At one level, marriage is a simple proposition. Two people decide that they want to publicly declare their love and commitment, so they engage in a ceremony that in law and heart binds them one to the other.
Most cultures consider the couple as a fundamental unit in the building blocks of a civilized society. Their commitment creates a stability around which the community can flourish and grow.
Complexity enters the question when we examine the expectations of the individuals and society about what marriage means. Is it an economic agreement? Is it a behavioral agreement? Is it a set of intentions?
Where do we get our ideas about marriage? We experience those around us in our lives. Sometimes we are most influenced by our parents; if their marriage appeared good to us, we may want something like that. If our parents were unhappy, or their marriage seemed unsuccessful, we try to avoid what we perceive as their approach.
Sometimes we were exposed to a couple that seemed ideal and we hold that as our standard, and even some look at celebrities and royals and imagine how the fairytale can end. Others of us are influenced by religious beliefs or intellectual ideas we have accepted as our philosophy.
Marriage is an institution that has been with us since the beginning of recorded time. Why people marry and how they marry and who is involved in the decision has changed many times and in our opinion it will continue to change and we hope, for the better.
When you receive your marriage license you will notice it is issued by the state where your ceremony takes place. It may be through a local municipality such as a city or town hall, but the license—that is, the authorization to enter into the agreement of marriage—is given by the state.
The state also provides certificates of birth, death, and divorce. The relationship of marriage as an institution governed by states has been in place for centuries. Although the state provides the license, the federal government provides most of the benefits; therefore marriage equality has come a long way with the Supreme Court de idiom June 2016 to strike down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Now the federal government is required to treat legally married same sex couples on an equal basis with heterosexual couples. This equal basis is both exciting and confusing, please seek the advice of a tax expert and attorney to take your best advantage of the 1,049 federal laws and regulations that relate to marital status including property rights, benefits, taxation and immigration sponsorship..
You may wonder why the institution of marriage—a civil union, governed by state laws—is in addition a potential religious ceremony. Indeed, the people “qualified” to officiate at a wedding include secular authorities (such as a justice of the peace) and ministers, priests, and rabbis. How is it that religious institutions have a role?
A brief look at marriage history in western civilization finds one answer.
Ancient societies relied on a set of rules to handle the granting of property rights and the protection of bloodlines and the privileges assigned to them. The institution of marriage was the vehicle to carry those needs.
For example, ancient Hebrew law required a man to become the husband of a deceased brother’s widow. In many cultures women were considered property of their fathers and were bargained for wealth and power. Therefore over the centuries most couples married for economic liaisons or economic survival both of their families and of the state or nation state of which they were citizens.
These “economic” marriages were often arranged, some by proxy (fathers or brothers speaking for daughters and sisters), some involving a dowry or bride price paid to the groom or his family. Very few involved any choice for either party in the decision.
This is where the church came in; it became the advocate for choice and to consider marriage as a sacrament and not just a contract. It was St. Paul who compared the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and church (Eph. V.23-32). In 866 Pope Nicholas clarified the churches stance by declaring “If the consent be lacking in a marriage, all other celebrations, even should the union be consummated, are rendered void.”
Shakespeare illustrates this idea of the church as advocate for the couples consent in Romeo and Juliet. The priest goes to great lengths to arrange for the young lovers to see their marriage made safe from the authorities who would force a marriage that would contribute to the families’ prospects and prosperity.
Once the church took a stand on consent of betrothed couples, its influence on marriage continued to grow, eventually overshadowing government’s role. Marriage took twists and turns over the centuries, alternating between a necessary contract for social order, a romantic notion of love and courtship with the medieval troubadours, and then the addition of a requirement that a valid wedding must be witnessed.
The decree on marriage by the Council of Trent in 1566 put in place the presence of a priest and at least two witnesses. The idea of marriage grew from primarily an economic strategy to the church overseeing the salvation of men and women from sin. Both love and economics took a back burner to procreation and obedience.
For example, by the 13th century, the “courtly love” of the medieval troubadours was deemed heretical by the Church. This romantic approach to courtship, set out in literature and song lyrics, was specifically in response to the lack of love in Church and state-sanctioned marriages. In many places the Church and state were one central power and marriage was one of its levers for control of property and resources. Courtly love was secret and limited to members of the nobility.
The current dominance of heterosexism in western society was locked in during the middle ages through centuries of violent repression sanctioned often by religious authorities.
