A retired priest offers a true story of marital forgiveness

STEVE IS WELL into forgiveness. For one thing, he has just left his wife for another woman, so he needs plenty. For another, he met his new love on an Alpha course which they were leading together. and forgiveness is part of the syllabus. To complete the picture, he is, or was, the Vicar.

So for many years Steve has been declaring, teaching, preaching and practising forgiveness; he is an experienced specialist in the subject. What next? The new ‘partner’, as Jesus strikingly failed to call such people, has also left her husband, and the assorted school age children all have the luxury of a second home. I don’t blame Alpha for this; it could have been choir practice or the fete committee.

But as the new pairing has a distinctly religious flavour, they naturally want a church wedding. It is no surprise that they have landed on their feet, and that (when I first drafted this article) is what they were confidently expecting. Most ironic of all, in the middle of all this drops the latest bishops’ report on rethinking remarriage, which ‘would allow greater freedom’ (if that is the word) than ever, but still falls some way short of the free-for-all which presumably will follow in ten years’ time if all goes according to plan.

Incidentally, the media highlighted the fact that because one third of the clergy follow a certain course, it is vital to bring the whole Church of England into line; their line. I wonder what other policies can be formulated on this democratic ideal? Perhaps the General Synod could pass resolutions only if the required vote reached 33 per cent or less? One diocese where just nearly quarter of the clergy are single was lobbied, when its bishop retired, that on those grounds his successor should therefore be a bachelor!

But in this case it has been an education to learn the pastoral theology of the incumbent who will perform the ceremony. He is no ranting liberal, but a caring and experienced parish priest of middle years who says he has gone into things very carefully with the couple. The new couple, that is. They have admitted most of the facts; they are very sorry for what has happened and they wish it hadn’t. But there they are, deeply in love, starting afresh, and serving the Lord with renewed zeal. ‘?They both need non-judgmental support; after all, they don’t see quite so much of their respective children as they used to.’

Another small fly in the ointment is that they do not appear to be the ideal candidates for remarriage which the C of E’s published guidelines, actual or potential, have in mind. Whatever led to their relationship, it was their relationship which led to the break-up of two homes and two families, to say nothing of disillusionment in their former parish. I once knew a woman URC minister who gladly married those couples who couldn’t get what they wanted in any of the neighbouring churches, but even she drew the line at people whose affairs had caused such splits in the first place. I wondered how long that particular line would hold.

So what has led to the acceptance of these two before the ink is dry on the divorce documents? In a word, forgiveness. Do we believe that where there is true repentance, any sins may be forgiven? Of course! Do we look for evidence of such repentance? Certainly! Is there evidence of true repentance here? You bet there is!

But like the deserted wife and abandoned husband in this triangle, I have a couple of problems with this. One is that all the evidences of penitence seem to help the two adulterous runaways to get more and more of what they want. By saying sorry to their new vicar they have suffered no hardship, no expense, no new disgrace, scarcely any inconvenience. They have simply gained their next objective.

So what more could you expect? Is it too much to ask that these two live at different addresses until the day of the new nuptials? Or that the man should make some effort to treat his now divorced wife with kindness and generosity? She, after all, has been made to feel at best inadequate; in a similar position many women see themselves as worthless failures, with incalculable consequences for themselves and others. Or that tie should go out of his way to reduce the trauma already suffered by his children? And if she really is so bad that he feels it necessary to abandon his marriage and ordination vows in one go, what an opportunity to demonstrate this wonderful forgiveness on which he relies for his own bright future!

One recent opinion poll tested people’s attitudes to adultery in various unequal situations: boss and employee, teacher and student, officer and other ranks, and so on. By far the most serious, in the view of the women questioned, was that between clergyman and church member. For the men, it was merely the second worst. But we are not governed by surveys, are we? Dare we refer to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ? He is, after all, our chief authority on forgiveness. His words are read in the official booklet for Prayers after a Civil Marriage, where the permanence of marriage is affirmed but the reading stops just in time. It would be embarrassing to hear what comes next, where Jesus condemns remarriage as adultery. I cannot believe that Mark or Matthew made up that bit, nor that their Master and ours had simply not thought of the hard cases.

Some will happily use this short rite; others (as in my example) go for a full-blown wedding. But is the second group, or even the first, trying to be more graciously forgiving than our Lord? He, it seems, is the hardliner here. For the sake of argument, let us give the ‘Matthean exception’? and the ‘Pauline permission’ their most generous interpretation possible. Let us assume (although no-one prior to Erasmus seems to have done) that divorce and remarriage are OK after adultery or desertion by the other spouse. How do we move from there, which itself leaves many other New Testament texts inexplicable, to a situation where remarriage is allowed for the spouse who has committed the adultery? We have surely turned the Gospel on its head; all in the name of forgiveness – or is it rather, for the sake of a quiet life?

Those who arc still trying to hold the line in refusing such ‘remarriages’, do so not because they are unforgiving legalists or constitutional Pharisees; nor because divorce is the worst sin, or the unforgivable sin, or because the church is unwilling to welcome sinners who are just like everyone else. We do it, rather, because we cannot conduct a wedding for someone who is already married to someone else. That other person may live just round the corner, which adds to the scandal, pain, and danger; but morally it is no different if he or she is a thousand miles away.

However great the pastoral pressure or the heartrending appeals, we cannot baptise someone who is already baptised, or adopt someone who is already adopted. But the latest report can only increase the pressure to marry those who are already married. In the last resort, forgiveness may not be the issue.

If I thought it was, I hope I would look for evidence that the deserting partner realised the need to forgive and be forgiven; to offer forgiveness as well as to receive it. I would not relish my role as inquisitor, judge and jury in the case. I would have little guidance as to where, if anywhere, forgiveness ran out, and whether seventy times seven was a useful limit on new beginnings with serial spouses. And if not, why not.

But if you still quarrel with my arguments or my examples, I have some good news. You are forgiven. Just don’t do it again.

Pastor Ignotus is a recently retired priest of the Church of England.