With all the current debate about the meaning of marriage, particularly in the context of the so-called “culture wars,” I decided to summarize what I know about marriage as it is practiced in, and understood by, Unitarian Universalist congregations today. This is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive summary; I am not trying to prescribe what “real” marriage is; I am not trying to tell how you should do marriage; I am trying to describe marriage as I have observed it in my affiliation with nine different congregations with varying theological emphases.
The most obvious thing to say about Unitarian Universalist marriage is that it is a covenant; that is, it is a complex of promises exchanged by individuals, promises that are designed to bind them together in relationship. Unitarian Universalist marriage has three basic dimensions: (1) a personal relationship between the individuals who are married; (2) a public or social relationship between the individuals being married and a wider social web of relationships (that wider web of relationships may include family, friends, congregation, wider local community); these first two dimensions may be characterized as horizontal relationships, i.e., relationships between persons. The third dimension may be characterized as the vertical dimension: (3) a relationship with something larger than individual humans or human organizations. This third dimension tends to be flattened or barely acknowledged in many Unitarian Universalist marriages, and may be acknowledged only as some implicit or off-hand appeal to larger ideals; other Unitarian Universalist marriages refer explicitly to a deity (God, Goddess, etc.) or deities, or to something like Bernard Loomer’s theological concept of the Web of Life. However each dimension happens to be understood, Unitarian Universalist marriage is a covenant, a set of promises, encompassing all three of these dimensions.
Unitarian Universalist marriage as practiced in the U.S. is grounded in old English understandings of marriage — English common law, and English folk traditions. Two of these understandings persist in the legal institution of marriage: a marriage must be freely entered into by both parties (mutual consent); and there can be nothing that would prohibit the marriage. The idea of mutual consent ties in with the general idea of covenant, because covenants must be freely entered into. The idea that marriage must have a social and vertical dimension ties in with the requirement that there be nothing that can prohibit the marriage: the Unitarian Universalist minister or lay officiant can refuse to officiate at a marriage if s/he believes there are conditions which should prohibit the marriage from taking place.
These days, the idea of mutual consent is typically conflated with romantic love, i.e., those who are attached by romantic love are assumed to be able to mutually consent to marriage. Most Unitarian Universalists would state that romantic love must be present in order for a marriage to take place. However, the concept of romantic love is poorly defined except in reference to (a) vague notions of mutual consent, and (b) the notions of romantic love that exist in the surrounding culture. There does appear to be a tendency among Unitarian Universalists to broaden love beyond the narrow definitions of romantic love; if Unitarian Universalists were to articulate a broader concept of love as presently understood, that broader definition of love would probably include notions of mutual respect, mutual support, responsibility to each other and to the wider community, and mutual consent more carefully defined — this in addition to the (not necessarily logical or religious) sexual and emotional attraction included in popular definitions of romantic love. Paragraph added per comment below.
All these factors help to shape the actual Unitarian Universalist marriage ceremony. A ceremony must include three elements: a statement of intention; the exchange of vows; a declaration or pronouncement. In the statement of intention, the officiant asks if those getting married are entering into marriage freely and by mutual consent; most ordained officiants and experienced lay officiants explicitly ask the couple to say aloud that they want to get married. The statement of intention is usually followed immediately by the exchange of vows. The vows are the explicit statement of the marriage covenant, in which those getting married promise various things to each other. After the vows have been exchanged, the officiant will then declare or pronounce the individuals as being married both to the individuals being married, to those who have gathered to witness the marriage, and to whatever constitutes the vertical dimension (in those cases where there are no witnesses except the officiant and those being married, the officiant will still typically declare or pronounce the individuals as being married).
Unitarian Universalist marriage make take several forms. Monogamy which is ended only by the death of one partner is probably slightly more prevalent amongst Unitarian Universalists than amongst the wider population (assuming that Unitarian Universalists can be included with mainline Protestants in the national surveys that have looked at marriage). Serial monogamy is perhaps a little less common among Unitarian Universalists than in the wider population.
Since there is no religious requirement to marry, a significant proportion of Unitarian Universalists couples choose not to get married at all. Some couples may reject marriage under moral or ethical grounds, usually based on feminist critiques of marriage, or based on other political or religious critiques of marriage. Other couples may choose to remain unmarried for legal or financial reasons. Many unmarried couples may be putting off marriage, or waiting to get married. Some couples may prefer a hand-fasting or equivalent ceremony (see below). Same-sex couples who live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage may decide they don’t want a religious marriage ceremony until they can have a legal marriage, too. While the relationships just described are technically not marriages, many look pretty much like marriages and may include an implicit or explicit covenant; Unitarian Universalist marriage is not a binary either/or state, but rather a continuum from clearly married to clearly unmarried.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, some Unitarian Universalists have argued that the tradition of English common law limited marriage to opposite sex couples. This argument is heard less and less frequently as time goes on. The traditional view of marriage amongst Unitarian Universalists has already undergone major revision during the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when the tradition of women being subordinate to men in marriage was essentially done away with. Once traditional gender roles in marriage have been eradicated, most Unitarian Universalists have felt that there is little prevent two persons of the same gender from marrying. In addition, most Unitarian Universalists would point to examples of stable (bound by implicit covenant) same-sex couples in the Anglo-American world going back hundreds of years. Finally, Unitarian Universalists have become increasingly aware in recent years that gender is not a binary, either-or matter; biologically, we know about intersexual individuals, we are aware of persons with ambiguous gender identities, etc.; and thus it becomes difficult to say that marriage has to be between two persons whom we can identify in terms of binary gender.
