Paul Richardson on upholding lifelong marriage

THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND today finds itself in a missionary situation as far as marriage is concerned. In this respect it is similar to the church in other parts of the world where the doctrine of marriage as a permanent and exclusive union contradicts local attitudes and customs. But for an organisation that is accustomed to think of itself as the Established Church and that still retains the idea that its beliefs bear some resemblance to the prevailing folk religion, this is not an easy position to be in.

A similar dilemma confronts the Roman Catholic Church. In traditional Catholic teaching it is not only sacramental marriages between baptised Christians that are held to be indissoluble; all marriages are supposed to have this character. Unfortunately this view is no longer widely accepted in Western society. The divorce rate continues to rise almost everywhere in Europe and it is obvious that many people no longer intend to marry for life.

A good indication of present attitudes is the growing popularity of pre-nuptial agreements in which the parties to a marriage decide how their assets will be divided in the event of a divorce. Such agreements are now available over the Internet for £29.99. The director of the company producing the agreements predicts that 20 per cent of British couples will use them within the next ten years (Sunday Telegraph, Feb 13th 2000).

The causes of this profound and significant change of attitude are complex. One contributing factor as far as England and Wales are concerned has been an alteration in the law for which the Church of England itself was partly responsible. Back in the 1960s a group chaired by Bishop Robert Mortimer produced a report, “Putting Asunder”, that advocated the concept of marital breakdown, determined by an inquest, as the basis for divorce. Members of the group were at pains to point out that they were not offering recommendations about church discipline or about how the church should view divorce. The law commission rejected the idea of an inquest as impractical and legislation was passed by Parliament to make irretrievable marital breakdown, demonstrated by a period of separation and the agreement of the parties, the grounds for divorce. To all intents and purposes, this was divorce by consent.

The 1970 Act undoubtedly had an impact on attitudes to marriage but it has not been the only factor at work. Social and economic changes over the past thirty years have placed a good deal of strain on the family. More and more women either now choose to work or are forced to do so through economic circumstances. There is evidence from the US that indicates the only way in which middle income families there have been able to maintain or improve their standard of living since the mid-I970s has been by both partners going out to work. In Britain, the tax system encourages wives to work. Melanie Phillips has shown how in a family made up of married couple and two children where only the man goes out to work, the tax bill on an income of £20,000 will be £3, 483. If the man’s income goes down to £16,000 and the wife earns £4,000 the combined tax bill drops to £2,258. According to Phillips, feminists with influence over government policy believe it is ‘degrading’ for wives to be supported by their husbands (see her book The Sex Change Society, Social Market Foundation, 1999).

Phillips is right to draw attention to the obstacles facing families where the wife does not want to go out to work, but we need to recognise that there are many women who do want to pursue a career but find it difficult to do so without putting a strain on their marriage. Firms can show little sensitivity towards the claims family life. Married persons are put under pressure to accept a position in another part of the country with no concern for how this will affect their marriage or the employment prospects of their partner. Opportunities for ‘job share’ arrangements are not as common as they should be and many firms are reluctant to allow flexible working hours even where they could be introduced with little disruption. Christians could do much to support marriage by urging the government to take action in these and other areas.

Largely as a result of social and economic factors that it will be difficult to reverse the Christian standing of marriage as a permanent and exclusive union between a man and a woman is now a counter-cultural belief.

The basis for the Christian understanding can be found in the New Testament. According to Mark 10.1- 12, Jesus taught that God’s intention in creation was for man and woman to live together for life. Divorce did not figure in God’s original plan but was allowed by Moses because of the hardness of the human heart. Matthew 5.32 and 19.9 appear to allow an exception for porneia but there is some dispute about what precisely this word means. Some Roman Catholic exegetes have tried to argue it could refer to marriages within the prohibited degrees (which, of course, would not be marriages). In I Corinthians 7.15 Paul allows separation between a Christian and non- Christian partner as a last resort but there is no specific mention of remarriage. In fact the Paul’s discussion of marriage, written before Mark’s gospel, is good evidence for Christ’s rejection of divorce.

Most commentators accept that Christ taught marriage was a lifelong union but argue that it would be wrong to turn this into a ‘law’. His words about divorce are to be taken in the same way as the clauses in the Sermon on the Mount; they present us with a vision, point the direction in which we should seek to travel, but do not give us hard and fast rules. Bishop Hugh Montefiore in a contribution to the Church of England report of 1971, Marriage, Divorce and the Church, quoted an article from Concilium that suggested Jesus was not so much laying down a law as revealing the reality of marriage. As Canon Cheslyn Jones commented in a symposium he edited for the Church Union that remains well worth reading ‘the contrast is more apparent than real’ (see For Better, For Worse, Second Edition, 1977, page 25). If marriage is a permanent, one-flesh relationship between a man and a wife, provisions ruling out divorce cannot just express an aspiration or be taken as a rough guide; they belong to its essential nature. In any case, Jesus did teach with authority and he did lay down the law. John reports him saying quite straightforwordly ‘If you love me, you will obey my commandments’ (John 14.15).

