Can a civil marriage be blessed in church? Yes. In many parts of the world, a civil marriage, conducted in the presence of an authorized official of the state, is the legally binding form of marriage. Christians who desire to celebrate their marriage in the context of a worshiping Christian community schedule a second celebration in church. An example of this practice can be seen in the films of the marriage of Grace Kelly to the prince of Monaco in the 1950s.
In the United States, most states authorize ordained ministers (sometime others as well) to act as the state’s representative in witnessing a marriage and filing the requisite legal papers and certificates. This means that in addition to acting for the church, the ordained minister acts as the state’s official witness. This legal role sometimes requires pastors to receive credentials from a state or county court or to register with the county clerk.
Those Christians who have chosen to be married in a civil ceremony by a justice of the peace or an official of the courts may seek to have the marriage recognized in a worship celebration. Occasional Services (pages 32-36) offers a rite for this purpose: Blessing of a Civil Service. The notes on the service make it clear that the rite does not constitute a "remarriage" in any sense.
The pastor should discuss with the couple the nature of a blessing of a civil marriage, making it clear that it is not a remarriage. The understanding of marriage outlined in the minister’s opening address to the couple (3) forms a basis for such discussion.
The church recognizes only those marriages sanctioned by the state.
Christians today understand that the man and woman entering into marriage marry themselves to one another by their exchange of vows. The civil official or the ordained minister is an official witness to that exchange.
The church also provides for a service for celebrating the anniversary of a marriage (Occasional Services, pages 37-40) and for the affirmation of marriage vows (pages 41-44). An explanation of the use of each of these services is found in the notes following each printed service.
When these services are set within the liturgy for Holy Communion, they become a wonderful way for the congregation to affirm and pray for the married couple. The practice also provides a way to bring a sacramental and corporate Christian context to marriage. As a part of worship, the marriage is not, as is so often the case, a matter of a celebration by invitation only. Rather, the congregation extends an invitation to the married couple to pray with the congregation and to do this in the context of Holy Communion.
In our complex and rich cultural context in North America, couples from differing religious traditions or denominations or even religions may also be looking for ways to affirm both their cultures and backgrounds. These services provide resources for use in such situations as well.
The church attempts to encourage careful planning and consultation as well as premarital counseling for those contemplating marriage, especially in the context of the church and its faith. Conversations with the pastor prior to making important decisions are a resource that should not be overlooked. Most pastors are only too happy to engage a couple in planning and conversation prior to these important and lifelong decisions.
- Anderson, Herbert, and Robert Cotton Fite. Becoming Married. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
- Bockelman, Karen G. Marriage: A Worship Handbook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001. Marriage is one of life's most important passages and the ceremony is a moment of special spiritual meaning. This handbook explains the liturgy of marriage--its meaning, its history, its possibilities--allowing the reader to experience, understand, or even create a ceremony that satisfies the souls of worshipers and participants alike. ISBN: 0806642815
- Occasional Services: A Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship.Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House; Philadelphia: Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1982. (Note: congregations are given permission to reproduce services from this book with no additional copyright permission required.)
- Pfatteicher, Philip H. Commentary on the Occasional Services. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983. See especially pages 37-52.