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Monday, November 02, 2009

Redefining Marriage ... Really

This story has been picked up by a number of national outlets, including USA Today and  ABC News, so I assume a lot of people already know about the couple that had plans for their October 31 wedding thrown into disarray when the minister at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, NY refused to perform the service in the church when he heard of the couple's plans for a ceremony more Halloween camp than Dutch Reformed.  Assuming that the church really was unaware of those plans (a point that one article suggests is not entirely clear), I  am with what appears to be the majority sentiment siding with the church.  It is, after all, a church affiliated with a particular denomination, and one would think that a church is acting completely appropriately in insisting that ceremonies it performs comports with its own doctrines.

For all its seeming triviality, this story does raise questions for me about what sometimes seems like some Americans' a la carte attitude toward religion ( as in, to caricature, "I'll take the services but not the rules" or I'll take the rules, but not the inconvenient ones.").  I have no idea what religion the couple is, but if they are even nominally Dutch Reformed I'm amazed they asked for a ceremony that's essentially a satire (in a church of their own sect, presided over by a minister of that church).  If they are not Dutch Reformed then I wonder about the church's agreement to host the wedding -- and indeed, the minister's agreement to preside over it (unless Dutch Reformed rules allow the marrying of non-members).  Is it normal for a minister to marry non-believers?  If it is, then I have to say my sympathies shift -- though only slightly -- toward the couple.  If a Dutch Reformed minister is willing to preside over a wedding in a Dutch Reformed church even when the wedding doesn't follow whatever doctrinal rules that church embraces, then renting the church and engaging the minister's time does seem less fraught with religious significance for the church itself. 

Concecedly, it's probably the case that the minister's objection here stems less from doctrinal issues and more from a general concern with the solemnity of the occasion (a test this proposed marriage presumably fails).  That's why I still think his refusal was completely appropriate.  But the minister's willingness to open his church and preside does raise suspicion in me that Americans' sometimes-cavalier attitude about religious doctrine is abetted, even if unintentionally, by this sort of open door, our-church-is-a-rental-hall policy.  Obviously there are a lot of variables here: Is the ceremony itself purely civil?  Does it matter that the ceremony is in the church itself? (Here, for example, note that the minister offered to perform the cemeony in the church cemetery).  But these questions in turn raise follow-on issues that I won't note here in the interest of space.

I come at this from a perspective of ignorance about church customs, but also respect for the integrity of church doctrine.  I was raised a Catholic, though I no longer consider myself such, except maybe in some vague cultural sense.  That decision to dis-associate carries with it implications.  If I have occasion to attend Mass I don't take communion and don't recite the Apostles' Creed, and I wouldn't request a Catholic wedding even if church policy changed.  Indeed, when my husband and I married we did not engage the rabbi of his temple to officiate, even though she's a wonderful person and an inspirational religious leader, because we didn't think it appropriate to have a ceremony officiated over by a rabbi -- even (or maybe especially) a civil ceremony -- when I'm not a believer.  I think these rules -- whether enforced by the church itself or by individuals -- should matter.  I wouldn't say they're the only bulwark against more Addams Family music at weddings.  And as a non-believer I wouldn't have to pay whatever price would flow from a stricter insistence on compliance with doctrine.  But as an outsider, I do wonder about the consequences of the dilution that allows a religious official to even think about performing a marriage like the one this couple was hoping for. 

I'm probably missing something important here, so I invite anyone who has thought about these issues to comment.

Posted by Bill Araiza on November 2, 2009 at 05:54 PM | Permalink

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