On Wednesday, May 9, President Barak Obama stated publicly that he is in favor of same-sex marriage. He said that his position had evolved over a period of time. He had supported civil unions for same-sex couples, but had come to realize that marriage should be open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
I believe that marriage is, for the majority of American, primarily a civil union. As I look back over the marriage ceremonies I have performed, the majority have been for couples who are non- or nominally-Christian. A "church wedding" or having a clergy person perform the ceremony in a garden, backyard, restaurant, etc. is what is expected, rather than a celebration of God in the midst of marriage.
Couples, for the most part, are not interested in spending time exploring their relationship to God through Jesus Christ or the role of spiritual practices in their marriage. They are more interested in the production of a wedding, the length of the aisle, the music for the bridal procession, the style of the cake and the color of the flowers.
This is not Christian marriage. When I perform these kinds of weddings, I am functionary for the state, witnessing a civil agreement between a man and a woman. Because of this civil agreement, tax status may change, the couple can share health insurance and represent each other legally in emergencies. They can speak for each other in medical decisions. My conviction that many "marriages" are civil unions is evident in the practice of divorce. In my experience, couples in the church finally come to the pastor when the legal preceding for divorce are underway. Divorce dissolves, in the state's eyes the civil union.
When I meet with couples before a wedding, I talk to them about what Christian marriage means. It put it simply. In the Bible, writings in both the Old and New Testaments refer to marriage as a metaphor for God's relationship with God's people (Old Testament) and Christ's relationship with the church (New Testament). This means that I should be able to look to any couple who has participates in Christian marriage and say, "So this is what my relationship with God should look like. This is how God loves me and I am to love God." Christian marriage is the ultimate metaphor for the human/divine relationship, mutually caring, self-sacrificing, hoping the best for each other, true to self and each other.
In the debate over marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples, I would offer these suggestions. We must first acknowledge that a "legal" marriage is in fact a civil union. The state has simply given permission for clergy to represent the government in witnessing this agreement. (Clergy, bride, groom and witnesses sign a legal document that must be returned to the state within 10 days.) So, the only thing that the government can authorize or legislate are matters concerning civil unions.
Marriage, on the other hand, is the work of religious institutions and spiritual communities. I would suggest that marriages are the result of careful spiritual exploration, mutual agreement and commitment to living in loving relationship that holds the couple up and enriches the community. For me, I see a true marriage when I see a metaphor of God's love lived out. Gay or straight, couples who are committed to living in this kind of relationship are ready for marriage.