A Way Forward

Nicholas Turner examines the new Marriage Document

THE principal disaster to emerge from General Synod of November 2002 (and it would have been greater still without the input of the Catholic Group) was its abject conclusion to the long debate on divorce and remarriage. With the backing of the other two houses, the House of Bishops devolved the entire process and responsibility for marriage discipline onto the individual parish priest. The Church surrendered its own shared authority to the individual minister, and thereby implicitly announced to the nation that it had no marriage theology or discipline.

It could hardly have been in greater contrast to what had come out of the Sacred Synod only a month earlier. The first session of the Synod, in 1999, had made it clear that the second session would have to consider the question of marriage and marriage discipline. In the event, the above statement was issued by the bishops in October, with no fanfare and no discussion, and receiving no press coverage. With hindsight, such a low key beginning to what may prove a crucial document, though at the time disappointing, was probably correct.

So what should we do with this Marriage Statement? First of all, we can appreciate the simple fact of its existence. It is a real achievement and we can be grateful to our bishops for having the courage to issue it in their name. It is a shared summary of the Church’s teaching and understanding, and the implications that follow from that. It teaches about marriage, it accepts the particular tradition we have received in this country, it takes its place within the historic teaching of the Western Church. It carries authority in its form and content.

So, first of all, we have a statement on marriage – the very opposite of what came out of General Synod. In our own diocese we have printed it out as a folded A4 leaflet, and already in only a couple of months, several clergy, who otherwise have no sympathy with us, have asked for copies. Elsewhere, it has been even better received. The most important development I am aware of is in the London Diocese, where it may become the basis for a diocesan-wide agreed procedure of marriage discipline.

There is, quite deliberately, nothing in this statement that confines it to members of our integrity. More important than the details is the fact that it is a shared and authoritative statement, the basis for a common discipline and procedure. What the sophisticates of General Synod signally failed to grasp is that many clergy and their parishioners do not want the do-it-yourself individualism that its own resolution initiated.

Our second task must be to make the statement more widely known, to share it with others, through deanery chapters, perhaps even deanery synods. Of course many will reject it, either because they hate us or because they want the each-man-is-his-own-pope individualism. We own it, because it came out of three years’ worth of discussion and prayer and refinement from the Cost of Conscience workshops and so on; but we do not have the sole possession of it. If it is a gift for us, it is a gift for others as well.

The third task is to fill out the content. The text itself, as a shared point of reference, should not be altered, but it would benefit from some explanation and elucidation. In this part of the world, we have (inspired by earlier Church precedence) begun the work of producing a Cumulative Commentary upon the statement. There is a great deal of biblical, historical and social background to each of the points listed, and it is important that the statement should be fully understood if it is to be effective.

What for example is hidden behind the point 3(c)i? What ‘reason’ would fall into this category? It is not immediately obvious, for all such reasons are subject to changing social circumstances that need have nothing to do with marriage. To give a simple example, a foreigner marries an English national in order to gain the right of abode in this country; this bears no relation to any of the elements in 2(g).

I do not know how much commentary or amplification would be necessary or useful, which is why I imagine it as a shared enterprise, expanding and modifying over the years, as particular examples from different sources clarify our common purpose. After all, if the decision should not rest upon an individual priest, nor should it rest entirely upon an individual bishop: it is a shared responsibility.

I have heard the excellent suggestion that we might also need a simplified version of the statement that could be given to couples, in a more general and easily digestible form. We might (I suspect this would come from the bishops) want a pastoral guide that takes the clergyman through the implications of the final paragraph of section 3. The statement itself may be traditional but the context in which it is to be used is a new one.

Is there work for the third session of the Sacred Synod in 2005? Certainly. I have not the slightest doubt that our bishops’ Marriage Statement is of great importance; and if that is so, there is more work that needs to be done with it. We have a sacrament to proclaim.

Marriage is a strong institution. Back in June of last year we suggested in New Directions that marriage was a very good thing for the environment, that ‘it would be worth studying whether individuals who are married end up using fewer resources than those who are not.’ As it happens, scientists from Michigan and Stanford universities were doing exactly that, and their results have now been published in Nature.

The problem of shrinking home units has become so acute that it now poses a more serious challenge to conservation than human population growth. Households of just one or two occupants are very inefficient users of natural resources, when compared with the traditional nuclear family unit of five or more.

It may well be that fewer people in this country are getting married, and fewer still of these are choosing to get married in church, but we do have something to proclaim. This institution has many unexpected benefits, and as guardians of that sacrament, we have much that we can offer to others. I am sure I have said this before, but I still remain convinced that our understanding of marriage is the most valuable evangelistic tool we possess in our integrity.