Why was Christ so keen to stress that marriage is for life? The answer is to be found in Ephesians where we are told that the love between husband and wife reflects the faithful, forgiving, covenant love of Christ for the Church. In human marriage we see a sign of the unending love of Christ for his people. Marriage demonstrates to the world the real nature of Christian love. The word needs this witness more than ever before. Secular approaches to marriage can reflect selfish, consumerist values that will ultimately undermine society. Far-sighted and morally serious individuals like Melanie Phillips (who belongs to the Jewish faith) are bound to become dissatisfied with this understanding of marriage and family life. She has recorded her dismay at a remark of Michael Ignatieff that to walk out on your children is an act of the ‘liberal imagination’ because it upholds the individual’s needs against ‘the devouring claims of the family’.

Christ’s teaching initially sounds demanding but leads in the end to a joy we could never have anticipated. In making clear the nature of marriage as a covenant relationship where the two partners live together without terms and conditions he made it possible for husband and wife to enter into a mutual bond of trust and love that offers far more than any temporary liaison. Man and wife promise that they will face any problems that lie ahead together. As a result of their faithfulness they are able to minister God’s grace to each other and their union is blessed and sustained by the Holy Spirit. They help each other to grow and mature as Christians and as human beings.

Not all marriages fail because of secular, modern attitudes. Before they realise what is happening, husband and wife can grow apart. Separation can become inevitable for the good of both parents and children. Some people marry too quickly and find they are unsuited for each other. In such cases there may be more scope for annulments than Anglicans have been ready to recognise. Practising Christians who believe in Christ’s teaching but whose own marriages have ended in failure should receive support. But for the sake of our public witness to the nature of marriage as a life-long institution, we must be wary of remarriage in church after divorce. As the Oxford philosopher and Anglican layman, John Lucas, argued in the Church Union publication to which I have referred, it is wrong to talk of marriage vows being ‘frustrated’. These vows are all encompassing. They envisage only one circumstance in which they will cease to be binding: death. Having made such vows once to one person, how can anyone make them again to another while the first partner is still alive? Allow the idea to form that there are circumstances in which the marriage vows no longer apply and we weaken their force. As a result we change the whole nature of marriage from a covenant to a contract. As Lucas warned, ‘the whole conception of frustration requires that it should apply only in highly exceptional, and not in standard cases; else we are merely diluting the obligatoriness of the vows’. He went on to argue that we cannot talk about a vow being frustrated just because one or other of the partners is no longer minded to keep it.

In his discussion of marriage, the American Roman Catholic moral theologian, Germain Grisez makes a similar point in a slightly different way. He maintains that in fact a couple cannot make their union exclusive and indissoluble. Our minds change; our wills weaken; our decisions are reversed. Two people make promise undying friendship but time passes and circumstances change and their friendship grows cold. A married couple have to understand that the marriage union is exclusive and indissoluble not because of their decision but by the nature of the one-flesh union itself which they must simply accept. He claims that people cannot commit themselves to marriage as a permanent and indissoluble relationship unless they believe that it has these properties. The marriage has to be understood in this way before people can have the confidence to marry as they should. For the church to recognise divorce is to undermine the status of marriage as an indissoluble union and to lessen the confidence of couples to enter into it on that understanding (see The Way of the Lord Jesus: Volume 2 – Living a Christian Life, Franciscan Press, 1992).

Clifford Longley has drawn attention to the phenomenon of ‘perverse incentives’?, attempts to offer relief through the tax system to special cases of hardship that have had the unwitting effect of causing changes in behaviour. (Daily Telegraph, February 11th, 2000). Once they know relief is available, people change their plans for the future. In a similar way, changes in marriage discipline are bound to influence the spirit in which people enter into marriage and the way they treat their partners.

Such an opinion might seem predictable in The Daily Telegraph but James Meek recently signed off as Religious Affairs correspondent of The Guardian by warning that religious leaders today are too concerned to be liked and that ‘the more frantic their efforts to make themselves heard by everyone, the less anyone will listen’. When it comes to marriage, Christians are out of step with the me-generation and the whims of consumer society. We ought not to apologise for that fact or trim our message. We must have the courage to be faithful to Christ’s teaching. His words are as relevant now as they ever have been.

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle