Edwin Barnes on the marriage proposals

EVERYONE did what was right in his own eyes’ says Scripture, describing the disintegration of civilisation, a people falling into chaos. It also describes the tendency of the Winchester report on Marriage. Dress it up as you will, underline in well-chosen words how marriage is to be life-long and the setting for bringing up children, but what is heard is quite different. The church has changed its rules. You can be married as often as you like.


In practice, every priest will have to make his own decision about whether or not to marry any divorcee. He will let the Bishop know; but the decision will be the priest’s. If he is known to have made an exception and married any divorcee, then he will be expected to marry every divorcee who presents him or her self. If he has not done so, he will have it thrown at him that his neighbour in another parish does it, and he will no longer be able to plead that ‘the church says “no”‘.

Now we are well aware already that though the church forbids it, many priests use their right in civil law and go ahead and marry divorcees as they choose. But at least it is clear that doing so they are disobeying their church. What is more, the priest who in conscience cannot marry a divorcee does so with the backing of the church. He can say, quite rightly, that whatever some other clergy-person might do in another parish, he cannot and will not disobey the church, and the church’s understanding of the mind of Christ.


It has come as a surprise – a shock rather – to many clergy to find that their diocesan synods are voting in favour of the Winchester report.

Some synods have gone even further, saying that no priest should be able to opt out, every minister ought to have to remarry everyone, whether or not they have been divorced. It looks as though the juggernaut is rolling towards final approval by the General Synod, and woe betide those who get in its way.

Now this puts ‘traditionalist’ bishops (and not only the PEVs) and their clergy in a very difficult position. How can a bishop support his priest who refuses to remarry divorcees on principle? Indeed, is he even allowed to try to support him, when the new law will say it is not a matter for the bishop, it has to be decided by the priest alone?

So be sure of this. If your parish priest, or your parish, decides that it will not change its stance over the remarriage of divorcees, and will stand firm in what until the day before yesterday was the invariable belief of the church, your PEV will back you. You may be told, as he will be, that he has “no authority” in this matter. He is not the Ordinary, all power rests with the diocesan bishop. And the chances are that the Ordinary will not support you. The fact that he has handed over his authority in pastoral and sacramental matters to the PEV will not matter, since the C of E does not think that marriage is a sacrament, and the best reason for changing the rules is not pastoral at all, it is financial, to ensure that we do not lose the wedding fees.

Yet haven’t we heard something about power and authority before? Wasn’t it Pontius Pilate who said that he was the one with the real authority, the power of life and death? Jesus reminded him that in the end authority does not come from government or law, it comes from above. So we shall rely on that authority if we refuse to go along with the spirit of the age.


In the end, it is the spirit of the age which will resolve matters for the convenience church. Why be married in a dusty old church when you can have everything, reception and all, in a Stately Home, or a Golf Club, and be quite certain that no Vicar can interfere. Or if you must have a minister, why not try someone more exotic, without any theological hangups, on some tropical beach? You don’t have to say any of those boring old things about taking another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. You can sign a piece of paper dividing up the property before you even start to get married, so that the divorce settlement will be done without any ill feeling. Then all the accommodations made by the Church of England to bring in the multitudes will be so much wasted effort. The church which forgets its principles deserves to be despised and shunned.

Still there will be some people who have been moved by the Gospel, who turn to that little remnant of the church which is just recognisable. Perhaps these are the only people left to us to marry; but perhaps they are the only ones we ought to have been marrying all along, people who really believe that for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And them, no one shall put asunder.

Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough