I recently received an email from the Reverend Randall J. Keeney, who is an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, NC. Keeney and two retired priests will introduce a resolution at the Episcopal church's convention in January 2009 that will surely roil the gathering. While it is self-evident to reality-based people that civil and religious marriage are separate matters, it's quite controversial in the church for faith leaders to point out the obvious. Keeney is putting his position on the line since he's still a member of the clergy at St. Barnabas.

I was given permission by Rev. Keeney to publish the resolution -- it will go out in preconvention mailings beginning early in January. Rev. Keeney wrote to me:

The purpose of the resolution is to separate church and state in the contracting of civil marriage.  One of the main issues in debates about marriage is the fact that it is tied to the ordained clergy of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and "you name it" faith traditions.  The result is that arguments about marriage become enmeshed with theology and theologically based bigotry.

...My hope is that by separating the issues, people in the church can be freed up to challenge the civil rights aspects of marriage.  This really is about two separate issues:  "rights" and "rites".  Many clergy, churches, and dioceses around the country can and do bless relationships.  But if the state won't contract them as marriage, there is really no change the status of relationships.

Take a look at the frank language of the resolution - it pulls no punches in challenging the church and goes further by calling for the church to stop blessing civil marriages as well.

Resolution Concerning Clerical Presidency in Civil Marriage

Resolved that this 193rd Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina hereby encourages clergy, pursuant to Title I, Canon 18, Section 4 of the Canons of The Episcopal Church to decline to function as agents of the State of North Carolina or other states in the contracting of Civil Marriage.

Resolved further, nothing in this resolution shall be interpreted to discourage clergy from blessing marriages that have been established by secularly appointed state agents.

Furthermore, the 193rd Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina resolves to ask the next General Convention of the Episcopal Church to disallow clerics from acting as agents of all states in the contracting of Civil Marriage.

the Rev. Randall J. Keeney
St. Barnabas        
Greensboro, NC

the Rev. Charlie Hawes   
Greensboro, NC

the Rev. Jim Prevatt
Greensboro, NC  

The full resolution is below the fold.

Comment & Rationale: 

In many countries around the world, the church has no role whatsoever in the establishment of a marriage contract.  The church simply blesses those unions it chooses to bless.  This resolution simply encourages Episcopal Clergy to decline from acting as contracting agents for the state.   “In some countries, such as France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina, Japan, and Russia, it is necessary to be married by government authority separately from any religious ceremony, with the state ceremony being the legally binding one. In those cases, the marriage is usually legalized before the ceremony.”(Wikipedia)

No other sacrament of the church is dependent upon civil license.  The sacraments of the church shall not be proscribed or prescribed by civil authority.  The church should be able to bless those unions it, after deliberation, determines are deserving of blessing.  The church can and should be free to decide to whom a sacrament will be extended without influence of secular government.

This resolution, in no way, disallows clerical participation in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.  It will not stop the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony from being an integral part of the church’s life; however, it will require couples to arrange for the secular contract to be performed by someone who is not an ordain cleric in this diocese.  The civil contract may be entered into on the same day and at the same place of The Blessing or on a separate day at another place.

As concerns issues of justice:   Until 1967 in the United States of America, many states prohibited inter-racial marriage.  “L(l)aws against interracial marriage and interracial sex existed and were enforced in the Thirteen Colonies from the late seventeenth century onwards, and subsequently in several US States and US Territories until 1967. Similar laws were also enforced in Nazi Germany, from 1935 until 1945, and in South Africa during the Apartheid era, from 1949 until 1985.” (Wikipedia)  Per canon, Episcopal clergy could not bless what states prohibited.  We had abdicated our authority over the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to the state.  We, in fact, had participated in systematic and institutional racism and prejudice.  That abdication as concerns this Sacrament continues today.

This resolution will allow the church to address issues of civil marriage and the rights it brings with all integrity and honesty.  It will allow the church to discuss the blessing of the relationships of gay and lesbian persons offering the same pastoral and sacramental ministry which is allowed to heterosexuals.  This resolution will allow the church to address the pastoral and sacramental lives of persons (particularly retired persons) for whom civil marriage would cause financial burdens, such as lost pensions and other retirement benefits as well as the encumbrance of estates. 

This resolution simply separates “rights” from “rites” and allows the church to proclaim and act with integrity and justice concerning Civil Marriage and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. It allows the church and members of the clergy to pastorally engage and support all people in their most important relationships and offers all of the Sacraments of the Church toward that end.

This will be an interesting matter to follow, given the state of the Episcopal church of late; I wonder how many more conservative churches will threaten to break away.