Friday, July 16, 2010

Koehl: An independent witness to marriage

Over On the Square, Stuart Koehl offers a provocative, and bold, solution to the problem confronting the church over the oxymoron of "gay marriage."
Today, the general consensus on marriage has become irrevocably broken. There are fundamental differences between the two regarding the nature and purpose of marriage, which in a secular society means, inevitably, that the state’s understanding of marriage is going to prevail, and be enforced by coercive measures.

We are reverting to the pre-Constantinian situation, where the Church has no legal standing and its doctrines are considered to be private matters (when they are not considered to be seditious). The solution is a return to the pre-Constantinian practice of the Church in which a Church marriage is a purely sacramental matter, subject to the doctrine and disciplines of the Church, but without legal standing.

Legal recognition of marriage would become a purely civil matter. A couple who wanted to marry would have to get a license and go to a civil magistrate. If they then wanted their union sacramentalized, they would go to the Church. If the Church refused to marry them because they did not meet its criteria for a sacramental wedding—if both parties were of the same sex, for example—the state could do nothing about it, since the Church is a voluntary association protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Thus disencumbered from its role as an agent of the state, the Church would be free to teach, encourage, and set an example for the rest of the world. It would not have to worry about the legal ramifications of its actions. And this could provide the freedom the Church needs to reshape marriage in the West in a way political and legal activism will not, and cannot.

Decoupled from the state, the Church can preach the Gospel with regard to marriage and human sexuality generally, backed up by enforcement of its canonical and ascetic disciplines, without fear of state sanction—assuming the Church is willing to accept the burden of proclaiming a truth so contrary to the prevailing zeitgeist.

It will not be enough for the Church simply to surrender its role as an agent of the state in marriage; the bishops of the Church must also provide visible and courageous leadership, including setting their own house in order, regardless of the cost to their popularity and standing with the cultural elites. The Church must extend its leadership to the instruction of the ignorant, support for the weak or confused, and reconciliation of the fallen.

For, ultimately, it is not through the law that the oxymoron of gay marriage will be turned back, but by the conversion of individual human hearts. The power of the Church’s witness to truth, combined with a growing recognition of the necessity of traditional marriage and the havoc wrought by the host of “alternative relationships” will, if the Church remains faithful to her calling, lead to a return to sanity.
Koehl's proposal is worth considering. Looking back, a clash between church and state over the definition of marriage was inevitable in a society with no state-sponsored church. A civil marriage is a contractual agreement, whereas a sacramental marriage is a covenant relationship. Indeed, the church has always recognized holy matrimony as "an honorable estate, instituted by God, signifying to us the mystical union between Christ and his Church" (BCP). A contract can be broken. A covenant, of this nature, is supposed to be forever.