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.

The Special Synod on Family Life

pope and romeo and juliet

Something significant is going on in the Vatican this week. A series of conversations has started about how the Roman Catholic Church deals with issues that arise in family life. It is hugely significant because such conversations simply don’t happen very often. Another interesting thing is that it started off with a questionnaire that was sent out to Roman Catholics allowing them the chance to respond to a set of questions with the idea that their responses would inform the bishops who have gone to Rome to have the conversation.

There will always be people who say, “How can it be that a bunch of supposedly celibate men make decisions about family life?” and there’s no escaping from that question in this day and age. However, the idea of consulting the whole church through a questionnaire was revolutionary.

The questionnaire itself was something of a mixed bag. It felt as though various tectonic plates within the Roman Catholic church were grinding together throughout its production. On the one hand it was an attempt to allow lay catholics to comment on their own situation but on the other, the dominant theme was that church teaching doesn’t change, so how can we present it in a better way to the world. It has been clear in the last week that there are enormous forces at work within the Roman Catholic church which are not all moving in the same direction. Some very highly placed leaders in the church have been disagreeing publicly about the way forward, particularly over whether divorced people should be able to receive communion in church.

With these forces at work, what we don’t know is whether there will be an earthquake or not.

This all has huge significance for non-Roman Catholics too. The reason for this is that the RC Church is such an incredible size in the world and the way it describes personal morality is very often a benchmark and indeed something which people presume all the churches sign up to.

I see a lot of Roman Catholics in St Mary’s. Sometimes they are simply visiting out of interest, for example during Open Church times or Doors Open Day. This week, we had a large funeral and lots of Roman Catholics were present both when the coffin was brought into church and at the funeral itself. During these kinds of times lots of conversations open up about some of the areas which the synod in Rome may tackle.

The reason that the Synod on the Family affects all Christians, not merely Roman Catholics is that we are related – marriages, baptisms, deaths all bring me into contact with Roman Catholics on a regular basis. We are in a sense, all family when it comes to the issues under discussion.

A typical conversation goes like this:

RC Visitor – “…but this looks just like a chapel.”

Self – “Yes, and if you came on Sunday you would recognise the service immediately”.

RC Visitor – “Yes, I know, I went to a requiem recently and it was just the same. It was exactly the same – well apart from the music which was much better. It was the same though and I couldn’t believe it.”

Self – “Yes, I know.”

RC Visitor – “So what are the differences then if there’s no difference in the worship?”

Self – “Well there’s a few differences in how we teach people about social issues”

RC Visitor – “Well what do you tell people about how they are to behave”.

Self – “Well, I don’t think we do that. We give people the chance to make their own minds up about things.”

RC Visitor – “Well do you give communion to people who are divorced?”

Self – “Yes, of course we do.”

RC Visitor – “Well that’s what took my sister away from the church, when the priest told her he would like to give her communion but he wasn’t allowed”

Self – “Yes it is a hard discipline.”

RC Visitor – “Can divorced people get married here?”

Self – “Yes, so long as I get the permission of the Bishop. ”

RC Visitor – “Oh, right. Can I give your number to my sister?

Self – “Yes, here’s my card”.

RC Visitor “And do you say abortion is OK too?”

Self – “No, I don’t say abortion is OK but I do think that sometimes it can be the only option and I think women are best placed to make that decision for themselves”

RC Visitor – “And I suppose you can have gays as priests too?”

Self – “I am a gay priest”.

RC Visitor – “We have gay priests too but they can’t say. It isn’t nice for them”.

Self – “And we have priests who are women too.”

RC Visitor “Oh we don’t have them, just nuns. You don’t have nuns.”

Self – “We have nuns”.

And so it goes.

That isn’t particularly an exaggeration – it is common to discuss all those issues within the space of 10 minutes and I know from other clergy that when they get the chance to talk to Roman Catholic folk, these are some of the very first topics that come up in conversation and some of them at least are the topics coming up in Rome this week.

Our prayers should be with the Roman Catholic bishops in Rome as they attend this special Synod on Family Life. The rules of their church cause some ordinary people great misery and heartache, notwithstanding the very best of intentions.

The picture, by the way, is one I took the other week in Verona. I rather like the Pope looking down in benediction on Romeo and Juliet. Not a bad picture to prompt our prayers this week.