Andrew Walker: Epistles of Straw

June 2000
Second time around
Previous Epistles

A curious feature of the Anglican communion is that it appears, to an outsider, to offer considerable latitude in its theological beliefs but to be surprisingly strict on divorce and remarriage in the church. I recall Lord Hailsham regretting that he was barred from remarrying in the Church that he loved, even though his first marriage was dissolved. And many of us who have followed the life of C.S. Lewis will recall that he had great difficulty in finding a clergyman who would bless his marriage to American divorcee, Joy Davidman.

At the present time, the 1957 Act of the Convocation of Canterbury, along with Canon Law B30, does not allow divorced persons to remarry in church. Priests may remarry divorced persons in their role as civil authorities, but not as priests! A more typical pattern of Anglican remarriage is for couples to marry in a registry office and then attend a church ceremony to bless (but not sanction) the union.

If a report recently submitted to the Diocesan and General Synods for possible recommendation to the House of Bishops by March 2001 is accepted, things are about to change. And many will argue not before time. Britain has the sixth highest divorce rate in the world, and while there was a time when divorce was something that occasionally happened in other families, it now all too frequently happens in our own.

Not that the C of E is giving-up on monogamy: its 1999 report on marriage affirms the ideal of a life-long commitment and sacramental sign of Christ's love for his Church. What the new report – Marriage in Church After Divorce – makes clear is that the established Church has to move with the times and come to grips with serial-monogamy.

In the report's conclusion and recommendations, the authors are at pains to affirm life-long marriages, and yet also move towards nationally agreed pastoral and procedural criteria to allow divorcees, in certain circumstances, to remarry in Church. There is also a principle not to make it mandatory for priests to remarry divorcees if it offends their conscience; in every case, the final decision to remarry or not will rest with the incumbent.

In all fairness, the pastoral criteria for considering remarriage is on the whole sensible and humane. Adequate provision should be made for children, for example, and divorcees are encouraged to come to terms with the breakdown of their first marriage with "evidence of repentance, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit."

Other criteria are going to be difficult to implement. It is recommended that a reasonable time elapses between marriage one and marriage two. But what constitutes a reasonable time? Six weeks, six months, six years? And when we are told that the remarriage must not "be of such as to give rise to hostile public comment or scandal", does not this sound like a hostage to fortune: an excuse for all sinners to cast stones. Will the congregation all have to cry "worthy" to affirm the anxious couple, rather like Orthodox assemblies do when a priest is presented to them for ordination?

But the real problem lies elsewhere. One of the report's criteria states that the relationship between the applicants for marriage must not have been the direct cause of the former marriage breakdown. This is open to two objections. Firstly, marriage breakdowns are often complex and multi-sided. Adultery, for example, can be the consequence rather than the cause of breakdown.

Secondly, even if a person can be said to be guilty of cruelty, neglect or sexual misdemeanour, can they not repent of that? In practice, the situation can arise where the guilty party seeks to make reparation and hope for reconciliation, but the "worm has turned" and their partner wants nothing more to do with them. Will such a person always be left outside the porch of the church? Will they be forever condemned to be the guilty one – more sinning than sinned against – unable to remarry a Christian partner?

A further criteria in the report adds to the potential misery of sinners, for it states that divorce and remarriage can only happen once. Is this another way of saying that we are not really going to accept repentance as the spiritual criteria to determine remarriage, and if we have reluctantly to accept remarriage at all (for pragmatic reasons) then once is as much as we will tolerate?

Of course the Church of England, like all denominations, has its own baggage to deal with, but it strikes me that the baggage is not the Bible (See Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-14), nor sacramentalism, but Roman Law. Marriage in the West has the flavour of a legal contract – "till death do us part" – and the imposition of legal terminology and ethos is not from the New Testament but from the Roman Law Courts. You cannot really break a contract, but if you do, you hedge it in with other legalistic restrictions, such as "not the guilty partner", or "one mistake only".

By contrast to the Anglican/Catholic tradition, the Orthodox Church, while deeply traditional in its theology, is not legalistic about marriage. Since the first millennium, divorce and remarriage have been allowed solely on the criteria of repentance. Orthodoxy is committed to life-long marriage, but as an ideal, not a law. It knows that in reality we "fall short of the glory of God", and by economy, as they call it, the Orthodox have recognised that remarriage is preferable to denial of failure. They believe it is better to call a spade a spade, and if the marriage dies, it is better to come clean and admit the reality.

Otherwise, they point out, you end up like the Roman Catholic Church, where huge numbers of Catholics "live in sin" because they cannot remarry, or worse, they may be granted a dispensation which declares there was no marriage in the first place. This spiritual equivalent of a legal annulment is insulting to the mother of children who has now to come to terms with the idea that she was never married in the first place, despite the very visible evidence of her family.

The Church of England, being the beast that it is, is a compromise between Rome and Constantinople. It wants to put reconciliation or repentance at the heart of things, but cannot resist ensnaring them in moral legalisms. It wants to be relevant to the present, but cannot totally jettison its Latin baggage from the past. God alone knows the Orthodox Church has made many mistakes, and is still today too often the prisoner of ethnic and national passions, but it has got some things right: repentance is the spiritual and pastoral criterion for applicants for remarriage – and nothing else.

Putting repentance at the centre means there is no automatic remarriage for divorcees: no metanoia, no marriage. Repentance also means putting mercy and forgiveness at the centre of the Church's response to sin, not apportioning blame on some arbitrary semi-legal basis.

Its not yet too late for the Church of England to get it right. The report has yet to be ratified and recommended. There is still time for reflection and revision. There is still time for hope.

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