It’s important to note that some religious traditions absolutely prohibit same-gender marriages. Islam, Roman Catholicism, and some branches of Judaism in particular—to name some of the more mainstream examples—do not recognize gay and lesbian unions. If you live in one of these traditions, you will be unable to officially be married within your religion by a celebrant representing that religion.
I feel your pain. It’s difficult to love your religion while decrying some of its dogmas and having your desire to build a family denie d. When you choose to be married despite these prohibitions, you will have to take the painful step of doing so outside of your church, temple, or mosque. In that case, you may wish to retain some of the customs inherent in your tradition. Talk this over with your wedding celebrant.
Religious authorities began to refer to morale decline specifically in sexual terms and added homosexual relations as an indication of the decline. As a result, most mainstream religions reserve the concept and blessing of marriage for a man and a woman. There are notable exceptions in the Unitarian Universalists, the Metropolitan Community Churches, the Quakers, The United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Unity, Religious Science, and Neopaganism.
One might think that marriage has historically been a heterosexual institution but evidence suggests that homosexual relationships have had an important role in the fabric of society from early times. James Neill notes in The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relationships in Human Societies: “Homosexuality and a recognized social role for homosexual couples have been visibly present to some degree until recent times in every major civilization (...) back to the beginning of recorded history with the sole exception of post medieval European civilization.”
The tightly knit power structure of religion and governance of nations and nation/states built the foundation of religious intervention into the originally secular institution of marriage. Today as in centuries past, wedding officiants are empowered by law to perform legally binding ceremonies.
Most states continue to give clergy the power to perform marriages, but few require clergy. For example, in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Colorado, Quaker influences allow for “self-uniting” marriages or “self-solemnization.”
However people enter into the state of matrimony, it creates a bond between two people that involves personal responsibility and legal commitments, as well as privileges. The nature of this bond continues to change and vary depending on culture, religion and other traditions. Let’s look at just a few of the most significant changes in marriage (specifically in the West) over the past centuries:
• Legalization of divorce
• Criminalization of marital rape (and recognition that the concept even exists)
• Legalization of contraception
• Legalization of interracial marriage
• Recognition of women’s right to own property in a marriage
• Elimination of dowries
• Elimination of parents’ right to choose or reject their children’s mates
• Elimination of childhood marriages and betrothals
• Elimination of polygamy
• Existence of large numbers of unmarried people
• Women not taking the last names of their husbands
• Changing emphasis from money and property to love and personal
Many of the marriage reforms benefit women and give them more equality in the contract supported by the state and endowed with rights and privileges by the federal government. The stance that marriage be focused on procreation to meet a religious idea or to perpetuate a society was interrupted by the availability of contraception. The idea that marriage be racially limited was struck down in the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.
The ability of couples to choose each other without interference from families and to make their own economic arrangements allows for marriage agreements that are as unique as the people involved. It is in fact only in the case of gender that this freedom to choose one’s partner and enjoy all benefits of marriage has not been fully extended; and you and all the other gay and lesbian couples electing to be married are changing all that.
Now that there is Federal recognition of marriages, couples can begin to expect and demand equal treatment under the law as it relates to property and other intentions that they have for each other. Jane and I celebrated our first joint tax return for the year ending December 2013. Even so, couples in over 30 states still need to go outside their home town to marry so full marriage equality is not yet realized.
While economic considerations are still relevant, and many couples still choose to have children, the last change—moving marriage on the continuum toward love and personal fulfillment—is the context we primarily enjoy currently in the western world.
As marriage continues to change as a civic institution regulated by secular law, yet also blessed and given meaning by religious institutions, same-gender intendeds can expect that their unions will be added to the list of reforms that have evolved around the institution of marriage for centuries.
While there are myriad different customs that depend on the couple’s ethnicity, religious background, and choice, most modern western weddings— whether religious or civil—contain several essential identical components.
One can see why each one is necessary when placed in a historical context. They include:
• Identification (who is the couple—in other words, there can be no substitution of one veiled bride for another)
• The celebrant addresses the couple and tells them what they’re undertaking (in case one or both individuals are not cognizant of the purpose of the ceremony)
• Vows: each individual must articulate that this is what he or she wishes to do and that no one has forced him or her to be there.
• Declaration/blessing: the celebrant notes that the requirements of state, church, or both have been met and that the couple is indeed duly and legally married.
In Appendix A, you’ll find a collection of wedding ceremonies. It’s not a comprehensive collection; they represent only a fraction of the forms available to celebrants and couples, but will give you a sense of the breadth of ceremonies that others have used. Chapter three discusses in detail the form of a wedding ceremony and the steps to take in creating your own.