Robert Beaken takes another look at the Scott-Joynt proposals

THE DISCUSSION document from the House of Bishops’ Working Party ‘Marriage In Church After Divorce’ was published on the day I began a late post-Christmas break. As a general rule I try to avoid thinking about the Church of England whilst I am on holiday but time and again my thoughts returned to this document and I wondered why I felt concerned about it? My reasons are two-fold: (1) the nature of marriage vows, and (2) the place of the Church of England in an increasingly secular land.

Marriage vows.

Most of the reasons usually advanced for the remarriage of divorcees in church seem to me to be on the grounds of compassion. It has sometimes been suggested that to deny divorcees remarriage in church is to make their remarriage ‘the unforgiveable sin’ and is an indication that one lacks compassion or ignores the realities of life. We all need compassion every day, but compassion by itself – however admirable – is not an adequate starting point for moral theology. The traditional starting point has always been divine revelation. Christ’s teaching about divorce and remarriage in the synoptic Gospels is pretty explicit:

‘Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.’

(St Luke, 16. 18. See also St Matthew 5. 3 ff., 19. 3-9 and St Mark 10. 2-12. The so-called ‘Matthean exemption’ for adultery is controversial and would appear only to permit divorce, i.e. separation, and not further remarriage).

The western Church has concluded from these Gospel texts that marriage vows are for life and cannot be dissolved except by death. In our own Anglican tradition the Canons and Constitutions of 1604 made no provision for remarriage after divorce (unlike certain continental reformed churches) and the lifelong nature of marriage vows was clearly expressed in the 1662 Prayer Book: ‘Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder… .O God, who.. .didst teach that it should never be lawful to put asunder those whom thou by Matrimony hadst made one.’

A basic assumption of the Working Party is that marriages can and do die. A catholic theologian might take issue with this. When a marriage is said to have died, what is meant is that husband and wife no longer love and possibly loathe one another. This is very regrettable but according to the traditional understanding their marriage vows operate on many levels and are deeper than the feelings of the couple towards each other at any particular time. To make the point think of ordination: a priest may be suspended from or abandon his ministry and he may come to hate the Church and doubt God, but his ordination does not thereby ‘die.’ If he should absolve someone dying in a car crash, the absolution, though irregular, is still valid. Ordination and marriage are not quite the same but the essential point remains. If a divorce does sadly occur it cannot erase the marriage vows and leave the couple free to remarry: only the death of one of them can do that.

Let us approach this question from another angle: imagine, if you will, an Anglican bachelor who one day meets a woman in church. A mutual attraction develops and they go out on a few dates. The possibility of marriage enters the bachelor’s mind until one day the woman mentions that she has been divorced. After a painful internal struggle the bachelor brings the relationship to an end. It strikes me that there are two things we could say to this bachelor. Firstly, we could say “Well done, a difficult decision but the Christian one. If you had married her you would have spent the rest of your life looking over your shoulder and wondering ‘am I really married?” Secondly, we could say “You mug! You’ve let slip your chance of happiness!” What we could not do with any degree of consistency is to say both, the first reaction to one person and the second to another, and yet this is what the Working Party’s proposals attempt. They are trying to uphold the lifelong commitment of matrimony whilst jettisoning any notions of indissolubility. In effect they are asking me to say to the couples I prepare for marriage : “The Church of England expects you to regard your marriage vows as binding for the rest of your lives, but if you get divorced we’ll remarry you so long as the conditions are right.” The couples may be forgiven for thinking that I speak with a forked tongue.

The Working Party proposes what are superficially very sensible guidelines but I fear they are unworkable. Rural colleagues are already saying that they are impractical in a village. Perhaps I am alone in encountering people who lie about their addresses on Banns forms or promise all sorts of things in order to get their children baptised or into a church school with little real intention of fulfilling those promises? Do the Working Party really expect divorcees always to tell the bald truth even if it casts their application for remarriage in a bad light? The system is not to be administered impartially by a diocesan panel but by the parish clergy which means that in one parish the guidelines will be administered with laxity and in another with rigour. Divorcees will try to shop around and I fear that in ten years or so the whole system will have broken down and we will have de facto remarriage of divorcees upon demand. We shall then have lost something very valuable.

The Church of England
in a secular land.

From the perspective of a parish, England seems to become more secular by the month. I regularly deal with people whose families have had no real link with the Church for three or four generations. The change wrought by secularisation is not just to do with church attendance but more significantly with what criteria people use to take decisions. How many people in England when confronted with a decision pray, read the Bible or think of the teachings of Jesus Christ?

Secularisation is very complex and it is not all the Church’s fault. Changes in society in the twentieth century have meant that instead of being woven into the fabric of English society the Church of England has come to occupy a very peripheral position. It is often said in sermons that people in our materialistic country are crying out for something which only God can give them. I fear there is an element of wishful thinking here: many of the people I meet seem to think they are doing very nicely without any help from the Church of England. Occasionally, parents wonder about the meaning of life and spiritual values after the birth of a baby but most people regard Christians as well-meaning, unworldly cranks.