Nicholas Turner is Rector of the Parish of Broughton with Elslack.




issued at the Sacred Synod ad 2002

by the Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the Bishop of Fulham


1 The importance and given-ness of our historical and legal context:

(a) The Church of England is part of the Western Church, the larger part of which understands marriage between Christians to be a sacramental bond;

(b) According to Canon B30, the teaching of our Lord as affirmed by the Church of England is expressed in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in the Book of Common Prayer;

(c) The Church of England is by law established. Some of the necessary implications of these provinces’ understanding of marriage are also found in the present civil law of England and Wales.

2 We DECLARE Holy Matrimony to be:

(a) The voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others;

(b) An ‘honourable estate’, creating a status, while also being a covenant and arising from a contract;

(c) A union entered into by mutual and free consent, without reservation or condition, the promises made being independent of each other;

(d) A calling from God for many, but not all, the calling to the single state for others being equally honourable;

(e) A gift of God in creation, instituted ‘in the time of man’s innocency’, and in the guardianship of which the Church has a share;

(f) A sign to us of the ‘mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’;

(g) For the purposes of: the procreation and nurture of children (save where age or condition preclude it); the hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections; and the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity;

(h) A union in which the parties marry each other, each being a minister of God’s grace to the other;

(i) Both private (a commitment between the parties) and public (within the community).

3 Flowing from this understanding of Marriage, we RECOGNIZE that, as a consequence, there are several categories of unions which, while purporting to be marriages, do not fulfil this understanding:

(a) First, there are those unions which have been non-marriages from the beginning (so-called ‘void marriages’). Such unions occur when:

(i) the parties lack capacity (that is: the parties are within the prohibited degrees; either is under the age of 16; either is already married; or the parties are not respectively male and female);

(ii) both parties knowingly and wilfully intermarry in the face of certain other defective matters relating to the marriage ceremony required by civil law.

(b) Secondly, there are those unions which can be declared to be no longer marriages (termed ‘voidable marriages’). Such unions may be declared a nullity when:

(i) either is impotent (save where this is known to both);

(ii) either did not consent through duress, mistake as to identity of the other party or misapprehension as to the nature of the ceremony, unsoundness of mind or through the effect of drink or drugs;

(iii) either party was suffering from a mental disorder despite valid consent given at the time;

(iv) either unknown to the other, was suffering from venereal disease in a communicable form;

(v) the wife, unknown to the husband, at the time of the marriage was pregnant by another;

(vi) there has been a wilful refusal by one of the parties to consummate the marriage.

In these cases, whether a decree absolute of nullity or of divorce has been obtained, we recognize that it would accord with the above understanding of marriage if either of the parties to the union, although the other of them is still living, were to be married in church to another party.

(c) Thirdly, there are those unions which, while incapable of being annulled at civil law, may nonetheless be treated by the Church as being no longer marriages. Unions in this category may occur when:

(i) the marriage has been contracted for a reason other than those for which marriage exists (as set out in clause 2(g) above);

(ii) either or both of the parties to the union were insufficiently able to evaluate critically the decision to marry in the light of the consequent obligations and responsibilities;

(iii) evidence of behaviour before, at or after the marriage, demonstrates that at the time of the marriage either of the parties did not accept the marriage to be an exclusive and indissoluble union;

(iv) either party had an undisclosed intention not to have children;

(v) the existence of a pre-nuptial contract between the parties, providing for division of property upon civil divorce, indicates that the union was intended to be conditional only;

(vi) both parties to the union were not baptized, but one party subsequently receives the Christian Faith and is baptized, and the other party, without cause being given by the baptized party, then departs.

In these cases, following a divorce at civil law, we recognize that it would accord with the above understanding of marriage if the appropriate parties (and in the case of category (vi) the baptized party), although the other of them is still living, were to be married in church to another party.

4 On the basis of this understanding of marriage, and the possible instances when it is not fulfilled, we OFFER to priests from parishes who look to us for pastoral care and sacramental ministry the means of seeking our advice which individual parish priests are under no obligation to heed. Such advice, which we shall give in writing, is intended to help them in their decision as to whether to proceed with the marriage of parties in church where either or both has a former spouse still living.

5 This advice is offered to the parish priests who must ultimately make up their own minds as to what decision should be taken. The bishops are not free to enter into discussion with the relevant couples nor to receive any form of appeal. The decision remains in law that of the parish priest. Parish priests should pay particular attention to the legal guidance given to them in the material issued by the House of Bishops.

6 None of this precludes using what in short hand is called The Service of Blessing. None of us, ultimately, knows the true status in God’s eyes of many of the unions to which we minister. Where couples act as their own tribunal of conscience and bring their union to God in prayer the use of the rite for praying with a couple following a civil marriage may well be appropriate.

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