Probably nearly all Unitarian Universalists support same-sex marriage. Such support ranges from those who accept the theoretical right of same-sex couples to marry, while preferring that their own congregation not sanction same-sex marriages — all the way to those who find absolutely no difference between same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage. Probably nearly all Unitarian Universalists support the legal right to same-sex marriage, even if they do so only theoretically.
Unitarian Universalists have no prohibition on divorce; a covenant that has been freely entered into may be broken by the mutual consent of the married individuals. There should therefore be no stigma at all associated with divorce.
However, divorce as actually practiced reveals a major inconsistency in Unitarian Universalist theology of covenantal marriage: while the initial covenant includes relationships along three dimensions, the breaking of that covenant only occurs along one dimension, the individual dimension. Divorce is generally seen as a legal matter, not a matter which should concern the religious community, or the vertical dimension. Yet at the same time, when a Unitarian Universalist couple gets divorced, most often one or both members of the couple will leave their local congregation; thus the dimension of religious community is in fact acknowledged during divorce. The vertical dimension, weak in any case, is nearly always ignored; except in the personal spiritual lives of the individuals, where it can loom large, with no real way to deal with it in the context of religious community. Some few local congregations do have divorce ceremonies; it has been reported that those who go through divorce ceremonies find them helpful.
Marriage with more than two partners continues to be rejected by the majority of Unitarian Universalists. This rejection may happen for a variety of reasons. Feminists may reject multiple-partner marriages with one man and more than one woman as probably exploitative of the women involved. 19th C. Multiple-partner marriage is most often associated with Mormonism in the U.S., and most Unitarian Universalists prefer to distance themselves from Mormonism (or even the perception of being like the Mormons). In the Anglo-American tradition, multiple-partner marriages have existed for centuries, but usually among people of low socio-economic status who are (metaphorically) far from positions of power; since Unitarian Universalism tends to be a religion of high socio-economic status, multiple-partner marriage is proabably experienced by many as a threat to the socio-economic status of Unitarian Universalism. Many Unitarian Universalists still remember the “wife-swapping” and sexual high-jinks that took place in Unitarian Universalist congregations in the “sexual liberation” movements of the 1970s, which were often perceived to be sexist, irresponsible, and destructive; these Unitarian Universalists do not perceive much of a difference between those failed social experiments of the past, and multiple-partner marriage of the present. Finally, advocates of same-sex marriage may believe that accepting multiple-partner marriage may lower our effectiveness in advocating for same-sex marriage (with the current state of U.S. society, this fear is probably warranted). Given the resistance to multiple-partner marriage due to several unrelated causes, it seems unlikely that multiple-partner marriage will achieve widespread acceptance amongst Unitarian Universalists in the foreseeable future.
Unitarian Universalist weddings have been severely affected by the consumerization of wedding ceremonies. Because Unitarian Universalists tend to be more wealthy, and because Unitarian Universalists are not particularly counter-cultural, their weddings seem to follow the wider societal trend of increasing expense and elaborateness. The consumerization of weddings has also tended to remove the religious dimension of Unitarian Universalist weddings. Unitarian Universalist officiants are unlikely to insist on much of a religious dimension, and consumerist pressures gradually force more and more elements into the wedding ceremony that have nothing to do with Unitarian Universalist theological understandings of marriage, e.g., expensive accoutrements; liturgical elements such as unity candles; weddings that require attendance at a weekend-long retreat; etc.
Unitarian Universalist weddings have also been severely affected by the lack of a serious theological grounding. Wedding ceremonies appear to be drifting away from a covenantal understanding. The vertical dimension of the covenant has already been flattened; now two of the three essential elements of a wedding — intention and declaration — may be attentuated or even ignored.
Unitarian Universalist weddings have seen the growth of non-traditional liturgical forms. Perhaps of greatest interest is the handfasting ceremony. The handfasting ceremony make take on neo-pagan trappings, but it shares some important roots with Unitarian Universalist weddings: the Anglo-American tradition of mutual consent; similar notions of covenant (i.e., it is a covenantal not a sacramental ceremony); and the three dimensions of the covenant. Because hand-fasting has been shaped by the neo-pagan movement, it has been shaped by the feminist grounding of neo-paganism. Handfasting fits in very well indeed with contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Furthermore, handfasting ceremonies may feel more honest and genuine in certain ways: if serial monogamy is the current norm, a handfasting ceremony that lasts for “a year and a day” may feel more honest than a wedding that claims to be in perpetuity but which soon ends in divorce; and handfasting ceremonies may feel more genuinely aligned with Unitarian Universalist theology than a wedding ceremony which has been coopted by consumerism on the one hand, and religious conservatives on the other hand.
Compared to religious conservatives, Unitarian Universalists have not given much public emphasis on marriage maintenance. We have no “Promisekeepers,” no prominent public groups supporting the institution of marriage, etc. It seems likely that Unitarian Universalist congregations hear many more sermons about the right to same-sex marriage than about how to keep one’s existing marriage alive and vital. Public statements and public witness about marriage remains uncommon amongst us.
However, many local congregations actually provide substantial quiet and implicit support to married couples. Support groups for men and for women often provide forums for talking about married life. Ministers and lay pastoral care providers provide support and counseling for those in marriages. Same-sex couples in states that don’t allow legal marriage for them can find that their local congregation provides real support in their religious and personal marriage. It would seem to make sense for local congregations to be more explicit and more public about the support they are already giving to people who are married, and I’m not sure why this is not happening.
That’s a rough description of Unitarian Universalist marriage today. I’m sure I’ve missed some things, or gotten some facts wrong. if so, please correct me in the comments below.