Ian Hope reflects on developing attitudes to divorce

ALL THE ANGLICAN clergy moving into the Diocese were sent a list of helpful names in case of need. Sickness, tax problems, legal difficulties, alcohol addiction, drug dependency, gardening questions, ghosts in the bedroom – there was always someone to turn to. For marriage stress or breakdown, for instance, Archdeacon Andrews offered his services. As a divorcee, he had been through it all himself, knew the ropes, and was glad to help where he could.

Steve and Joan, on the other hand, are our friends; so are their three children. Their last Christmas letter showed signs of family tensions, but that was neither new nor unique to them. When Joan phoned to say that Steve was having an affair and had walked out, we could hardly believe it. When she told me later what a help Tracey was proving, a wave of extra bleakness hit me. Tracey’s own marriage seemed doomed from day one or earlier still; divorced long ago and glad of it, the ‘help’ she could offer was unlikely to re-unite Steve with Joan.

And senior nurse Phyllis Robertson feared that after her marriage had faded away, jobs might be harder to find in the sensitive field of her own specialist interest. Far from it, said the friendly interviewers; ‘Someone like yourself has valuable experience in coping with broken relationships.’ It gave her the edge over the other more humdrum candidates, and she got the job.

Here are three true stories where only the names are changed. All are different, but the common factor is that divorce is seen as a positive-plus by way of qualification.

When any husband and wife split up, they both need love and prayer, support and help, affirmation and encouragement, time and friendship. One at least may also need money, transport, furniture or a house. They do not need ostracism, criticism, condemnation, or ‘I told you so’. But today, do we need to take care not to stand the whole tragedy on its head?

Is Archdeacon Andrews really the best help available when a marriage is under threat? What about someone else whose wife, or husband, nearly left but resolved to stay and work at things – or who did leave, but came back penitent and reconciled?

And Tracey: before and after her own divorce, it was fairly clear that marriage vows, submission or forgiveness did not rate highly in her career plan. Joan certainly found support, but of the kind which confirmed her own conviction that Steve was a rotter and she was wise to make the break permanent.

As for Phyllis – I wonder what her fellow-interviewees thought? If any were happily married, or happily single, they might be excused for wondering ‘Where did I go wrong?’

The big flaw in the modem notion that divorce gives a boost to your CV as a Christian is surely that you have seen where forgiveness and reconciliation fail, rather than how they work. Certainly, one alcoholic can be helped by others who have given their poison up; less help are those who tried to, but are back on the bottle.

If I am wrong, and all the three divorcees I have mentioned do have that something extra to offer in this most delicate of areas, three further conclusions seem to follow:

One – that all of us who are married should work towards a divorce as soon as we can. Think what tremendous resources of wisdom and experience this would give us!

Two – the Marriage Service needs a more radical overhaul than the Liturgical Commission, the House of Bishops or the General Synod have yet had the nerve to face.

And Three – that we should in fairness also adjust Hebrews Chapter 4 ever so slightly to match this new insight in counselling programmes. For it says there that Christ is able to help us because he was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Think how much greater help this High Priest could be to us if he had actually failed!

One of last year’s brightest biographies included this sketch of a new magazine editor: ‘Joyce had the right image – ebullient, newly-divorced, with a small baby, a hard-working woman-about-town. . . ‘. Are we falling for the media view of marriage and divorce rather than the Biblical view, the popular image instead of the image of Christ?

Ian Hope is a freelance journalist based in London.