Anthony Saville on the valuable contribution of the traditional constituency to the marriage debate, and its unfortunate slide into obscurity

One thing the Church of England cannot cope with is divorce. Henry VIII wanted an annulment; the Pope refused; the rest is history. Not quite. What he got from his new ecclesial body was a lot more like a divorce, and the confusion has only grown worse ever since.

Expensive option

Divorce was initially extremely difficult and expensive; however, it had the effect of an annulment, and the second marriage, like the first, took place in a church. As divorce became easier remarriage in church, however, became harder.

Until in 1936 another royal got into difficulty and the Church of England went into paroxysms of confusion. With a 1957 Convocation ruling, the clergy were for the first time refused permission to remarry divorcees, a permission that Convocation had insufficient authority to refuse anyway.

Harsh discipline

The result was that the Church of England had the harshest marriage discipline of any mainstream church body in the world – on paper. Attempts to sort it out in General Synod in the Eighties came to nothing, because like every other such issue it became a straight fight between liberals and conservatives, with no desire for any serious theology to underpin a shared discipline. Battle lines were drawn, every proposal and modification proved inadequate, and the end result was stalemate.

Problems do not, however, go away for being unresolved. The CofE was still lumbered with this harsh discipline in a world of increasing divorce and remarriage, of clergy as well as laity. The House of Bishops brought the issue back at the end of the Nineties, for one final attempt at reform. Bishop Michael Scott -Joynt headed up a committee to offer a more generous but consistent discipline for remarriage in church.

Once again the problem was an abject lack of theology, and the result was a discipline based on the quality of the divorce rather than the quality or status of the first marriage. It was, as time has shown, no more than a smokescreen to allow the old rules to be jettisoned. OK, so the liberals won, but it was an embarrassment to everybody.

Draft document

Was there no one to speak up for marriage? Yes, the traditional constituency. Funded by Cost of Conscience, focused on a set of public meetings, workshops and discussions around the country, a draft marriage statement, with an accompanying discipline for annulment and (re) marriage, was drawn up by theologians and lawyers. And presented to the Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the Bishop of Fulham, who were to bring it to the second Sacred Synod.

Again, my memory is fading, but as I remember it began as a summary of traditional theology of marriage and the framework in which annulment might be possible. The additions, largely from the then Bishop of Ebbsfleet, made it a longer and more quasi-legal document. This had a number of consequences.

No future

It made the 2002 Statement more complete than it might otherwise have been, which certainly gave it greater initial authority. But it also meant that it was completed too late for the clergy going to the Synod to see it beforehand. No homework could be done which might have allowed a serious debate. And so it was, as I outlined in the last article, simply presented as a fait accompli.

Where we went wrong was a lack of courage. There is no doubt a large number of the priests were absolutely clear that under no circumstances would they ever remarry anyone in church. The introduction of any form of annulment – in this case based on the Church of the Province of Southern Africa – was not going to be easy. We should still have tried. It was an impressive first word, but not a last word.

Why? Because although the statement was an authoritative document, and one we should be proud of as a constituency, it was given no future. It has, not unlike General Synod’s offering, sunk into virtual oblivion. Do any of our recently ordained clergy know of it or use it? I suspect not.

A real achievement

The Marriage Statement was something we produced as traditionalists that was of real value to the whole of the Church of England. It could quite easily be used by those with no sympathy for us or our position. It was traditional, certainly, but it was non-partisan. It was something we offered the rest of the Church, and for a short while was much appreciated.

We should have done more work on it. There could have been a shorter, simpler, more pastoral summary for wider distribution, and a longer, more worked out explanation of ‘voidable marriages’, a proper foundation for parish clergy to work with. My sadness is that this was one of our real achievements, which we did not manage to build on.

If The Society comes into being, it deserves to be revived. ND