Nicholas Turner wonders whether we can all sing together on marriage discipline

*Scott-Joplin is the popular title used for the CofE report Marriage in church after divorce to distinguish it from the Rt Rev. Michael Scott-Joynt, chief executive of the Diocese of Winchester, who was the chairman of the working party that wrote it.

SCOTT-JOPLIN functions as a teaching document. It may have relied on a whole series of earlier church reports in support of its conclusions, intending to add nothing of its own to the presumed body of Christian teaching on marriage. Nevertheless, it would, if enacted, be the public (or as it would prefer to say ‘pastoral’) face of at least part of the Church’s practical management of the sacrament of marriage. It is not by what it says (in relatively expensive and restricted reports), but by what it does, that the CofE is understood and judged by those it seeks to serve. It is true the House of Bishops brought out a small, preparatory pamphlet entitled Marriage in late 1999, but this is so thin that even this diocese has been unable to use it, and instead has summarized an earlier book by one of its cathedral canons, as the necessary teaching introduction for this year’s deanery synod debates.


Scott-Joplin functions as the current teaching document on marriage. Unfortunately (and that is an understatement) its focus is on divorce rather than on marriage. The basic inquest to be conducted by the conscientious (and pastoral) incumbent when faced with a couple seeking what for one or both of them would be a second marriage is, ‘Was it a good divorce?’ not ‘Was there a marriage in the first place?’ The original contract is taken at face value, with no questions asked; the discussion, inquiry and personal agonizing all concern the break-up. If you don’t believe me, read the recommended ‘Pastoral criteria’ (section 8.4 on page 46). It is the quality of your divorce that allows you to be remarried in church. What does that say about the Church’s teaching?


‘The criticism is unfair,’ you may want to say. ‘This document is concerned with remarriage after divorce, so of course it will be concerned with divorce. That’s the only way it could proceed.’ Not so. The Roman Catholic Church does not have a good press for its annulment procedures, but its core understanding is correct – marriage is the key issue, divorce is merely secondary. The question is, ‘Was the first contractual marriage indeed a true marriage? If it is, then it persists; if it was not, then it never existed in the first place.’

I don’t entirely blame Scott-Joplin for sharing the popular mistrust of Roman marriage tribunals, but it was surely an act of bad faith not even to mention an Anglican equivalent that already exists, one that could surely have been commended for being less legalistic and more pastoral. Canon 34.4 of the Province of Southern Africa allows the bishop, following due procedure and with the help of ‘other persons whose advice he desires’, to declare a previous contract invalid if it failed to conform to the requirements of Christian marriage, according to stated criteria, which are duly elaborated.

This is not a piece of trickery: it is a careful attempt to uphold the sanctity and seriousness of the institution and sacrament of marriage. One of the requirements for a marriage is that both parties are able to make a ‘free and responsible consent’. My current favourite example relates to the character Melanie in Eastenders. Her fiancĂ© had deliberately withheld information, aware that if she were in possession of the full facts she would never have consented to marry him. The truth (inevitably) came out at the reception, and the dramatic bust-up followed. Such a ‘marriage’ ought to be regarded as invalid, if the institution is to be respected. This was not a marriage that sadly ended: it was one that never began. It was not a valid marriage; it was a parody.


It would be the subject of another article to study the criteria and their practical implications. What we are considering here is the general principle that marriage, as understood by Christ’s Church, has a distinctive content. It has a clear character that precludes many contracts claiming the name. One ground for invalidity in the above-mentioned canon is ‘the undisclosed intention of one partner at the time of marriage to have no children’. True, it is only 34.4.c.ii.9.b in the Province’s rulebook, but it is teaching something quite clear and unequivocal about Christian marriage – that children are not an optional extra, nor an unconnected lifestyle choice.

This is the difference between Scott-Joplin and the traditional, western understanding. The first says, ‘You had a marriage certificate. Let’s now talk about your divorce.’ The second says, ‘You have a divorce certificate. Let’s now talk about the “marriage”.’ The same difference? Not at all. Scott-Joplin is a teaching document. We must consider its effect not just on those cases of one-time divorcees who want to get married in church, but on all who want to get married and all who are already married. It is implicitly teaching about the failure of marriage; it is almost (unintentionally of course) a textbook for Christian Divorce.

The Southern African canon (unexpectedly perhaps, but I speak from parish experience) provides relevant material for teaching first-time, young couples about the seriousness of the sacrament; Christian marriage is about more than good intentions and living together, not because I say so, but because it is written out in solemn, legal language. Lay aside for one moment the difficulties of all church marriage disciplines, and consider the teaching value of the notion of nullity or invalidity. Its purpose is to support the institution of marriage, by declaring its necessary requirements. Such a canon would not make life easier than Scott-Joplin, but it would be more publicly consistent with the Gospel.
Nicholas Turner is Vicar of St Saviour’s, Raynes Park in the diocese of Southwark