Separating secular and sacred at a Wedding

This is a brief post as I’m at a conference. But I found it in my notes and thought it would be helpful for folks. 


I recently went to a speech by Bishop Gene Robinson, retired bishop in the Episcopal Church. In his speech, he offered a novel way of doing a wedding that honored the religious ceremony while also reminding the attendees of the sacred/secular divide.

Briefly, clergy that officiate weddings are acting as agents of the state, deputized to do a civic duty (binding two people in marriage) wrapped in a religious observance (Christian worship through the ceremony).

However, for a number of clergy, their definition of marriage does not match their civic culture. Even with the domino effect of state after state legalizing marriage equality, many clergy are still in mismatched situations and don’t want to be agents of the state. And some are not considering marriage equality at all: they just don’t want to be agents of the state.

So what to do for church members who want to get married?

A Proposed Order of Christian Marriage

Bishop Robinson offered up how he came to do weddings:

  • The wedding party would meet on the front steps of the church, literally the dividing line between the world and the church, the secular and the sacred. A separate Justice of the Peace would administer the vows and declare the couple partners in marriage. The clergy would be there too to witness and support the couple.
  • The church would start the organ or harp or musicians and the wedding party would process into the church. They would sing Christian hymns, do whatever liturgy or vows or rings exchange that they want, and celebrate the couple’s love for each other in the context of worship. The priest or clergy would officiate like they normally do, without doing the officiating legal aspect.

The procession and doing the two separate vows cements for both the couple and the congregation that there’s a difference between officiating the marriage of two persons and blessing of the marriage of two persons in the context of Christian worship. All the elements of a traditional wedding can be done in a way that satisfies secular and sacred understandings of a wedding.


Thoughts? How does this solution strike you to help separate the civic and spiritual aspects of Christian marriage?


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  1. Patrick says

    Wow, this is 180 degrees from what I thought UMJeremy would be posting about the sacred and secular in marriage. I can’t imagine a more schizophrenic way to start a lifetime commitment!

    I would rather maximize the worship service and take care of the “state” part of the wedding in an office or someplace private. If I remember correctly, that’s how we did it – in the eyes of the state, we were married as soon as the pastor signed the license about fifteen minutes before the start of the ceremony.

    If a pastor doesn’t want to be an “agent of the state,” then he/she should remove themselves completely from that process, not do it out on the front steps of the church, and the marrying couple has their ceremony on their wedding day. The fact that they’re having their wedding at a church in the first place should signal that they believe that the solemnization of “two becoming one” is paramount over a governmental licensure.

    • says

      For the people gathered there, they often don’t have an awareness that the couple is already legally married or perhaps that there is a difference between secular and sacred observance of marriage. For same-gender couples, a marriage ceremony often doesn’t include the legal side (but increasingly does). Or that there’s a difference between a marriage contract and a covenant made in the church-funneled presence of God. This process above matches what the liturgy says to a visual image of what it looks like.

      Patrick, since you commented, what did you expect this post to be about? What does 180 degrees from this look like?

  2. Chris Reynolds says

    My wife and I got legally married a full year before our wedding ceremony. I actually really liked doing it that way, keeping the two things separate and apart. The legal marriage was mostly about getting insurance and other legal benefits, the wedding was about having our love and relationship affirmed before God, our families, friends, and religious community. Both aspects of marriage are important, but they have really very little to do with each other.

    • says

      Chris, we also got legally married 3 months before our religious ceremony. We had the same values you mentioned, but we also got married in Massachusetts where marriage equality was the law and had our religious ceremony in a state where it was not. So that was important to us.

  3. Ben McGehee says

    I completely disagree with your second paragraph. As a pastor, I do not see myself as “acting as [an agent] of the state” when I “officiate [a] wedding”. I’m acting as an agent of the state when I oversee the signing of a legal document. I am “deputized to do a civic duty”, but that is separate from the “religious observance”. This paragraph also seems to indicate that marriage is primarily a civic function, whereas I believe that it is a spiritual covenant made before God (at least the weddings I do are). There are certainly spiritual and secular components to every marriage, but if I felt that the couple being married simply wanted a “civic duty” done “wrapped in a religious observance”, I’d probably refuse to marry them, since even the “civic” marriages here generally have religious components.

    Outside of that paragraph, though, I tend to agree with your ideas here. I like separating the civic from spiritual aspects in the wedding – and have always done it that way. Though I tend to do the spiritual part first and publicly in the Sanctuary, while the secular part (signing the documents) is handled afterwards and privately outside the Sanctuary. Not sure why the secular part needs to be public (other than using it as a teaching moment). Also have no problem with being an agent of the state by overseeing the signing of a document and mailing it somewhere. But I also wouldn’t have a problem if I couldn’t do that anymore, either…

  4. Mike says

    I have no religious or moral objection to signing a wedding license, and find the argument against such very American-centric. As to dividing the sacred from the secular… I Thinks that’s about as far away from the gospel as you can get. Sorry God – you belong here but you don’t belong there… because the church/state says so. It’s as nuts as – in my opinion of course – saying God/prayer doesn’t belong in schools. Again – sorry God… you belong outside, not inside where we do the important work of educating kids to fear/hate/despise/reject/ignore you. (By the way – I have a funny feeling God laughs a bit at that one and comes in anyway). I don’t see my role of signing a wedding license as acting on behalf of the state. All I do is witness the fact that a couple completed the process (they’ve already gone to the state for the license).

  5. Taylor Burton-Edwards says

    The challenge we have as United Methodists is our “regular” marriage ritual makes no allowance for such segregation (arguably the BCP ritual MIGHT, but only might). And my reading of church trial findings (starting with the Creech trial) is only General Conference may alter the ritual materially so as to effect the possibility of such segregation.

    United Methodists do have ritual for the blessing of a civil marriage. But my hunch is most seeking our clergy to “marry them” really want much more than that provides. And again, only GC could authorize such expanded rites of blessing.

    The far larger challenge we face pastorally, though, and have never adequately addressed (really, not addressed at all) regards older adults who wish the church’s blessing on a partnership that never will be a legal marriage because the financial costs of effecting a marriage (loss of pension, SS and other benefits from a deceased former spouse) would be ruinous for one or both.

  6. CJ says

    I went to a wedding in Germany when I was a child and they had two wedding ceremonies. The day before they got dressed up and went to the courthouse where they signed all of the paperwork and a judge performed the civil ceremony. Their family and close friends went with them and it was a celebration in it’s own right. Half of their wedding album was pictures from the courthouse. I remember someone telling me that the reason they did this was because Germany doesn’t allow clergy to act as agents of the state. It’s possibly part of the reason why same sex marriage isn’t the issue in Europe that it is here.

    It makes perfect sense because it reinforces the state having no authority over the church by having the church accept no authority from the state.

  7. Gary says

    I’ve never felt “an agent of the state” when performing a wedding, usually using the basic Book of Worship format. Only when the wedding concludes, the sanctuary is empty and folks are gathering for the reception, so I get together with the “witness” (usually the best man) and we both sign the license indicating the date of the ceremony. In Tennessee that form has to be filed with the county clerk within three working days or the pastor is supposedly fined. The clerk takes the form and thus the state recognizes the marriage officially. Everything in the church ceremony, from “Friends, we are gathered . . .” to “I present to you . . .” never mentions the secular or state interest. Whatever a Tennessee county clerk may think, in the eyes of everyone is the sanctuary – and the eyes of God – the couple is now married.
    It does, I’m sure, vary by state. In KY, for example, you have to have someone sponsor the pastor for a cash bond in order to perform a wedding – or a funeral, for that matter.

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