As a Christian and a priest I am committed to trying to do something about this. I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the most wonderful and transforming experience any one can have. We can’t keep this Good News to ourselves but we must try to share it and help others to experience God’s wonderful love: evangelism, after all, is the primary task of the Church. How, though, are we to evangelise and how is the Church of England to survive in an increasingly secular society? Lively worship, engaging preaching, courses such as Alpha and Credo, and collaborative ministry all have their part, but I begin to suspect that none of them are enough. Part of the answer may perhaps be found in history.

The last time the Church found itself in a situation like ours was in the first three centuries when Christians were a minority in a pagan world. The situation varied greatly from area to area and from decade to decade but the spread of Christianity at that time has traditionally been ascribed to (1) practical pastoral care and (2) high moral tone. The Church was different to the society around it.

It seems to me that the Church of England will need to be more consciously different to the English society around it than perhaps it has in the past : no-one is likely to want to join a Church that is not very different to the world outside. We need to say very clearly, firstly to ourselves and then to others: “If you accept Jesus Christ as the most important person in your life, everything must thenceforth be different. You cannot compartmentalise your life and, guided by the Holy Spirit, you must order it according to Christ’s teaching, not your own views. There are many things which English society – and indeed some Christians – accept as perfectly normal but which you must reject if you love Jesus Christ more than anyone else.” This clearly has a bearing on relationships and marriage.

There are naturally many dangers involved in this, such as spiritual pride, exclusiveness and turning the Church into a safe club for the like-minded. It is necessary for the Church to engage with the world whilst not accepting all of its values. The Church also needs always to be a bit woolly around the edges to enable people to drift into it or to return after lapsing. One also needs to understand that Christian commitment of the sort one hopes for does not happen overnight but grows out of experience.

The challenge of being different to surrounding society confronts the Church of England with a particular psychological problem. Since Hooker we have believed that we are the church of the English nation and our whole system of pastoral care is based on this idea. The difficulty facing us is that much of the English nation no longer seems to care very much about the Church of England. At present just under one million Anglicans attend church on Sunday. With changes in society and the impact of the communications revolution it may well be that in ten years time only one million Christians of all denominations will be worshipping on Sundays. I fear that if the Church of England just plods along in the same old way it may be in danger of imploding during the twenty-first century.

Some conclusions.

I have not enjoyed writing these words. There are no winners when it comes to the remarriage of divorcees and whatever the Church of England does will upset someone. People are very vulnerable after a divorce and one cannot but be moved by some of the sad stories one hears. We all have divorced and remarried friends, relatives and fellow parishioners for whom we feel nothing but affection. We are all too painfully aware of our own sinfulness. I am conscious, too, that there may be other important considerations which have not occurred to me but which may occur to others.

Having said that, I believe that the Working Party’s proposals as they stand are a step in the wrong direction. It is said that no change is intended to the doctrine of marriage. I find this assertion dubious. Either marriage vows are indissoluble or they are not. If marriage vows may be dissolved we can no longer say that marriage is a commitment ’till death do us part.’ What a bride and groom would be expressing instead is their aspiration to a lifelong relationship, provided they have enough faith, maturity and common sense to see them through. This, though, is not quite the same thing. I cannot help but recall the couples I have met in my work whose marriages have not worked out as they had hoped but who have stuck together and made the best of things because they believed their vows to be indissoluble. What do the Working Party’s proposals say to them?

Marriage is a Christian vocation.

The Church takes great pains to discern and nurture vocations to ordination or the religious life but we seem to take less care over marriage. In how many parishes is marriage preparation still pretty cursory? The Church of England needs to broadcast the very highest doctrine of marriage and to say “There is only one reason for a Christian man and woman to marry: so that they can walk hand in hand through life to God.” We might then be so bold as to say “If you don’t see your marriage in these terms, if you don’t have faith in God, then perhaps Christian Holy Matrimony is no more for you than Christian Holy Communion? There is nothing wrong with getting married in a civil ceremony and we wish you every happiness. If you believe in God, or are not sure but think you do, then we should be delighted to prepare you for Holy Matrimony. However, if you love Jesus Christ more than anyone else, you will not seek to marry a divorcee and if your marriage sadly ends in divorce you will not seek to remarry.” We also probably need to offer better marriage preparation and to find ways of supporting marriages in a society which increasingly does not seem to value marriage or at least is reluctant to say so; we need, too, to find better ways of supporting people whose marriages have failed.

Such an approach would certainly show the Church of England to be different to the society around it. I fear, though, that minds have been made up : pastoral concerns are believed to be more important than any other factor. What is billed as a small change may have very significant unforeseen consequences for the Church of England and the lives of many families and individuals in the years ahead.

Robert Beaken is the Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Old Heath, Colchester in the diocese of Chelmsford.