Friday, 11 March 2011

Divorce and the Episcopate

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.
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  1. I find it hard to fit the picture of marriage depicted in the King's speech as once which fits in with the mercy and love of God.

    The truth about marriage in those days is that wives became virtually the property of their husband and many had to endure years of brutality, or worse due to the lack of an escape mechanism from dysfunctional relationships.

    While I can agree with the biblical view of marriage "for better, for worse, until death do us part", I find it taken literally, to be a justification for the sort of behavior by some, which makes virtual slaves of supposed equal partners in a loving realtionship.

    The more enlightened view taken in recent times has at least provided an escape mechanism, rather than trapping people in bad relationships. I agree that it is sad when a relationship breaks down, however, sometimes it is the only way out of a damaging relationship.

    The church does investigate the circumstances of a marriage breakdown very carefully and, in the case of candidates for ordained ministry, very robustly - it is a difficult and painful process for those who endure it, but it is a protection mechanism to ensure the suitability of candidates for the representative role in public ministry.

    My question would be, what sort of marriage preparation is the church really giving? The reality is that many candidates for marriage have been together for some time, may have been sexually active and have children - should we deny them the Sacraments 'because they are now repentant sinners'?

    With regard to the Episcopate, it is only fair that Ordained candidates for the Episcopate, who are divorced should be treated in the same way as candidates for ordained ministry.

  2. UK Viewer, name and location please - just like if you were writing to the local newspaper!

  3. '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.'

    In Matt 19 Jesus doesn't say he is speaking only to believers nor that his pronouncement is only true of/for those who hear it. He is making, it appears, a universal statement; to divorce on grounds other than fornication and then remarry makes one an adulterer whether one is aware of this or not.

    I cannot see how conversion changes this. A lack of power does not make sin less sinful or in some way excuseable.

  4. John, I take it that Paul's comment in 1 Cor 7, "I, not the Lord", makes a clear distinction between both those addressed (a believer with an unbelieving spouse) and the outcome (otherwise the whole section is simply repeating the same as to believers).

    I would therefore categorize the person who, say, divorced before conversion, as potentially in the same boat as those Paul addresses with his apostolic word.

  5. Rt Rev Dominic Stockford11 March 2011 at 14:49

    I am with John on the issue of unbelievers - they will act contrary to God's teaching because they do not know it. Once they come to faith they cannot undo what they did then, but do gain forgiveness through Christ for whatever it was that they did - and that has to include divorce.

    I am also impelled to say that simply because a couple (or one member of a couple) deems that their 'relationship' has broken down does not let them out of living by God's commandments about marriage. Surely the true Christian should search for a new relationship with their marriage partner should such a situation come about - using God's help and guidance to assist in keeping the promise you have made to Him?

    Pastorally speaking, though, even though I am quite hard-line on the issue of divorce, I would not require someone to continue living with someone in a relationship which is seriously abusive (physically or mentally) - but that does not mean that divorce is the way to go for them.

  6. John

    Just as a matter of interest (it is not clear in your profile and the 'spot check' of previous posts hasn't brought me to any conclusion) - are you, or have you ever been married? I know this is a personal question and one that you may desire not to answer; however I think it is of importance regarding this post.

    Also - more lightheartedly: ' it is hard to imagine Britain going to war with Hitler [if Edward VIII remained on the throne]' presumes the monarch has real political power, which we all know s/he hasn't, so I think WW2 would have still happened and how knows we could now have grown up and dumped monarchy and its foolishness.


    Peter Denshaw
    Luton, Beds

  7. Rt Rev Stockford, are there non-serious abusive relationships? Just a trivial punch every now and again? Fern Winter, London

  8. Imogen Taylor, DERBY12 March 2011 at 01:19

    Rev Stockford refers to "forgiveness through Christ" on the subject of divorce ... But even for those who divorce (or are unfaithful) AFTER conversion, this is covered by God's forgiveness if they then repent.

    Surely the issue of whether divorcees can remarry (whether or not they were Christians when they divorced) is not an issue of whether they have been forgiven, but an issue of breaking their vows by remarrying. To say that these vows don't "count" if made while not Christian surely begs the question of whether any married (and NOT divorced) person's marriage vows "count" when they become converted.

    The injunction not to remarry is not necessarily a "punishment" any more than the injunction not to indulge homosexual inclinations is a punishment.

  9. Peter, the question about my marital status may turn into an unconscious 'ad hominem' argument. I think the important point is (a) whether I have understood and applied Jesus and Paul properly and (b) that both of them were single, though Paul may well have been married formerly as a member of the Jewish Council.

    On the war point, you write that this "presumes the monarch has real political power, which we all know s/he hasn't". Actually, I would disagree profoundly, especially with regard to how things worked before the Second World War. The monarch had real influence on the 'politics', even though the monarch's powers of legislation were minimal.

  10. My point(and I think that of D Stockford) is that vows taken before conversion do 'count'. Marriage is not a sacrament it is a civil union. Thus if I divorce for the wrong reasons (as a non-Christian)in God's eyes I 'commit adultery' if I remarry. Of course, for most non-christians God's disapproval is of little consequence.

    However, if I subsequently become a Christian God does not suddenly approve of what he disapproved when I was unconverted. All sin is of course forgiven but there are consequences to behaviour that conversion and forgiveness do not cancel out. If I murder the day before conversion I am forgiven my sin of murdering but I will have to live with the consequences of may action and face my prison sentence.

    Can't agree with JR on 1 Cor 7. Seems to me Paul is considering mainly the tensions of a believer married to an unbeliever which Jesus of course did not directly address. Paul's answer (IMO) is in line with the previous teaching; don't leave but if the unbeliever leaves you don't feel you must pursue to remain faithful to Jesus' teaching of no-divorce except for adultery. Incidentally, I don't think there is any implied freedom to remarry.