One of the most depressing experiences I ever had in a Diocesan Synod was the morning on which ours debated the proposals to change the Church’s regulations on the remarriage of divorcees.
Until 2002, considering the many other ‘easings’ of the Church of England’s doctrinal adherences, its position on divorce and remarriage had remained remarkably consistent with a traditionalist understanding of Scripture.
Legally, any Anglican minister could conduct a marriage ceremony for anyone whom the law allowed to marry — which by this stage obviously included divorcees. However, the Church asked and expected clergy not to exercise this right, precisely in view of Jesus’ teaching on the subject and the need for the Church to be faithful to this teaching. Though it was often said that divorcees ‘could not get married in church’, the real distinction was that they ought not to be married ‘according to the rights and ceremonies of the Church of England’.
What came before the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod in the late 1990s was the request from General Synod to sound out opinion before phrasing any legislation.
Speaking from the floor, I offered the view that there was certainly a case for permitting remarriage after divorce, even in the light of biblical teaching. Though the interpretation of the relevant passages was open to some debate, arguably Jesus himself allowed that adultery broke the marriage bond, leaving the offended party free to remarry, and St Paul allowed that a Christian deserted by a non-Christian spouse was similarly free. On top of this, we might also add a third possibility, of someone who was divorced before becoming a Christian, who had no idea of the dominical or apostolic teaching and who therefore could not be held responsible for their situation in the same way as would a believer.
Any legislation, I argued, could reasonably adopt this more ‘open’ position. The one thing we could not allow was simply a free-for-all which contradicted, or took no account of, what the Bible had to say.
Unfortunately, that was almost exactly what happened. But what I found completely demoralising was the succession not just of speakers but of evangelical speakers, including clergy, who denied the possibility of or need for any such discipline. In the end, an amendment I moved was voted down, and one of the key causes was a prominent evangelical in the diocese who argued that many of their new church members were coming precisely through marriage preparation they were already running for divorcees.
I have to say it was only a personal word afterwards from the then-Bishop John Perry that prevented me simply resigning from the Synod. That was several years ago, but the unpleasant taste still remains.
The reason for mentioning this is that the House of Bishops has now apparently decided that it will allow divorcees to become bishops. I must admit I was not aware that they couldn’t — I had rather assumed that since they could already (with, I believe, permission) become clergy, there was therefore no bar to their consecration.
This news does, however, have echoes of the earlier debate.
The point is this: there are many who, like myself, believe that remarriage after divorce is possible, but only in circumstances that take into account the witness of Scripture. Some may find even this unacceptable, but it is a long way short of an ‘anything goes’ approach. Thus if the announcement apparently to be made next month takes account of this, there is no reason for an automatic rejection of the proposal.
The worry, however, is that there will be no mention of the Lord’s or the apostle’s teaching — just a bringing into line of the bishops with the rest of the population. And this, I believe, would be disastrous.
It is quite obvious, looking back over the last forty or fifty years, that there were those in the Church of England desperate to find a way round Jesus’ ‘hard teaching’ at this point. The fact that it took so long to make the change is a witness to precisely how clear that teaching is. Yet after decades of resistance, when it came the change represented a sudden collapse of opposition. Yet if we can follow our own line on something which is so clear, we can pretty much make it up as we go along on matters which are perhaps less clear. Indeed, I remember Desmond Tutu stating very baldly with reference to just this issue that there were things the Church believed Jesus simply got wrong, due to his culture and situation.
This is also why I have thought it doesn’t really matter for some people what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, since we have seen that the decision-making bodies of the Church are quite capable of simply ignoring it.
We must await what the Bishops have to say, but for some of us it is simply another nail in the coffin. I am glad to note, however, that Archbishop John Sentamu was apparently a voice against any change. I do not know why, but I can only assume he felt there was some reason for sticking with the tradition. Nevertheless, on a matter of such weight, surely it would have been right at least to have consulted the Church as a whole?
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
11 June 2010
11 June 2010