The recent Synod on the Family which has taken place in Rome comprising many leaders within the Roman Catholic Church has once again highlighted attitudes of Christians to divorce.

It seems to me that there really are very different attitudes to divorce in different parts of the church – both geographically and denominationally.

You could hear a certain amount of exasperation this morning when the presenter on Radio 4’s today programme was asking Cardinal Vincent Nichols whether or not the Synod meant that in future divorced and remarried Roman Catholics could or could not be received back into communion in the church and simply couldn’t get a straight answer. The reason of course is that in that situation there doesn’t appear to be a straight answer right at the moment. One may emerge and the hearts and thoughts of many Christians will be with that church as it wrestles with these questions.

For us in the Scottish Episcopal Church on that particular question there is a very straight answer indeed – no-one is excluded from communion because of their marital status.

One of the peculiarities of church life is that very widely differing practices over divorce are apparent yet they don’t seem to have led to the schismatic fellowship-breaking sensibilities which just as differing attitudes to same-sex relationships have led us into. This bears considerable reflection. After all, I’ve heard a priest working in the Church of England preaching at a wedding about about the joys of  “African Marriage” which turned out to be marriage in which a divorce is simply not a permissible option. (My hunch is that this will more often work to the detriment of women than of men). I find it puzzling as to how people with such views cope with working in churches in which divorce is sometimes seen as a better way forward than for a couple to stay in a relationship which is harming either or both of them.

I think access to divorce is something which is very important. Even though we don’t have any problem these days in welcoming those who have experienced divorce to receive communion, we must remember that we once did have a big problem with that and that attitudes linger which can be hugely harmful. I’ve several times heard clergy who have divorced say to me that at least we talk about issues relating to same-sex couples whereas we almost never talk about issues relating to divorce. We talk about whether someone in a gay relationship can become a bishop but we don’t talk about whether someone in a second marriage can become a bishop. That question gets tucked away and doesn’t see the light of mature reflection very often.

It seems to me that divorce is an issue when it comes to leadership in our church in a very different way to other parts of the church. It is much, much more common for clergy and particularly bishops to be divorced in the US church than it is in this country.

We do have a particular marriage discipline here in Scotland. A couple can get married in our churches where one or other of them have been married before. It is not uncommon for us to conduct such marriages. (Well, not for me at the moment as I’m not conducting any marriages until the bishops’ latest homophobic guidance is withdrawn. I’m happy to bless those couples who get married in registry offices. If it is good enough for the gay couples then I think it has to be good enough for the straight couples, but that’s another story.).

However, a couple where one or other party has been married before want to get married then they can only do so with the permission of the bishop. Usually their local priest will meet with them and hear the story and then contact the bishop who may well want to meet with them and have a pastoral conversation. It may well be that something like this is what will emerge in the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly it is what some in that church including those at a very high level, appear to want to happen.  We’ve got it already and usually it works just fine.

I think it is clear to me that we shouldn’t marry couples where the marriage itself would bring the church and marriage itself into disrepute. It is also clear to me that we shouldn’t marry people where they may have a dependent from a previous relationship who is not being supported financially. However, I think that we should be asking that question of anyone coming to marriage these days rather than just those who have been divorced. Plenty of people who get married have children from other relationships whether it is the first time they are getting married or not, and making sure that they are supported properly has little to do with divorce.

I also think that if the church is prepared to marry a couple where one of them is a member of the clergy then it has to accept the divorce and the remarriage and ensure that there are no posts in the church that they are formally barred from simply because of that marriage. It seems to me that this is unclear and that lack of clarity can be quite harmful to people.

It seems to me that rule of church life – canon law, has to make space for the pastoral sensibilities of the church at its best. When we get this even slightly wrong we end up seeing the church at its pastoral worst.

We have a number of people who worship in St Mary’s because the marriage discipline of the church that they would rather be worshipping in has harmed them and those whom they love. No-one wants that to be the case and it is good for churches to return to think about the way they deal with those who are divorced from time to time. A blessing on the Roman Catholic Church as they try to work out which way to go next. And let it be a nudge to others to ponder whether we’ve got our own practice working as well as it can work and and whether it communicates effectively the love  and compassion of God that is far bigger than any of us.


  1. David Kenvyn says

    I am a little worried about this concept of “African Marriage”. It seems to assume that Africa as a continent is culturally homogenous. This is not something that we would ever say about Europe or Asia, and it is simply not true. Morocco has very little cultural similarity to Mozambique. In South Africa, Xhosa-speaking men are circumcised at about 16 years old. Zulu-speaking men are not circumcised. They live in neighbouring provinces and inter-mingle in the cities. I think we have to be very careful when we describe practices that are common in Nigeria or Tanzania or Namibia as African, as they may not apply across the whole continent. It would be like calling bullfighting or reindeer racing European cultural norms, when we know that they are specific to particular countries.

  2. I think what Christians and others need to bear in mind is that it is possible to be accepting of divorce as a fact of life while still valuing commitment and regarding marriage as ideally being a lifelong covenant. In truth, if a couple is considering divorce then there is already brokenness (or sin—although in this context the word has some uncomfortable connotations) in their relationship, and trying to maintain it purely because the Church (or, heaven forfend, God) Says No doesn’t seem to me to be in any way a holy or virtuous thing to do.

    ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ is a lot less effective an obfuscation in writing than when Dolly sang it.

  3. David Kenvyn says

    Jacob Zuma has five wives, Desmond Tutu has one wife, Nelson Mandela had three wives and divorced two of them. What does this tell us about the concept of “African Marriage”?

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