The late Sixties saw much debate on the subject of divorce and re-marriage. George Austin explains the repercussions of a misguided attempt to deal with the pastoral problems created by broken marriages
In the spring of 1968, a Commission was appointed ‘to prepare a statement on the Christian doctrine of marriage.’ It was constituted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, as a result of a resolution passed by the Convocation of Canterbury in 1967 ‘as to whether there might be occasions for relaxing the present rule of the Convocations whereby a divorced person with a former partner living may not have on remarrying a marriage service in Church.’
There were clearly complications, for in the introduction to the report, Marriage, Divorce and the Church, the members of the Commission complained of the ‘heavy pressures’ to which they were subjected. There was the expectation that they would consult the Doctrine Commission in spite of having been constituted as an independent commission, the issuing of a pastoral letter on the subject by the two archbishops in advance of the publication of the Report, a debate on the issue in Church Assembly in July 1970 (with mistakes in the official report of proceedings on the membership of the Commission), as well as the setting up of a Joint Consultation by the Convocations of York and Canterbury (‘without prior consultation with us’) to discuss the final drafting of the report.
Underneath the tetchiness of this opening to the report, one can detect much politicking by powerful figures within the church and maybe a certain amount of panic. Hardly surprising, since it opened the possibility of authorizing for the first time the deliberate rejection of a specific moral declaration by Jesus Christ himself. ‘What God has joined together, let not man put asunder. Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’ It could hardly be clearer.
Of course it was (and is) not as simple as that, and the report is a careful examination of all aspects of the problem, including the fact that the state allowed clergy to take services of remarriage after divorce, while the 1957 Act of Convocation forbad it – which in reality did give the clergy the right to decide whether to follow the law of the Church or the law of the land.
The same Convocation regulations required that divorced people on remarriage could only be admitted to communion with the bishop’s permission. In giving such approval, the bishop was required to ‘give due weight to the preservation of the Church’s witness of Our Lord’s standard of marriage and to the pastoral care of those who have departed from it.’
A fresh start
All attempts to deal with remarriage after divorce have been faced with making a proper balance between the fundamental message of the Gospel, that repentance to a gracious God gives the immediate opportunity to begin afresh, with past sin absolved, and of balancing that against the direct and specific words of Christ – and with a genuine desire to meet the pastoral needs of what even in 1968 was a growing number of people whose marriages had broken down.
The 1968 Report in fact followed on another report of 1966, Putting Asunder – A Divorce Law for Contemporary Society, in which a group of mainly Church of England scholars and lawyers had attempted to consider the secular divorce law, making suggestions for a new law of divorce that ‘would be free from the most unsatisfactory features of the present law and yet would not weaken the status of marriage in the community.’
Ten years later, a Commission was appointed and eventually produced a further report, Marriage and the Church’s Task, which was published by the General Synod in 1978. It was a careful and exhaustive review, theological and practical. It recommended a root and branch change in the Convocation regulations, and that ‘the use of services of prayer and dedication in connection with remarriage after divorce should be brought to an end.’
By a majority within the Commission, it recommended that divorced people should be allowed to remarry in church, though only with the permission of the bishop. This was partly to safeguard the local clergyman, who, it was recognized, would otherwise have been put into an impossible position.
Also by a majority, it recommended that bishops should be able to use their discretion whether or not to ordain a man who had either married a divorced woman or else had himself remarried after divorce. This was eventually to be slipped through the General Synod in the run-up to the ordination of women in the early Nineties, when it was realized that a number of the women seeking ordination were in that situation.
Similarly the Commission recommended legislation to allow a diocesan bishop ‘discretion whether or not to institute a clergyman’ who had been divorced and then had remarried, while the position of a clergyman whose marriage had resulted in divorce would still depend on whether or not the reason for the divorce depended on ‘unbecoming’ behaviour on the part of the priest.
It was more than thirty years after the publication of the report, Marriage, Divorce and the Church, that the General Synod came to a decision to liberalize marriage discipline.
The easy option?
The House of Bishops report, Marriage in Church after Divorce, was debated first of all in each diocesan synod and received overwhelming general support, though in many concern was expressed that the decision on whether or not to remarry was put into the hands of the incumbent alone – rightly since, as anyone with parochial experience would be aware, after saying yes to one couple it would be almost impossible pastorally to say no to any other. But the House of Bishops, many with little or no parochial experience, would have none of it.
Nor would the Synod, and the proposals were accepted by an overwhelming majority of 269 votes to 83, with an amendment to restrict such remarriages to ‘exceptional’ circumstances only. Who can doubt that some members would regard this as little more than a sop to those uneasy at the abandonment of the Church’s marriage discipline, knowing that many would ignore it from the start?
The hard way to meet the pastoral needs of those whose marriages had broken down would have been to produce a nullity procedure. In today’s liberal church it was easier simply to blot out the words of Christ.