Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Faith Works 6-21-08
Jeff Gill

Party A and Party B Approach the Counter

June is the month for weddings, and California wants us to be in the mood for love.

You’ve heard about the big news in California, no doubt, where the blanks on marriage licenses are no longer labeled “Bride” and “Groom” but “Party A” and “Party B.”

How to decide which half of the couple gets to be A and who’s stuck with B we leave for future litigation . . . and there will be litigation, of that there is no doubt whatsoever.

Just in case I haven’t bothered and confused everyone, here’s what I see coming. In the not-too-distant future, “civil union for the purposes of maintaining a joint household” will be the norm, with special provisions for said unions with children under the law.

In other words, we’re all looking at “Party A” and “Party B” someday soon when it comes to the legal portion of what we currently call “marriage.”

Keep this in mind – clergy already have a state-mandated, legal hoop through which we jump, in order to have the legal standing to “solemnize” or legally sign a valid license to marry. The hoop is neither tiny nor high, but there is a hoop (and when I got mine, it was $10 to Sherrod Brown, but I suspect that’s gone up). To make valid a license issued by the Licking County Common Pleas Court under the Juvenile-Probate Court, you need a judge, a mayor, a magistrate, or a religious leader certified by the Secretary of State to have the limited, quasi-notary like power to sign said license.

What religious people may not entirely understand is that while there is currently a major overlap between church language and state language on marriage, this is going to change. What we need to protect is the right of religious groups and clergy to conduct “weddings” only for those parties they understand to be in a position to enter into a valid marriage. This may or may not overlap with the state categories, which will go through a wide range of changes these next few election cycles.

And I’m willing to say that’s all well and good for any state, or the State of Ohio, as long as you don’t try to force Catholic Christian priests to conduct marriage ceremonies for those who have been married and divorced, or Evangelical Christian pastors to join same-sex couples together, and so on. The “civil right” of a religious body to affirm whichever couples they see fit to join within their religious tradition will need defending.

Likewise, we religious folk need to understand that words like marriage and wedding and solemnize will be steadily emptied of their theological meaning, if not removed entirely from the wording of the Ohio Revised Code, requiring us to be ever more clear about what we mean when we use those words in church.

And we religious folk will really appreciate it if those in favor of civil unions, or gay marriage, or whatever phrase is popularly accepted, understand that aside from theological scruples, there are quite a few folks who are not even faith oriented at all, who join with various faith communities to ask: Do we know what it is we’re monkeying around with here? Do we really get it that treating the partners, entering into a shared home with the assumption of the possibility of children, as interchangeable units regardless of gender or commitment, could become an experiment with massive unintended consequences?

To which the usual chorus of “yes, but slavery and racism and xenophobia were around for a long time, too, along with kings and hereditary nobility, so tradition and so-called revelation may not be as reliable as you think” will rise up.

And in fact traditional churchgoers need to consider and repent of the fact that the relative inevitability of “Party A” and “Party B” has not a little to do with the widespread and casual acceptance of cohabitation and simple divorce within faith communities. If we thought marriage between a man and a woman was such a special, important thing, our actions don’t show it much, says the watching society around us. I’m talking within churches, let alone in society at large.

If we value it so little, the argument goes, then why not let those who want so much to share it have their share of the institution?

And so the experiment begins. The New York Times, bellwether of all things avant-garde, assures us that gay marriage will teach us all new ways to make marriage work even better.

The Times is also where we read in 1921 and 1936 that a rocket will never leave the Earth’s atmosphere. To be fair, they ran a retraction in July of 1969 of those assertions.

Jeff Gill is writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at