I know this boarders on tmi, but why is it that Europeans and Turks don’t furnish hotel patrons with a simple washcloth? I get it that Americans are not in the habit of outfitting bathrooms with bidets — but neither are the Irish or the Turks. So what is the aspiring ablutionist to do? When it comes to the handy devise of said washcloth, I am willing to use that dreaded phrase, “human flourishing.”
That said, this morning’s rituals in Dublin (where I am doing some research while not crawling from pub to pub — kidding, dear but you’re probably not reading) included a full Irish breakfast in the hotel’s dining room. There I brought along a recent issue of First Things (to keep away the friendly tourist) and found a readable discussion of Robbie George’s proposal that churches should get out of the civil marriage business (April 2014). As a side point, I was struck by the number of appeals to the deeply theological accounts of marriage and how the secular version is merely an inferior copy. For one, Scripture itself doesn’t say that much about marriage, though the analogy of the church and Christ does give lots of wiggle room — yet it is only an analogy, like a piece of bread and a thimble of wine is a meal. For another, complaints about the inferior nature of secular marriage strike me as yet one more version of Christians bellyaching about the loss of Christendom — oh, how inferior a secular republic is to the deeply textured presence of faith in medieval Europe. Put not your hope in princes, their territories, or their marriages.
None of the Protestant contributors to this discussion picked up on what George’s proposal would do for Protestant ministers. Since Protestant churches know nothing of marriage as a sacrament, since marriage is a common institution not reserved for believers, the only kind of marriage that Protestants offer is a secular version. In our records we don’t keep a special class of members who are married. We have no instruction from Scripture that pastors are supposed to perform marriages (and I can’t think of any explicit cases or instruction from the Old Testament that would have led the apostles to think they needed to perform marriages, though I didn’t score high on my English Bible exam). And we have nary little instruction from Scripture about a happy home except for that impossible stuff about wives submitting and husbands loving (what pastors cover in marriage counseling before a ceremony is a true mystery — do ministers really know anything about finances or balancing a checkbook?).
So I’ll take the challenge. I propose that Reformed churches encourage their pastors to get out of the marriage racket. At the very least, it puts us out in front of that difficult situation when a gay couple wants to make an example of one of our congregations. At the most, what do we lose? So we as a body of believers accompany a couple and their witnesses (the signed ones) to the city courtroom to observe a civil marriage ceremony. Would that be so bad? Imagine the savings on flowers and wedding party attire.
On the other side, I could see abandoning the wedding ceremony for its inclusion within a Sunday morning worship service, sort of like the vows that new members take before the observance of the Lord’s Supper. So the couple would go forward, the pastor would offer some brief instruction about marriage, bride and groom would take their vows, return to their seats, and participate in the rest of the service. The reception? Coffee hour.
Imagine the even more savings!