Will Campbell on marriage

This is long, but worth reading, especially as many independent clergy do a lot of weddings – hopefully as a form of service, not as a business.  It seems to me that the current debate over same-sex marriage has helped to clarify the distinction (except in the minds of certain New Hampshire legislators) between the civil contract of marriage and the sacrament of matrimony, which may often coincide, but can exist totally independent of one another.  While the state can deny the civil contract, it can never deny the sacrament.  And, as Preacher Will writes below, perhaps we would be better off if we got out of the business of helping with the civil contract altogether…. 

If there a body, a community, which is truly Church, or even claims to be Church, why should it be the executor of Caesar’s documents?  What is a marriage license but a legal contract?  And what does any legal contract promise and offer except the right to sue one another at another time and place before another of Caesar’s agents?  Perhaps such contracts are socially necessary but what does that have to do with us?  And even if we are not Church now but want to become Church, free from the demands and legality of Caesar, why not start by returning all of his documents and refusing ever to do it again? “No, Mr. Caesar, that is not our understanding of what marriage is all about.  If you must protect yourself and your citizenry in this fashion you may continue to do so.  But not with our help and blessing.  Let the faithful come before the altar of the One we must serve rather than, and before, you.  And acting on His, and only His, authority we will pronounce them man and woman, husband and wife.”

I was never again to say, “By the authority vested in me by the State of Tennessee.”  If my authority as a priest comes from the State, then I have no authority at all.  From that time on, I began all weddings by saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  If you have a license, we will sign it at this time.”  And then saying to the couple, “Now what we have just done is to endow you with a legal contract.  It has nothing to do with Christian marriage.  It is nothing more than a contract between you and this state which gives you the right to sue one another if you should ever desire to do so.”   And the document is tossed casually, and sometimes contemptuously aside.  “Now, the passage which begins ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ continues.  ‘And render unto God the things that are God’s.’   And the wedding begins at this point.”

Maybe one day I will yet follow my conscience and refuse to sign that document at all, ask the couple to have a Justice of the Peace sign the Contract of Caesar.  And on a number of occasions there have been no such documents.  And by the authority vested in me by Almighty God I have pronounced them man and woman, husband and wife.  And I defy Caesar to question that they are married.  But those without the document are required to spend an extended amount of time with me and with one another in making sure they are ready for such radical trust and commitment.  For they do not have the protection that the legal contract would afford them. They cannot sue one another.  They have only themselves, the community if there be one, and the source of the authority which so joins them.  Those who have come with no license have not come flaunting liberation but bearing witness to servanthood.  They are not products of a new morality but an anachronism of an old morality, a testimony to “Jesus Christ is Lord. Hallelujah!” (from Brother to a Dragonfly, 213-214)

Given that the above quote only discusses opposite-sex marriage (as opposite-sex couples are the only ones currently able to have a legal contract of marriage in Tennessee), I think Will would want me to point out that he is the “proud father of a lesbian daughter” and a vocal friend of the LGBT community. 

(If you are local, David Dark is going to give a talk on Thurs, Feb 8, 7.30 pm, at the West End Borders:   “A Gospel with something to Offend Everyone: Considering Will Campbell”)


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