John Shepley looks at the sobering statistics of marriage and divorce rates and asks whether the Church of England will do anything to stem the tide
Street parties, office shindigs and a bank holiday; there seems to be a nostalgic – rather Fifties – flavour to the forthcoming royal wedding. Recalling phrases used of an earlier event, the Dean of Westminster told the BBC that it would be just like the weddings that take place in parish churches up and down the country. And, sadly, perhaps it will.
Marriage in England has come a long way since the royal wedding of 1947. The statistics speak for themselves. In 1950 there were 408,000 marriages and 33,000 divorces. In 2000 there were 306,000 marriages and 155,000 divorces. Compared to the Fifties, marriage rates are now 40–50% lower: and despite the fact that the average cost of a wedding is now around £21,000 and the average cost of a divorce is around £27,500, an increasing number of people seem to be treating themselves to both. The homosexual community, which campaigned long and hard for the ‘right to marry’, is already well on the way to equality with heterosexuals in the’ right to divorce’.
But other changes have also been significant.
The family into which Kate Middleton is marrying is a case in point. Though it owes its current status to the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (when a King of England stood down to allow his marriage to a divorced woman) the Windsor family has had more than its statistical share of marriage breakdowns: Princess Margaret, the Princess Royal, Prince Andrew, the Prince of Wales. And then there is the Church of England: where current official literature puts a positive spin on the possibility of remarriage in church after a divorce; where the number of divorced and remarried clergy has increased significantly; and where Civil Partnerships between clergy have been condoned for good measure. Only recently has come the news of the appointment as bishop of a man married to a divorcee – a man who (not entirely co-incidentally, one might conclude) has voiced his support for an American bishop who left his wife for a relationship with another man.
‘The word “fairy-tale” was uttered by Archbishop Runcie at the wedding of Charles and Diana and it hung over them like the moment at which the bad fairy appears at your wedding and lays a curse upon you’ wrote David Starkey, the historian. And so it proved. What began in the splendour of St Paul’s Cathedral ended with an indescribably tacky memorial in Harrods to the last of a string of unsuitable affairs. Fairy tales are admonitory tales; but it seems as though no one had ears to hear. Though every indication in our society is that marriage is an institution on its last legs, there is still an appetite for glamour and romance. Like Kate, every girl still dreams of ‘her day’, and the nation will have its celebration in despite of the facts.
Going with the flow
So what is to be done? Can the Church of England hope to do anything to stem the tide of divorce and co-habitation? And has it the will to do so? It is a curious fact that Liberal Christians, who are not shy in criticizing politicians and others on some matters, are deafeningly silent about the defence of marriage and vociferous in advocating acceptance of alternatives to it. Traditionalist Anglicans had better face the facts. The Church of which they are a rapidly diminishing part demonstrates no appetite to take a firm stand on any matter involving human sexuality. The likelihood is that it will continue to go with the flow.
A revealing fact recently has been the extent to which the CofE has been thought to be a soft touch by those arranging sham marriages. The clergy are supposed to be guardians of the sacraments; and yet surprising numbers of them have clearly neglected their duty to establish the right intention of those who have applied to them.
An issue of Christology
For orthodox biblical Christians marriage discipline is not a matter for the General Synod to decide, or vicars to dispense at their own discretion (the line of least resistance when all else fails). It is, as Dr Cranmer’s anthology put it (‘signifying unto us the mystical union which is betwixt Christ and his Church’), an issue of Christology. That perhaps is why Jesus (who can often appear to conform to the liberal stereotype of the non-directive counsellor) is so prescriptive about it. As the Church has consistently proclaimed from the time of the Apostle Paul, marriage doctrine is not simply from Jesus, but about him. It images (and actualizes in lives as particular as the life of the Incarnate Son) the patient and enduring love of God for his people. That enduring love is what the Holy Spirit enables in the life of the baptized and what restores to fallen human beings their essential humanity. It is difficult and costly. The Jesus who was so definitive about marital fidelity was the same Jesus who gave the ultimate commandment: ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
We had better not speculate on the odds for enduring lifelong fidelity between William and Kate. A bishop has already been suspended for doing just that. But traditionalists will hang upon every word of Richard Chartres (who effected the suspension and is preaching at the event) for some positive sign that, in this matter at least, the Established Church has not yet forsaken the Christian religion. ND