Divorce Debate Fifties-Style

Nicholas Turner discovers an old book

SECOND-HAND theology bookshops come in two forms. The smaller ones, near universities, and usually attached to an ordinary bookshop, offer the chance of finding some recent text at a discounted price; the turnover is fast, the stock small and the discounts not quite as much as you had hoped for. The other kind are generally much larger, often in a basement, with the slight smell of damp, offering yards of forgotten, crumbling tomes for next to nothing. A dealer will have snapped up the leather-bound, Victorian editions of the Fathers, so you are left with The New English Bible, In the Footsteps of St Paul and once brightly-coloured paperbacks from the Sixties.

What makes it worth the search is that one book in ten thousand, which for you is true treasure and will stay on your bookshelf for the rest of your life; I have several now and can remember exactly where I found each one. The dream comes with a price – the salutary reminder of how swiftly ideas fade, how evanescent are yesterday’s enthusiasms, how absurd are some of the predictions and assurances of youth. ‘The parish comes alive’ a book cover promises, with a picture of someone not unlike me twenty years ago.

Matrimonial Causes

How surprising, therefore, to find a little book, not strictly theology but very much about the Church of England, whose original purpose has been superseded, whose popular audience has vanished, whose presuppositions (such as the universal use of the BCP) have been swept away, yet which still manages to be interesting and valuable to read. It also helped that it was very short, a 5/– hardback of 80 pages.

The Right to Marry by AP Herbert, in 1954, was a popular, post-war revision of some of the themes he had argued when presenting the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act, and above all a trenchant, even tendentious, condemnation of the CofE for the hardening of its marriage discipline as the State made divorce easier, and this (note!) before the 1957 Convocation ruling. On this point he is quite correct: the CofE did harden its discipline during the middle decades of the last century.

Much has not changed in fifty years. For one thing, he speaks of biblical criticism as a modern, academic exercise, to be appealed to or rejected as one sees fit; there was no greater desire to study the word of God then than there is now. For another, the liberal, nice-guy side of the argument is still pursued almost exclusively by means of bleeding-heart, hypothetical instances of suffering, leaving the traditionalists to adopt the hard-line, holding-the-fort exaggeration of simplicity. The lack of symmetry in this dialogue between the deaf and the story-tellers is no different then than now.

Innocent parties

But some things have changed. Most striking of all, the reliance on the notion of ‘the innocent party’. This, it seems, was the fundamental truth on which all the attempts at reform and relaxation were based back in the Fifties. A reading (or mis-reading) of the Matthean Exception had allowed divorce for proven adultery, which left one guilty party and one innocent. If the law of the land has decreed that someone is innocent, and anecdotal evidence of quiet living and faithful church-going further builds the picture of someone more sinned against than sinning, how could the modern churchman not seek to do his best by him or her?

Since then, thanks largely to the work of the CofE in its 1966 report Putting Asunder, this simple, clear-cut, legally-approved notion of innocent and guilty has gone, and we are left with such misleading phrases as ‘no fault divorce’. One can only wonder how those good churchmen of half a century ago would have reacted, if this pillar of their reasoning had been removed.

For us two questions suggest themselves. Do we still rely implicitly, when seeking to be generous, on this now vanished idea of the innocent party? It does seem as though the Scott Joynt report may have done so. More seriously, are we now leaning on some other presumption that will later reveal itself as a mere broken reed? That is to say, is there some key theme/idea/phrase which seems now to answer our contemporary needs (‘the death of a marriage’?) but which, in a generation’s time, will become no more than an empty vessel?

Empty vessels

The arguments now as then are fierce and fiercely held, and then as now move by stages until all becomes focused on one simple issue, the ‘right’ of a divorcee to marry again in church. The intensity of the contest demands that every available weapon be used until victory is gained. How easy it is, therefore, to clutch at anything which seems to offer the destructive power one seeks. The argument appears powerful because we need it to be. Only later, after the battle has been fought, do we look back and realize, sometimes with shame and usually with sadness, that it was obsolete even before we grasped hold of it.

There are other clues, from fifty years ago, as to how our debate at Sacred Synod will be influenced. Herbert’s book shows how protestant is the character of the debate in this country. The form goes something like this. Fact one: the CofE has the harshest marriage discipline in Christendom, which is a bad thing. Fact two: annulments are also a bad thing. The blanket, anti-Roman rejection of them is proclaimed almost as a defining characteristic of being an Englishman; the unquestioning and distasteful prejudice is a deep part of our history, all the more absurd when one remembers that what Henry VIII first sought was an annulment not a divorce.

To avoid these two bad things, divorce with the right to remarry becomes the absolute requirement, to be accepted by the Church and not merely the State. However, in order to allow a full divorce, it is necessary to declare that marriage is not a sacrament. We can acknowledge that it is not a dominical sacrament, that it does not ‘belong’ to the Church, that its character is more elusive than others where the ministers and the form are entirely under Church control. But to make it an article of faith for the CofE that marriage is not a sacrament, this surely is an unacceptable absurdity.

Once again, this is where we diverge. The principal difference is not over divorce, but the fundamental understanding of the character of marriage. It was then, and it is now.

 

Nicholas Turner is Rector of St Peter, Martons Both, in the West Riding.

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