The Government have recently reported on proposals to further liberalise the rules about marriage in terms of where, when and by whom you can be married. The National Secular Society have come out broadly in support of the proposals. Actually there’s much to like about them (with some quibbles) although we’d have a very different reasoning for reforming marriage.
What to do about marriage where the State holds views about what it is and who is marriage that are increasingly at odds with believers is something that Christians are increasingly debating. Some have argued that the Church should get out of the wedding game altogether – it isn’t a religious sacrament after all, despite the best efforts of the Catholic Church. If not out of it altogether, at least out the legal bits.
So, one suggestion is that only the Registry office/Registrar should perform legal wedding ceremonies and then if someone wants to have a blessing or ceremony afterwards of a religious or non-religious kind then that’s their choice but all venues and individuals away from the State Registrars should be distinct from the legal elements.
I would go the other way. The last place I would send someone is to the Registry Office and the last person I’d get to perform a marriage would be the civil registrar using their set formula. I’ve attended a few civil ceremonies, the worst being at the Registry office and there are few things more depression and more laden with soul destroying, oppressive legalism than what our state has conjured up. Even the most secular of ceremonies carries a form of pseudo-liturgy as in effect it is the State Religion at work.
So, I would prefer to see the State get out of weddings and marriage altogether. I would like to see people free to marry within their community and in line with the traditions and beliefs of that community. Indeed, I’ve often thought that a fantastic wedding celebration would be set at the heart of a meal and party rather than with the meal/party afterwards. Imagine the scene. Everyone is sat down. You have your starter and then the vows are made. After the main course there might be readings and music, then desert followed by speeches.
The objections to this seem to revolve an understanding of the State’s responsibility to marriage and primarily to ensure that it is something that is public, legal and binding. Yet, first of all, for something to be public does not require the State’s involvement. Indeed, as things are today politically, the State seems increasingly privatised, in other words, set at the service of the private agendas of a minority.
Secondly, it isn’t the case that something has to have the State’s involvement for it to have legal force. We make all kinds of contracts, covenants and agreements without needing the civil authorities to rubber stamp those decisions. Yet they still carry legal force.
Thirdly, the State really has no interest in marriage. Apart from a half hearted attempt by David Cameron’s Government to bring back the marriage tax allowance, your marriage certificate conveys no meaningful public rights and responsibilities on you. Indeed, the State increasingly offers little to protect the marriage covenant of its parties. So, if the state has no interest in marriage and its involvement conveys little by way of benefit nor demands anything by way of responsibility then does it really matter whether or not the State are involved.
The important thing about marriage is that you have private intimacy recognised and protected through a public declaration of commitment. Beyond that, the State shouldn’t need to worry too much.