Can a couple get married in the eyes of the church but not in the eyes of the state if they have financial or family concerns about a legal marriage?
This question has arisen in recent years among widows and widowers who want to keep their finances separate, younger people who are citizens of different countries and want a church wedding in one and a legal ceremony in another, and immigrants from countries with different marriage practices that don’t meet typical Canadian or American legal standards. In fact, Synod 2019 appointed a task force to study this topic and report to Synod 2021. That synod did not meet due to the pandemic, and the report was deferred due to another substantive report about marriage and sexuality on the 2022 agenda, but it will finally be addressed this June at Synod 2023. The report can be found at tinyurl.com/EcclesiasticalMarriage. .
The report helpfully explains a biblical and Reformed theology of marriage, recognizing that, following John Calvin’s teachings, Reformed traditions have always connected ecclesiastical and legal marriage and that at most weddings the ordained pastor officiates under the dual authority of the church and the state. The report explores stories of those who would like only an ecclesiastical marriage—one not recognized by the state—and considers the advantages and disadvantages of such unions, including practical issues such as what happens if such a marriage does not work out. Would the couple need an ecclesiastical divorce, and would the church administer that?
Because of theological and legal concerns, the report does not recommend that couples and pastors go down this road together because it might create legal liabilities for churches and other involved parties. And it might not provide what couples are looking for anyway, as persons in common-law relationships do have some legal rights in certain jurisdictions. The legal issues are very complex because the U.S. and Canada have different laws about marriage, and in the U.S. they also vary from state to state. We certainly would not want to encourage dishonesty in any way or commit fraud by avoiding legal marriage, but how can we address valid concerns that married and engaged couples have? Synod 2023 hopefully will provide some helpful guidance for churches and pastors.