The Marriage Pledge – Reaction within the US

The publication of The Marriage Pledge on the First Things web site[1] by the Rev Ephraim Radner and the Rev Christopher Seitz has been widely circulated, and is attracting comment within the United States and elsewhere.  The two Anglican and Episcopal pastors are seeking to encourage priests and ministers to refuse to perform civil marriages as a response to their concerns regarding the changing governmental definition of marriage. Whilst the Pledge is directed at the US, it acknowledges that similar changes are occurring elsewhere, and states, inter alia:

“The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman. Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understanding, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding ceremonies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centuries. To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.”


Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.”

The Pledge is in effect a unilateral decision of individual priests and ministers to reject the current situation in the United States in which religious certifications of marriage are accepted by the secular authorities.  It appears to be gaining a degree of traction within the US, but has been criticized by some in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.  Significantly, Foley Beach, Archbishop and Primate of the Anglican Church in North America, ACNA has sounded a strong note of caution, stating:

“It would be best for us to take counsel together before taking further action. Therefore I ask that you do not sign this pledge until as bishops, clergy, and lay leaders we have had more opportunities to pray about and discuss the legal, theological, and sociological ramifications of signing such a statement.”

Some commentators have pointed out that dual state-religion marriage regimes operate outside the US, but there are important differences that are of relevance when considering the necessity and value of the Pledge.  This post addresses the issues that have been raised in the United State, and subsequently we will consider this in relation to secular and religious marriage in Europe, with particular reference to the position within the UK.

United States

Archbishop Beach makes reference to the critical commentary of Doug Wilson, who in his blog In Which First Things Does Some Fourth Things cautions

“we need to think this through more carefully. We need to have a strategic plan that is based on solid theological foundations, and it should be a plan that is designed to be implemented by churches, and not just by individual churchmen,”

and makes the following points:

  • by signing the Pledge, the church is “departing the field before the battle is over”;
  • there are many associated ethical, legal and covenantal issues and ramifications for which “it is apparent that the promoters of this pledge have not worked through them”.
  • He asks “why is it not equally a matter of conscience for the Christian couple? Why do they have to go do the dirty paperwork while their minister gets to opt out?”
  • With regard to the legal and covenantal complications, Wilson states “ [w]e have no business officiating over church weddings that are covenantally and legally toothless while at the same time ceding important legal ground, the ground that involves property and custody issues, to the secularists.”

Canon lawyer Dr Ed Peters makes a number of valuable observations regarding the assumptions within and implications of the Pledge in his red-line notes on the Radner-Seitz Pledge, which he subsequently examines from a Roman Catholic perspective and then with particular reference to canonical form.  He examines the implications of such undertakings with reference to Canons 1055 to 1057, and in particular, the point at which a couple is deemed to be married: from the Church’s point of view, a couple can be only married (i.e. partake in a marriage ceremony) once.  He also suggests that one outcome of separating religious and secular marriage would be that it will be more difficult for the Catholic Church to recognize the marriages of non-Catholics and of “separated brethren”.

In the latter post, he states [emphasis in original]:

“In America, while the State does claim the power to determine who is and is not married (and for people for whom religion is irrelevant, this authority makes some sense), the American State does NOT claim as EXCLUSIVE its power to determine who is recognized as married. In America, Deo gratias, the State still allows religious bodies to certify that such-and-such a couple entered marriage before them. Thus the situation in America is A FAR CRY from the omnipotent claims over marriage asserted by many other modern secular governments,”

and notes that it is incredible that some want to throw away this opportunity for legitimate cooperation in an important matter of mutual Church-State interest, marriage, even if it means provoking the American State into concluding that terminating its recognition of religious marriage.  He continues

“ . . . double-wedding ceremonies are required in certain places ONLY by the Catholic Church for certain weddings, and then ONLY because we still have the requirement of “canonical form” on our books (canon 1108), per which requirement, a civil wedding does NOT suffice for the exchange of marriage consent among Catholics, even though: we require ALL other persons using these ceremonies to honor them fully as marriages, and; even though the requirement of canonical form gravely burdens our own theology of marriage, specifically (long story made short) that the couple are the agents of natural marriage and the ministers of sacramental Matrimony.

In other words, if a double-ceremony is required, it is required only because WE [the Catholic Church] say it is, and not because the State demands it, and not because our own theology calls for it”.

In conclusion, Dr Peters summarizes the position as:

“the double-wedding requirement does not apply in America (because American States still accept religious certifications of marriage), so it has no bearing on recent American calls to cease cooperation with the State regarding marriage:

“in nations where a double-wedding requirement does apply, it is purely the result of the Church’s requirement of “canonical form”, a requirement that lets thousands of Catholics each year walk away from weddings that we hold others to honor, and which hampers our defense of marriage as a natural institution under the primary control of couples eligible for it, and not as a status subject to the sole prerogatives of the State.”


This is an on-going issue which we will follow with interest.  A subsequent post will consider church-state approaches to marriage within Europe, and what conclusions can be drawn in relation to the operation of the Pledge in the US, and its relevance in the UK.


[1] First Things “is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism.”  It has been one of the staunchest voices against gay marriage in recent years, and in 2013 hosted a symposium on the relationship between religious marriage and the state, with Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and various Protestant scholars debating whether ‘churches, synagogues, and mosques [should] stop performing civil marriages?’”

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