Liturgical Practice and Ethical Perspective: Revisiting the Marriage Liturgy

[1] Liturgy provides experiences that form our spiritual identity. The liturgical rhythm of the common lectionary helps us wrestle with parts of scripture we might be wary of because they are uncomfortable or challenging to us. This is a positive force in a believer's ethical formation. But there can be a down side as well. Constant repetition without adaptive change to new contexts and situations causes liturgy to lose connection to the changing character of life.

[2] Liturgy does not have to be formal to be liturgical. Calling upon God and proclaiming God's blessing are liturgical acts. It is not a certain kind of ritual, but God's presence and our participation which creates a liturgical worship. So if we engage in liturgy without a watchful eye on context, what might be the consequence? Let's look at marriage and its liturgical significance to examine this question.

Liturgical Practice and Ethical Perspective: Revisiting the Marriage Liturgy by Mitchell Jones

[3] Weddings are a form of liturgical worship, a moment for a community to contemplate, offer and renew its covenant with faith. But for many who ask for a "church wedding" it is not worship they are thinking about. It may be called Holy Matrimony but it is "wholly my thing" for many in the ceremony. Of course there are faithful people seeking the covenantal blessing of God. Such people stand in God's presence to declare their mutual promise or covenant to one another. Covenant is how God first established a relationship with humanity and the marriage covenant flows from that original covenant. But contemporary society is witnessing a transition. What Martin Marty and Robert Bellah have called Civil Religion is overshadowing the worship context of marriage. Frequently, it is not a liturgy of Holy Matrimony but merely a civil ceremony and cultural observance that is requested.

[4] In Lutheran theology marriage is worship. And many of us have tried to preserve that concept with certain requirements to maintain a worship character. Most congregations have limitations on the kinds of music that are appropriate. Certain requests, like changing paraments to match dress fabrics, are usually rejected. Lutheran churches have accommodated or not these non-liturgical requests, but have we fully considered what it means to perform a church marriage?

[5] A wedding is a worship service but it is also a civil service. This raises an important question about the ethic of our church signing the civil marriage license issued by the state to create a legal marriage. In essence, our participation in the civil aspect of marriage makes us an organ of the state alongside our religious function. Because North American clergy-presided marriages have always been recognized as legal in the civil court, most denominations have not discussed that dual role.

[6] It is a matter of historical accident that the North American church became an arm of the state in signing legal documents of marriage. Civil infrastructure was scarce and widely dispersed across early American society. Churches were more readily available compared to judges, courthouses or city halls. The church in most of the rest of the world is not involved in the civil part of a marriage. That part is done in the city hall. In Europe, in countries with established religions, marriage is done in the civil sector and then a religious blessing is performed when requested. In Switzerland, for example, a country with established Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations, a liturgical service performed to bless the marriage may only occur after the civil ceremony is completed. The church has reserved itself the right to determine who they will bless apart from the civil ceremony.

[7] In North America we have served for a very long time as an instrument of the state in marriage. If a state changes its definition of marriage we have no logical grounds to challenge civil definitions because we have been functionaries of the state without protest for generations. I do not want to be misunderstood here. I have no problem doing a blessing ceremony for any couple who are faithful, monogamous, and in long-term commitment. I would do such a ceremony for anyone who wants to stand before God to make a covenantal commitment and seek God's blessing for their union. This does not just include the currently-controversial same-gendered couple. I have done blessing ceremonies for elderly couples who could not afford to get a state-sanctioned marriage because getting married would end retirement or affect social security benefits. I once officiated at a ceremony for a Lutheran woman and an Israeli man in which I had to sign an affidavit that the ceremony would not be registered as religious or they could not get visas to return to Israel. They were people of faith and in the ceremony I offered blessings in both English and Hebrew but no record of the ceremony was kept by a church. I only signed the civil license. I think it might have been better if they had married in the court house and then I could do the interfaith blessing and not be involved with the Israeli government.

[8] Many of the wedding ceremonies I have presided over in my more than thirty-year career were done at church because some family member expected a church wedding or because the sanctuary was pretty for photographs. Many couples could not have cared less if God or the Bible was mentioned. Of course I have had the pleasure of presiding over weddings of deeply faithful people. But the habit of being a civil functionary did affect me. Habit and tradition were such that the relationship between the two parts of a marriage, blessing and legal, were not critiqued. Recent controversy has impelled me to see the differences and to decide which is more important. I believe I am called to preside at a covenant blessing and not to sign a civil document. If I could have had the theological strength of character earlier, I would not have performed some of the ceremonies I did. This conviction reminds me of other pastoral acts, which occur as often as marriage, and for which no one would want to confuse the civil and religious functions. I am not expected to sign a death certificate to preside over a funeral, nor a birth certificate to celebrate a baptism.

[9] I would suggest that we be clear about our marriage theology if we are going to be effective voices of God's grace in these transforming times. Phyllis Tickle calls our present time of change "The Great Emergence."1 Many things are changing and this process is called a "Tipping Point"; best described by Malcolm Gladwell in a book of the same name.2 We should remember that what we affirm in the marriage covenant are the vows a couple makes before God. The pastor does not marry the couple, their vows do. Nor do we think it is the state that makes a marriage blessed or binding. The state has a role in society but for the community of faith, it is God's power in the context of covenantal promise that is at the core of a faith-based wedding.

[10] I believe our first step is to no longer participate in the civil element of a marriage. Let that be accomplished by the state and they can define what a legal marriage is. We can then be free to bless civil unions or bless other types of marriage. The issues are more complex than we are now willing to talk about.

[11] Relinquishing our role as a civil servant gives us more integrity to define marriage along the Lutheran ethics of grace, forgiveness, and God's love. We can then use theologically-based arguments to debate whether to exclude anyone from that definition. Then we can say clearly what such exclusion implies in the light of our Lutheran understanding of grace. We can apply our central value: "all are sinners as well as saints," to the situations we encounter. There was once a time when the state would refuse interracial marriages. We would reject that today. Perhaps with courage of conviction and a clear ethic of the nature of marriage we can become a Reconciling in Christ denomination. We can become a faith with an ethical commitment to the integrity of the marriage ceremony. Before the God of grace and mercy we preside at the exchange of covenant commitment.

[12] Liturgy provides experiences that form our spiritual identity. What we do in liturgy not only expresses who we are but helps create who we are. When we do any liturgy as an act of inclusive worship we are inclusive and become inclusive. Wedding liturgy is no exception. When a wedding is an expression of covenantal commitment and not simply an expected cultural observance or civic function, it will form the community, for all and any couple, as a covenantal reality.

Additional Reading Suggestions
Robert E. Bellah, Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (University of Chicago Press,1992).
Martin E. Marty, A Nation of Behavers (University of Chicago Press, 1976).

The Rev. Mitchell Jones serves as intentional interim pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Cody, Wyoming. He has also served pastorates in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.




1. Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008).

2. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown and Company, 2000).






© October 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 10