Published in today's Church of England Newspaper under the heading 'Getting to the Root of what Marriage Means'.
Fans of Colin Firth’s recent Oscar™-winning performance will no doubt have noticed that the film in which he stars is not titled The Duke’s Speech. Overcoming a serious stammer is an impressive feat for a public speaker, but the story would have been considerably less interesting had Albert not replaced his brother Edward as King, just as Western civilization was to face its greatest challenge to date.
What modern audiences must find difficult to appreciate (if they notice it at all), however, is that Edward’s abdication came about not because the law of the land or the constitution required it, but simply because neither the Prime Minister nor other key leaders of the Commonwealth would accept the King being married to a divorcee.
Had today’s standards prevailed, of course, there would have been no problem — though it is hard to imagine Britain going to war with Hitler, having a monarch so apparently enamoured with the latter’s political views. But as Edward himself said, Wallis Simpson was the woman he loved, and today that would clearly be enough not just for him but for the nation as a whole.
This may seem an unreasonable starting point for considering the Church of England’s position on divorce and the episcopate. Indeed, the mere mention of Hitler and divorce in the same breath surely falls foul of ‘Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies’, meaning that the argument is lost.
The point, however, is not just how difficult things were then, or how quickly they have changed since, but how different are the principles on which we now habitually operate.
One of the most depressing features of the recent debate in General Synod was the regular reference to ‘marital breakdown’ as acceptable grounds for divorce.
True, the Church of England does not take an ‘indissolubilist’ view of marriage. Moreover, there are many conservatives who would argue that the New Testament recognizes two circumstances in which remarriage of a Christian to someone else is allowed, namely after adultery has broken the marriage covenant (Matt 19:9) or after abandonment by a non-Christian spouse has rendered faithfulness unsustainable (1 Cor 7:15).
To this, we may add a third possibility, when divorce took place before the individual was a believer and therefore acted in ignorance of the gospel requirement and without the power of Christ to help them.
Nowhere, however, does the Bible indicate that ‘marriage breakdown’ is grounds for anything other than separation, to be followed if possible by reconciliation (1 Cor 7:10-11). Moreover, Paul’s explicit appeal in this regard to the Lord’s command recognizes both the challenge and the dominical authority of what is required. Who would propose such a thing had Christ not first said it?
And this is why the Church will find itself in an increasing difficulty on this issue. It is no consolation that the same standards will apply to candidates for the episcopate as now apply to potential deacons and priests (which Synod has agreed) if they are the wrong standards.
Of course, relationships break down — even (perhaps especially) within marriage. Seventy-five years ago, however, the King was expected to adhere to the practice of marriage as ‘a solemn, public and life-long covenant between a man and a woman’ (as our own bishops have described it), irregardless of personal desire. The distance we have travelled since then is not just in our expectation of the individual or the monarchy, but in our commitment to the principle.
Most important of all, therefore, is the need to recognize that this is not finally about divorce but marriage itself. As one speaker in the Synod debate pointed out, marriage is modelled on the relationship between the Redeemer God and his redeemed people — and who else could be better candidates for divorce? Thus God’s hatred of divorce is the counterpoint to his love for his people. And therefore an acceptance of divorce on the basis of ‘marriage breakdown’ is a fundamental departure from the very nature of marriage as modelled on a spiritual reality.
This is why we vow, “Til death us do part.” The Church which teaches otherwise, and embodies that teaching in the lives of its ministers, will soon find that it is not a Church at all. And since it would seem that canonical dispensation is already being applied ‘liberally’ (in every sense of the word), the worry must be that the Church’s ministry and witness will both be weakened by this latest development.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.