Chris Smith suggests that parochial clergy are not ideally suited to being one-man marriage tribunals

CLERGY OF ALL TRADITIONS will, I suspect, have woken up to headlines on the Today programme of 25th January thinking, ‘Oh no! What’s the Church of England done to us now?’

The previous day, copies of a report entitled ‘marriage in church after divorce’ (all headings too trendy for capital letters) had gone out to the bishops, and the embargo had not held. However, dedicated news fans might well have noticed a change in the line of the broadcast media as the day went on. The beleaguered parish priest probably thought on waking that the C of E had changed the rules on further marriage after divorce during the night. But by the end of the day, the articles were a little more circumspect: hacks seemed to have noticed that the report is ‘a discussion document from a working party of the House of Bishops’.

So whatever you do, don’t panic. The report now goes to the dioceses for consultation, and the Bishop of Winchester, chairman of the working party, points out that the bishops are conscious that ‘there should be no change in the Church’s position on this matter until there is a clear mandate from the Church to do so.’ Sounds familiar? Well, we have a year: the dioceses have until the end of March 2001 to report, then the working party will take some proposals to synod. If you want to have your say, get hold of the report soon.

Clearly, the report’s authors are aware of the chaos and inconsistency that currently prevails. Many if not most parish clergy have been on the receiving end of the phrase ‘But the vicar of such-and-such remarries divorcees’, even when sometimes we know he doesn’t. “This report is designed to help the Church make that [pastoral] response with a greater degree of consistency and confidence’, as the Archbishop of Canterbury says in his preface. This, I suspect, is the bench-mark against which the report should be assessed. Clergy are only too aware of the messiness of the current situation: would the code of practice suggested by the working party if implemented make it better or worse?

What comes before the suggested code is interesting, but not terribly illuminating. There is an introduction to place the current debate in its historical context, then the theological considerations are given a light dusting, referring us to ‘Marriage and the Church’s Task’, a General Synod report of 1978. It is incorporated in part as appendix 3, but this neatly sidesteps any deep discussion of the issues surrounding the sacramental nature of marriage. This is unfortunate, because the key question for those of us who look at things in terms of the sacramental life is whether marriage, like baptism, confirmation and ordination, is a once-for-all sacrament, ended only by death. Do we really all agree that it is possible to hold that ‘marriage is intended by God to be a permanent and lifelong union’ (2.2) and that ‘it can be said in a literal sense of two living people that they were married and are no longer married’ (2.3) Perhaps this would simply have been going over old ground; instead, however, we get lots more context: social, civil and ecumenical.

But let’s cut to the chase. What does the working party suggest as a universal code of practice for the Church of England? The ghost of option G has, of course, haunted all our discussions of this topic since it failed in the early 1980s, It would have enabled an incumbent to submit details of a request for further marriage to his bishop, who would have consulted an advisory panel and then made the decision. Its perceived weakness was that it was ‘overly bureaucratic and pastorally insensitive’, according to the new report. What that conclusion perhaps fails to recognise is that there was a major advantage in having some other body to take the decision out of the hands of the parish priest. Any kind of marriage tribunal may appear bureaucratic, even faceless, but at least it would mean that a priest could say to a couple, ‘I’m sorry but your request has been turned down’, and then deal with the consequences pastorally. Having to decide oneself is far harder: much easier always to say ‘no’, or (even easier in terms of avoiding confrontation) always to say ‘yes’.

However, there is categorically to be nothing that looks even remotely like an annulment procedure. Instead, the burden is to rest on the shoulders of the incumbent in each case. ‘While still holding to the Church of England’s traditional teaching that marriage should always be undertaken as a lifelong commitment, we take the unanimous view that the Church should provide a common procedure authorising incumbents, where they see fit, to officiate at the further marriage of divorced people with a former spouse still living.’ (8. 1) Indeed, the preamble to the draft code says clearly that ‘it is your decision’. You the incumbent, are to send the paperwork for each case to the bishop, and he may advise you to do something different, but the burden rests on your shoulders.

People are not daft, and they will very soon realise that it is the vicar’s decision whether or not to grant their request. How do you deal pastorally with the really lovely couple whose request you simply cannot grant, perhaps because one of them has been married twice before? (That would be ruled out by the pastoral criteria). And how do you deal with the not-so-lovely (and their mothers) who won’t accept your decision? People requesting further marriage are vulnerable, and as such are often defensive, and that can manifest itself in quite difficult ways. What’s more, it would be naive to assume that people won’t know about your decisions in other cases, and they’ll spot any inconsistencies. Can this really be the best pastoral solution?

I should say at this point that there is a clear conscience clause: you may opt simply not to offer further marriage, nor to make your church available for it. Otherwise you will have to interview each couple at least twice, to establish whether they fit certain criteria. These are based on a set of guidelines drawn up by the House of Bishops in 1985, in the aftermath of the failure of option G. But given that there can be no real checks on these responses, the system will favour the more articulate middle classes.

Clergy really should read these guidelines, and contribute to the debate. The suggested code of practice was set out in full in The Church Times of 28th January, but you’ve probably cleared that issue out of the loo by now. The ‘pastoral criteria’ come under eight headings, and the first two require you to decide whether applicants have ‘a clear understanding of the meaning, and purpose of marriage’ and ‘a mature view of the circumstances of the breakdown of the previous marriage’. And as if that were not difficult enough, ask yourself how you will know whether ‘the divorced person appears to be relatively free of self-deception and self-justification about the past’. Ask yourself how you will know that sufficient time has elapsed since the previous marriage so that the minimum amount of ‘personal and social “baggage” is likely to be carried in relation to a further marriage’. How will you check that ‘adequate provision’ has been made for ‘any children and the former spouse’? You might also be intrigued to note that the final criterion is that ‘there should be signs of a developing Christian faith”. in fact, that paragraph goes on: “Do the applicants display a readiness to participate in the life of the local church?’

Now, I may be quite wrong, but I suspect this is a pastoral minefield for any parish, and the situation will get harder the more desirable your church building is for weddings, to say nothing of the amount of time it will take to do the interviews and the writing up. I also have a feeling that once you agree to some requests, it will become harder and harder to refuse any. Many of us might well opt to use our right to refuse in all cases, although we might be aware that there are some which would probably have got an annulment if the divorced party had been a Roman Catholic. But to ask clergy to be a one-man tribunal will be too heavy a burden, I suspect, and we may find we have another situation where one has either to roll over and fully accept a change, or be forced into a corner not really of one’s own making. I note that only one member of the working party is currently a parish priest.

Christopher Smith is Chaplain to the Bishop of Horsham