Gerry O’Brien interviews Michael Lawson

Deaneries and dioceses have been having a field day with their responses to the discussion document from the Bishop of Winchester’s working party on marriage in church after divorce. They have nearly all agreed with the 1981 General Synod resolution that there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner. But a substantial number have disagreed that the discussion document’s proposals are a viable way to proceed.

The first motion (endorsing the 1981 resolution) is all but impossible to vote against, unless you are an implacable indissolublist. That is the genius of the spin. We can nearly all vote for the motion, even though one man’s circumstances may be ‘one in a million’ while someone else’s circumstances may be ‘whenever someone asks’.

The working party’s proposals are where the rubber hits the road. There are basically three ways the Church can respond to someone who is divorced, with a former partner still living, and who asks to be married in church. We could always say ‘yes’, we could always say ‘no’ or we could say ‘sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no.’

The Diocese of York has gone down the Yes route. The No route is the Church’s present position, but it is hardly sustainable in practice since clergy do have a right (under the law of the land) to conduct weddings provided there is no lawful impediment etc. That leaves the Sometimes route, which is where most of us think we want to be. But when does sometimes mean yes, and when does it mean no?

The Scott-Joplin proposals, which will come before Synod in July, place the onus of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the incumbent. This is not the only way, and an amendment that has already been overwhelmingly passed in the London Diocesan Synod will be on the table at Synod to offer an alternative.

Venerable wisdom

The driving force behind the London motion was the Archdeacon of Hampstead, Michael Lawson, who is the author of The Better Marriage Guide. He is proposing to remove the onus of deciding which weddings to conduct in church from incumbents and refer these difficult decisions to panels. ‘The advantage,’ he explained, ‘is that the panels could give a consistent response on the basis of guidelines that the Church has agreed to. Couples whose applications were approved would be granted a special licence to be married from the Archbishop, which if necessary would overcome residence requirements.’

‘The basic principle I would want to commend is that remarriage in church should only ever be exceptional. Divorce has become something of an epidemic today and we are not here to provide a cloak of respectability for the frivolous, irresponsible or morally lax. For instance, I don’t think we should provide a church wedding for someone who has left one relationship because they have a preference for somebody else, but I think we should be sympathetic to an abandoned spouse whose former partner has divorced them and remarried. There is also the need to support someone whose marriage collapsed because of abuse.’

‘Clearly the guidelines would be the key. To say precisely what they should be, you would need a group of people, committed to the principle of exceptionality, to thrash it out. Panels have been used effectively in Canada and South Africa, so it is quite possible.’

‘But when you talk about exceptional,’ I asked, ‘what does that really mean? Are you thinking in terms of one per cent or twenty one percent?’

‘I don’t think I can really put a figure on it,’ said Michael. ‘Exceptional has to be defined in terms of the principle, not just numbers. We’re looking at the criteria we find in Scripture and that really narrows down the cases to those of genuinely irreparable breakdown. Basically the method has to be first to sort out the scriptural principles and then to devise legislation that upholds those principles in practice.’

Opening the flood gates

‘If you allow remarriage in some cases, isn’t it inevitable that a few years down the road, the criteria will get stretched and we will finish up with remarriage on demand,’ I pressed.

‘With the proposals Synod is considering, that must be a real possibility,’ said Michael. ‘The proposal from the Bishop of Winchester is that we revoke the 1957 Act of Convocation. That means completely removing the prohibition on remarriage in Church. But I want us to say to the nation that we are not changing the Church’s position on marriage. Marriage is for life – but in exceptional cases we would have a provision to be compassionate. It is essential to leave Canon B30 unchanged, and modify the 1957 Act. It would be infinitely preferable to use the incumbent’s civil law rights, under a nationally agreed discipline, to conduct remarriages and for the Archbishop’s Licence to provide a consistent provision across deaneries.

This more flexible approach would give us a greater ability to exert moral pressure on clergy to stick to the nationally agreed guidelines. No doubt there would still be a few mavericks, but bishops would be in a stronger position to enforce a coherent practice across the country.’

Holding the line

‘Do you really think panels are the answer,’ I asked, ‘given that they were a feature of the ill-fated Option G that Synod discussed twenty years ago?’

‘Compared with placing all the responsibility on the shoulders of incumbents, panels are far more likely to be consistent – and they do offer a tighter legal security. It can only be a matter of time before some litigious applicant takes the Church to court for infringing his human rights. The value of my proposal is that we can retain all the existing legislation, but by using the Archbishop’s Licence procedure, we can circumvent banns and residential qualifications in the exceptional cases where the procedure is invoked. This is important to help suitable couples unable to be married in their parish church and to protect indissolublist clergy,’ Michael replied.

So, will it be the Bishop of London running the gauntlet of Synod in proposing the London amendment at York in July, or will it fall to David Houlding to carry the London banner? Can indissolublists support a motion that appears to compromise a principle they hold dear? Michael Lawson says he has sympathy with the indissolublist position because it has a very high view of marriage, even though he would argue for exceptions.

David Houlding said that there will be pressure to go further than the Winchester Report proposes. ‘Though some of us are indissolublists, we probably wouldn’t win that argument in Synod. The London motion is narrower in its permission than the Winchester motion and therefore comes closer to our concerns.’

The debate has all the makings of the first really contentious issue of the new General Synod.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.

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