage already performed and signed by the Justice-of-the-Peace) to a priest or bishop.
Sec. 7. It shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize or bless any marriage, and be it further
This is another section that is retained from previous canons, just moved into a new place.
According to the Taskforce’s report, there was some deliberation about whether or not to include this. Those in favor or omitting it wanted to do so in order to prohibit discriminatory practices by clergy (which other members felt was short-sighted).
Personally, I am grateful for this retention because the clergy should always have the right to refuse a marriage (some people should not be married in The Church; removing this would imply that clergy must perform weddings to whoever).
Resolved that this canon shall become effective on the First Sunday of Advent, 2015.
And this final line notes the date that this comes into effect.
The Taskforce’s report goes into much further detail here, but I’m hoping that this is helpful.
(And our series concludes with Fr. Charles' final thoughts in part 5, which you can find by clicking HERE)