A New Start before God; the Rt Rev Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham, Looks at the Church's Latest Discussions on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage
Santer, Rt Rev Mark, The Birmingham Post (England)
"Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder." Those familiar words were first spoken by Jesus himself. For hundreds of years they have been spoken and heard in every marriage in the Church of England. Marriage for life "till death us do part": this is and remains the Church's teaching an expectation for every couple who come and ask for God's blessing on their future life together.
Marriage is indeed for life. It involves unreserved promises between a man and a woman who are free to make them. It involves openness to the gift of children. It involves the solemn promise to be faithful to each other.
Those who marry in church take one another "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part." This is the Church's teaching, enshrined in the marriage service. None of this has changed or will change.
Every marriage, every relationship, goes through hard times as well as good times. We are all put to the test, however deep our love and our commitment. At such times we can gain immense strength from the promises we have made to each other.
That is why their betrayal, when they are betrayed by infidelity, violence or emotional neglect, is such a terrible thing. Nevertheless, there are countless couples who, because of their commitment to their promises, have found themselves able to renew and deepen their love for each other.
But humans beings are not perfect. Marriages do sometimes break down irretrievably, sometimes between people who have worked hard to sustain them. Society recognises this by providing for legal divorce.
What is the Church to say to such people, if they want to enter into a new marriage? Is the Church simply to wash its hands and say: "Go away?" If we insist that no marriage can ever come to an end except by physical death, then we are in danger of turning God's gift of marriage into a terrible burden.
We have to remember those other words of Jesus: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." the same goes for marriage.
Every Church has its own way of dealing with the breakdown of marriages. Historically the Church of England has been very reluctant to solemnise "second marriages", though it has been ready to offer prayers to those who want to make a new start after a civil marriage.
This is because it recognises that every wedding in church is a public statement about the nature of marriage, and it has wanted to uphold the principle of "till death us do part."
Nevertheless the clergy have always had the discretion to solemnise "second marriages" in cases where they have believed to be pastorally right. It is in fact nearly twenty years since the General Synod stated that it (a) believes that marriage should always be undertaken as a lifelong commitment, (b) considers that there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner.
That resolution was passed in 1981. Nobody can accuse the Church of undue haste in putting it into practice. The difficulty has been finding agreement on how to do it in a way which is pastorally realistic without weakening principle. …