On a couple of occasions, I have been asked if we could provide a church blessing for a marriage without including the civil/legal aspects of the marriage. This arises because the individual is awaiting an immigration decision and therefore does not have the relevant documentation to satisfy the Registry office for notification of marriage. I have then been asked if we can do a religious blessing of the marriage, so that the couple can live together as a family.
In one context, they had already been to the Registry Office where they had been advised that this is a reasonable way forward should they so wish. I think this partly comes because in some religious cultures, a religious ceremony at the Mosque or the Temple is kept completely separate from the civil ceremony (as happens in other countries where the Church doesn’t have licence to perform the civil side). There may even be no expectation on the couple in those contexts to get forma civil recognition unless they personally believe there will be legal benefits.
In both cases, my response was that I could not and would not perform the ceremony. My reasons were as follows.
- Marriage is a public good and not just a private decision. Therefore, so long as the State recognises marriage, it is right to honour that. The certificate is not just a piece of paper. I guess that there may be a bit of a challenge now with what is happening around same-sex marriage and we might reach a stage where we conclude that what the state is offering is not marriage at all -but I think that would be something one church should not decide on its own. Indeed, there is a risk that churches making these kinds of decisions may actually play into the secular agenda of undermining marriage.
- The process of getting married and notification is also important for churches that are not part of the Church of England. When we marry someone, there are checks to ensure that they are able to, that there is no lawful impediment. We make sure that this is a genuine, consensual marriage between 2 adults who are not already married and are not close relations. In other words, the marriage should not be incestuous or bigamous. These checks include the public notification of marriage. A blessing of a relationship without those checks may turn out to be blessing something that is not lawful.
- This means that I have to think carefully about what exactly it is that we are doing and why. We are not “solemnising a marriage.” Rather we are commending co-habitation. We may feel as though we are offering grace/mercy but in fact we are attempting to do something that is not possible.
- We would in effect be creating two- tiered marriage in the church. Is this a second -class status compared to those who have had the full legal ceremony.
- Not only would the ceremony have no status in law, it would have little or no status in society and in the wider church unless there was a substantial change in cultural practice and agreement to approach this differently by the wider church. This is likely to create further problems for the couple later on down the line. What happens if they move to another town at some point (highly likely for asylum seekers who can be re-located) and find themselves at a church where the ceremony is not recognised? What happens if their claim is rejected and they are required to leave the country. It is possible that they may even be separated and have to return to different countries.
- It will create further potential challenges down the road. What if one of the parties wants out of the relationship? What is to stop them just walking away? Or would the church be expected to sit in judgement on what is effectively a divorce settlement? This in effect causes us to set up a completely different legal system.
- When thinking about our responsibilities as church elders we need to make careful distinctions. We should distinguish between our responsibility to teach the whole of God’s counsel and what we are responsible for enforcing or enacting. Marriage is something given by God. It is part of his law. This means that we should teach about what true marriage is and we should make it clear that it is not in the gift of the state to redefine marriage. However, this does not mean that it is our duty to oversee marriage and to judge on individual cases. Marriage is not purely a church matter because it is available to the whole of society through common grace.
- To push that point a little further, we want to distinguish between what we can do and what we ought to do. Pastors may conduct wedding ceremonies. This can be a positive aspect of pastoral care and an opportunity to witness as well as to show love to our neighbours. However, they are not under compulsion to do this. It is not something that elders are commanded to do in the Bible. Indeed, for significant periods of church history, marriage ceremonies happened away from church buildings. It was the Roman Catholic Church that developed the ceremony into a sacrament and the early protestant reformers were deeply suspicious of the implications of this.
This is one of those situations where it is hard to say no. We may be saying “no” to someone who genuinely wishes to get married because they love the other person and seeking to be godly in their relationships. We may be saying “no” when there appears to be no possible means for the couple to get married in the immediate future.
I wish to make three comments about this. First of all, this is the nature of pastoral care. We will often find ourselves having to make hard decisions and say no to people. However, being honest with people and saying “no” is not unloving. Our responsibility is to the truthful with them. Secondly, there are numerous other pastoral contexts where marriage will not be possible. Others also have to live patiently with painful longing. This includes many single people who would love to be married, the person who is same-sex attracted but are seeking to live obediently to God’s Word and also those who are seeking to obey Jesus’s teaching on divorce and re-marriage.
It is helpful therefore to remember that the bible does not teach marriage as an absolute right. Indeed, this may be a helpful contemporary application of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7
“26 Because of the present crisis,[i] I think it is best to remain as you are.”
Their immediate focus needs to be on obtaining their asylum so that they are in a position where they can make their marriage vows seriously and not recklessly.
Now this also means that we have responsibilities resulting from the answer we give. We have the responsibility to keep loving and supporting the couple as part of the church and helping them to know God’s grace in their situation.
One of the things that we discussed as elders re the principles of such situations is that our first step would be to pursue all legal options to ensure that a full marriage could take place. It was in my mind that this would come under the ECHR with a Human Right to marriage and a family life.
Fascinatingly, very quickly after publishing this article I had contact from another pastor to say that in fact, the ECHR has ruled favourably on this very matter. This re-inforces the point that churches shouldn’t jump to make decisions on their own.
NB. We will also need to emphasise given the current political climate that the ECHR is distinct from the EU and Brexit does not absolve the UK from its obligations to international Human Rights treaties.