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A dying wish

You are a minister, and among your longtime parishioners is a gravely ill 19-year-old woman. In what amounts to a dying wish, she has asked you to marry her and a young man she had been dating casually before she took a turn for the worse. The young man is okay with the idea. Are you?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

Absolutely! This is not so much a question of ethics as of professional boundaries. I have married far too many “perfect couples” whose marriages dissolved in acrimony a few years later.

I’ve also married more than a few that “don’t have a chance” who are still together 10, 15, 20 years later, with a brood of kids and smiles on their faces.

On the strength of that data, I have concluded that I have neither the wisdom, nor the right, to decide who should marry whom. My responsibility, when a couple present themselves to me breathless with excitement, is to be sure they understand the meaning of a Christian marriage covenant and to help them plan a worship service consistent with that meaning and their own hopes and aspirations.

That’s not to say that I would never refuse to marry a couple. I have said “no” under two circumstances:

• I won’t normally marry people who want a “secular” wedding. This is not a judgment on them — it’s just that, as a Christian minister, that’s not why I’m licensed. Performing secular marriages is an abuse of the privilege given to me, and is therefore unethical.

• I have occasionally refused to marry couples when the dynamics displayed in my office convince me that the relationship is in some way coercive or abusive. But this is a really tough call, and one I’ve made only a very few times in my career.

The couple described in this question fit neither criteria. I might have a conversation about the reasons for their decision, and, if those reasons concerned me, I would push them to give sober second thought before tying the knot. I might also give counsel about the wisdom of a prenuptial agreement in their situation.

This young couple have plenty on their plate already. They need to know that their church is there to honour their decisions and to support them in the journey ahead. The last thing they need is a hassle from me.

Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

I wish the three of us had the time to really talk this situation through. A life-threatening illness can change relationships abruptly. A casual dating arrangement can suddenly become serious, as both partners are forced to cut through the dating rituals and ask themselves just how much they care about each other.

They may decide that there is a precious quality to the relationship that needs to be celebrated and cherished, and that for them, marriage is the logical way of honouring this miracle, regardless of the time they have together.

On the other hand, a desire to be married at the death bed of a person who until now has been a casual date may be driven more by romantic ideals than true commitment. Is my 19-year-old parishioner desperate to fulfil a dream of being married — to anyone — rather than truly caring about the needs of her future husband? Is she perhaps afraid to die alone, believing that marriage will ensure that her husband will be at her bedside throughout her final days? Is the young man afraid to say no and appear callous and shallow?

I need to listen carefully, and the three of us need to pray about this. At the very least, I need to know what support systems they have around them. How have their parents reacted to the woman’s request? Will they form a web of loving support or are they angry or bewildered about this sudden turn of events? I would need to be ready to listen and hear their pain as well.

I may also decide to have a private talk with the young man. Has he checked the legal ramifications of this quick marriage? Will he be expected to assume financial responsibilities he is unaware of? Is he truly prepared to be with her “till death do us part,” be that a few days, months or years?

If my experience and instincts tell me that the couple are sincere and have the best interests of each other in mind, I would not hesitate to perform the marriage. The length of a union does not determine its value or quality.

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