Marriage and Divorce

Martyn Jarrett places the issues in a pastoral context

One strong memory from my days at theological college is that of the formidable but also insightful lady who bravely sought to improve our elocution skills. On one occasion she was referring to our future ministry of conducting funerals. She declared: ‘People will not be affected by what you say but they will be affected by the way you say it.’ That is, of course, to over-simplify things, especially in these days when so much more attention can easily be given to the spin rather than to the content. Yet the heart of what that lady said remains true. We respond to the way we are treated. The content of what is said to us is only part of what we experience. There is also the compassion with which we are treated, the time and space allotted to us, the feeling conveyed to us that we really matter. These things speak as loudly to us as any mere words, however clever or right the latter might be. St Francis de Sales knew this truth when he observed that more flies were caught by honey than by a fly swat.

Caricature

Just occasionally, in our commendable desire to uphold the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, we slip into caricaturing and dismissing those who come to us in need. We sometimes talk as if all those with broken marriages, who seek a new start, are callous serial monogamists. There are such people. The sadness of their inability to enter into deep and lasting relationships is more a matter for pity than for scorn. We ought to remember that fact even as we present to them the Church’s teaching on marriage. In no way are such folk typical of the majority who are seeking to sort out their lives and who, in so doing, turn to us for help.

Some are already within our congregations, struggling to come to terms with betrayal and abandonment, sometimes during the early years of marriage. Then there are those with feelings of guilt and inadequacy following on from a perceived inability to sustain a relationship once entered into so positively. Others carry the guilt of having entered trivially into marriage and now are living with the consequences of that foolishness. It will be the same for many as yet not among our congregations. As they seek our ministry, no doubt from a mixture of motives, they will carry much of the same baggage with them.

A word from Rome

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle last year issued a very sensitive Pastoral Letter setting out the welcoming and affirming way in which he would want parishes to exercise their ministry to those who have faced marriage breakdown. The Bishop notes the shame and isolation felt by many such folk. He goes on to say:

Sometimes the last straw that breaks the camel’s back is the lack of sympathy and compassion which some have found when they sought help and counsel in the Church. They were stung by misunderstandings and by self-righteous judgements made by fellow Christians, even by those who are ministers and priests in the Church.

I blush when I read his words and recall some of my inadequate pastoral responses to those who have come seeking my ministry. The Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle provides a caution to us all, both as to how we treat individuals who come to us and as to how we conduct our public debates on such matters. The Bishop also reminds members of his own Church that:

Remarriage after divorce without first obtaining an annulment prevents full communion. But it does not involve banishment from the Church. Those who are in this position should take as active a part as they can in the prayer and worship and work of the Church.. Only God knows the truth of their lives and the hardship they have endured. They should remember that those of us who are in full communion also live lives that are full of imperfections and failures.

A way forward together

Our Anglican situation, too, has its contradictions and its challenges. Many of us decline to remarry divorcees in Church because we feel it contradicts Our Lord’s teaching on the lifelong nature of marriage. Within the Church of England, though, we lack the nullity procedures which make it possible for many to ‘remarry’ and enter into Christian marriage, their first union having been found to be so flawed as not to be deemed a valid union. Our use of what is popularly known as the Service of Blessing puts the onus on the couple to be their own tribunal in ascertaining whether or not they are free to marry in the sight of God.

Few of us will ever be party to the secrets of those who have married after divorce. It may well be that, were our Church to have embraced a similar practice to that of the Roman Catholic Church, many might have met the criterion for being granted a nullity. I hope we might make some significant development in seeing how our own constituency might make progress along these lines during the coming Sacred Synod. Yet, whatever pastoral arrangement we might set up following the meeting of the Sacred Synod later this year, we can be sure that we will not find the last word on every situation we have to face.

None of this is to challenge the traditional teaching of the Church or those who work valiantly in trying to recall our Church to that tradition. After all, a Church which was to turn its back on what it thought to be true would hardly be acting pastorally towards those it wanted to serve. The maintenance of a true understanding of marriage within our society is one of the most precious gifts we can offer it. Those who have faced the pain of marriage breakdown, and that often includes a wider circle of parents, children, other relatives and friends, as well as the couple itself, are the ones who usually know this all too well.

It is important for us to put the ongoing debate, which we rightly pursue, within an appropriate pastoral framework, so that the casualties of broken relationships feel welcomed and understood within our communities as we seek proper solutions to their problems and healing for their pain.

Martyn Jarrett is Bishop of Beverley

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