On Friday -- on a day that the news should have focused entirely on the funeral of +Rev Clementa Pinckney (attended by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios) -- the Supreme Court thought it appropriate to announce its decision on the case Obergefell v. Hodges: the Court determined that there is now a federally-protected right of same-sex couples to be married under civil law.
What does this mean? And what does this mean for us?
Historically speaking (that is, outside the Church), this is something new. In general, cultures across the world made marriage a “legal” thing between a man and a woman for the purposes of bearing children (i.e., “procreation”) and owning property. That is why society in general has always been so interested in marriage, and it has -- across the board -- legislated various laws to regulate and to support marriage.
This is what is called “civil marriage.”
We should remember that one of the main reasons why society upheld marriage by law was for the purpose of procreation. That is why marriage has been limited, historically and even outside Christianity, to a relationship between a man and a woman.
As far as the Church is concerned, marriage goes far beyond the legalized “civil union” that society or the State is interested in upholding. Marriage, in Holy Tradition, is a “sacrament.” It is one of the seven primary “means of grace” that God has given us for the sake of our salvation. We say confidently that we can be “saved” through marriage.
For the first few centuries of the Church (until about 900 AD), when early Christians got married, they first went to the city magistrate (kind of like our “Justice of the Peace”) and entered into a “civil union.” Then, soon afterward, they had their marriage blessed in Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony -- or, better, the “Holy Mystery of Nuptial Union” -- goes far beyond the interests of society. Marriage, in the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy, is an eternal union of a man and a woman (just like Adam and Eve, and -- more profoundly -- Christ and His Bride the Church). Every sacramental marriage is a part and a beginning of the cosmic reconciliation of Christ returning all of Creation to the Father in universal transfiguration. Marriage includes the possibility of children, but it extends into love and joy in every moment between the husband and wife.
We Orthodox have deep and eternal view of marriage.
And because of that, we venerate and protect it -- not just as a civil institution, or as a “contract” that will cease at the end of life. Marriage, for us, is forever, always initiating a return to Paradise, always transforming a home into a “Garden of Eden.”
So what do we do when the Supreme Court, in a very poorly written, poorly argued and irresponsible opinion, has changed the legal definition of marriage?
(The gaping holes in this opinion, written by Reagan-appointee Anthony Kennedy, are egregious. One unanswered question in this statement -- as if it didn’t matter -- is whether religious institutions who choose not to perform such unions will receive adequate legal protection.)
First of all, we need to remain “courageously peaceful” and remember that while this decision is huge for civil law, it does nothing to the Orthodox definition of marriage.
I doubt that the Church will ever be forced, by law, to perform same-sex marriages. Such a thing has not happened once in Massachusetts, which has legalized such marriages since 2004.
But in the event that everyone who performs the “civil marriage” within the church ceremony -- which I and every other clergy do for the State in a wedding -- might be required by law to perform a same-sex marriage … then I -- and every other traditional priest -- will stop performing the civil part (i.e., I would no longer sign the marriage license).
I do not think this is a very big deal in itself. The “clergy-signed marriage license” was always a government function, starting around 900 AD with the hugely significant "Novella 89" of Leo VI. Historically, I think that any and every entanglement with the State has turned out to be a huge mistake.
We need to remember that there have been, for a long time, many “civil marriages” that the Church does not recognize as “sacramental”: “same sex union” is not the only impediment to Church-blessed sacramental marriage. There are other “impediments": marriage between too close of blood relations is prohibited; so also is habitual adultery and criminality. Age and consent also factor as significant concerns.
We need to also keep in mind that not only does the Church warn against homosexual activity, but it warns -- just as strongly -- against all sexual behavior outside of sacramental marriage (like adultery). It is usually overlooked that the Church warns against all lustful or fetishizing sex -- even within marriage. The Church warns, too, against childbearing attempts that take place outside sacramental marriage: e.g., sperm or egg donation; in vitro fertilization; surrogate motherhood; and any and all manipulations of human life, including DNA modification.
But most importantly, we need to consider that these warnings are for the conservation of formal human life and culture, and for the beautification of human existence for eternity: so the Church warns against all destructive passions -- not only sexuality outside Holy Tradition, but also greed, anger, gluttony, pride and despair.
We are now in a moment when we need to think carefully about our response to this cultural watershed moment. Unfortunately, it is a watershed: but our response does not need to be so chaotic or reactionary. It is not the best thing, surely, to wage another round of "culture wars." Neither is a retreat from full-on engagement of from contemporary society (and history): we are neither Amish, nor are most of us monastic. So in general, I reject the "Benedict Option." It is neither robust nor comprehensive as a real strategy.
Frankly, we should have been thinking about "responses" to the devolution of contemporary society a long time ago. Maybe as far back as when usury was legalized in modern Europe, and everything became commoditized (even human labor). Maybe even further back as when Christendom lost its soul when the western Church itself began contractualizing the concept of "covenant" and all relationships, and secularity was thus invented and set loose upon human society.
Why do we notice how bad things are only when our hot buttons are pushed? I think our surprise and shock about Friday June 26th reveal not so much the badness of the world, but our egregious lack of wisdom, and failure to discern.
For now, I will offer only this, in the particular subject of marriage:
The best thing to do, in response, is this: We need to understand and reveal the truth of Orthodox Marriage. Our homes need to be islands of the joy and peace of the Risen Christ. Our marriages need to reveal the possibilities of Trinitarian love in our time. And we need to be able to talk freely, peacefully and courageously, about what our marriages mean in Orthodoxy.