Changing Church of England policy on divorce

I said yesterday that attitudes to Christian marriage have ebbed and flowed as times changed over the last two thousand years.

How have things changed?
In the early Christian era, marriage was largely a private matter, where consenting adults committed to be faithful to each other.

The roots of modern marriage ceremonies:
The Catholic Church introduced the need for a priest and two witnesses at a marriage in 1545. The Reformation brought the State into the arrangement, making marriage something which was both legal and ceremonial. In Britain, the marriage act of 1753 required a formal ceremony, to outlaw fleet marriages, requiring Banns and licenses for weddings to take place. This was the uniform practice of the country until recently.

We live in a time of transition.
The uniform tradition that almost everyone got married in their parish church, in white, according to Banns has passed and a new approach is emerging. Today, couples co-habit, marry in various locations, including overseas. There are Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Humanist, Jewish, civil and Christian marriages.

What happened in the Church of England since the 1960s.

Since the 1960s, many ministers would quietly marry close friends or members of church or community who had been divorced. In 2002, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion formalising this practice. Since then, ministers in the church have been seeking to find a best practice in this very complex pastoral issue as the door was opened for all people to approach the church for remarriage.

For reasons which are not clear, the members of synod passed a motion to allow the remarriage of divorcees in exceptional circumstances. To ensure these exceptional circumstances were met, ministers were required by synod to interview couples in depth and pass a judgement on their suitability for marriage.

It was said by many at the time of this motion that this practice would be pastorally disastrous, and this has proved to be the case. There are many reported instances of ministers seeking to follow the General Synod’s guidelines, making judgements on couples which, in the eyes of community around the church, were naïve, divisive and simplistic. Church witness can be destroyed by ministers acting as judge. Indeed, Jesus teaches against this (Matthew 7:1ff, Romans 2:1ff)

Given the failure of the first two options, the only other apparent option is to marry everyone. This has its own problems as no standards can be applied. When Christian ministers marry everyone, some marriages will undermine God’s teaching in the bible. For example, the man on his fourth marriage, where his new wife is the woman he had an affair with which ended his third marriage, and he shows now sign of repentance or comprehension that what he is doing is against God’s law.

In short, none of these three options works pastorally. This is why it is important to separate marriage in the eyes of the government and marriage according to the teaching of the bible. By taking off the hat of the civil registrar and only offering to wear the hat of the Christian minister, I make the choice they face “Christian commitment or non-Christian” rather than “married or not married”.

I teach couples what Jesus teaches on divorce and remarriage, and what it means to follow him as husband and wife. I then ask the couple what they want to do. Do you want to follow Jesus in your life and marriage? If so, we can proceed with a Christian service of commitment apart from the civil registration. Thus, the couple’s choice is made clear because it is not confused by the legal aspect of marriage and I don’t need to act as judge.

Tomorrow I’ll post a study on Mark 9:42 to 10:34 which gives the biblical background to why some divorcees can marry.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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4 Responses to Changing Church of England policy on divorce

  1. You said,

    “This is why it is important to separate marriage in the eyes of the government and marriage according to the teaching of the bible.”

    This is very true.

    From my research, I discovered that divorce was unheard of 100 years ago and it was something that hardly anyone ever did.

    Years ago people knew what the Bible said.

    “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” Luke 16:18

    We need to start speaking the truth in regards to the subject of divorce and spare families from such a trauma.

    Every 45 seconds in the United States a family is torn apart by divorce.

    Watch the Divorce Ticker Below:

  2. neilrobbie says:

    Thank you for your comment, though I don’t know your name.

    I’ve read your website and share your desire to see families held together not blown apart by sin.

    I think we need to be careful to distinguish between couples who have divorced as Christians (1 Cor 7:1-4) and those who were married as unbelievers. Jesus teaches unbelieving Pharisees in Mark 9 and 10 that they need to come to him to enter the kingdom of God and this is his primary concern. Once they are re-born, divorcees are no longer adulterers, but new creations.

    I plan to write another blog post on Christians and reconciliation.

  3. David Howarth says:

    Hi, I’m in my final year at theological college, trying to get my head round some of these issues.

    Two questions: can you please clarify what ‘the first two options’ are?

    And can you please clarify why, at this present time, you believe that offering a Christian service of commitment (“marriage”) without acting as civil registrar provides the best practice for the remarriage of divorcees? It seems good, but I’m afraid I need the logic spelling out more clearly.

    Thank you.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Dear David, welcome and I hope the Lord enables you to serve him with great conviction and for the long term. I’ve responded to your comment by email and hope my answers help. Neil

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