Tuesday, 26 January 2016

On Affirming Marriage as a Lifelong Union

Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, like others, claims that
To remarry divorcees and to conduct same-sex marriages both go against the Primates' Communique, which affirms that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union.”
This implies that the Church of England’s practice, which allows remarriage of divorcees in some circumstances, and its official doctrine as expressed in Canon B 30
The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Like others, Angus Ritchie is coy about spelling out what if anything is to be done about this contradiction. 
  • Does it matter whether or not the Church acts in accordance with its beliefs?
  • If so, should the Church  revert to its more rigorous practice of not allowing divorcees to get married in church?
  • Or should the Church adapt doctrine to practice and abandon the doctrine that marriage is a lifelong union?
(Ritchie's general argument suggest to me that he would not be content with blatant contradiction between doctrine and practice and his endorsement of Jeffrey John's Permanent, Faithful, Stable suggests that he does not want to abandon the idea that marriage involves "faithful, lifelong union" but I am not aware of any efforts on his part to revert to a less liberal marriage practice in relation to divorcees.)

The claim that the practice of remarriage of divorcees is incompatible with the view that marriage is a lifelong union is presented as self-evident. But it can hardly be said to be self-evident. Why?
Because for at least one and a half millennia the Eastern Churches strongly affirmed that marriage is a lifelong union, while allowing for the possibility (and permissibility in some circumstances) of divorce with right of remarriage, appealing to Origen and Basil among others.

Because even within the Western Church this was rarely undisputed. There was a period of about 400 years from the Decretum of Gratian onwards during which (Christian!) marriage was held to be indissoluble without much contradiction but the issue was re-opened during the Reformation period. The Reformers abandoned the principle of absolute indissolubility for theological and pastoral reasons and “believed that in doing so, they were recalling the Church to the Scriptural teaching on marriage and divorce.” (Atkinson)*

Because in spite of the fact that the Church of England adopted the most stringent practice in all of Christendom, as far as mainstream churches are concerned anyway, a division of opinion on this matter has been characteristic of Anglican history.

All are (were?) agreed that God’s will for marriage is for it to be a permanent and lifelong union. The debate concerns whether the claim that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union” expresses God’s design which can however be broken or whether a valid marriage once entered into on these terms is a “lifelong union” in the sense that it can ever be broken in God’s sight, whatever the civil authorities declare.

The claim that remarriage of divorcees invariably goes against the view that marriage is a lifelong union seems to presumes not only the view usually attributed to the Roman Catholic Church that sacramental marriage forms a bond which is only severed at death but also extends this principle to all marriages, whether they involve Christians or not. (See here a statement on why marriage that involves someone who is not baptised can be fully valid and even conducted in church without being sacramental according to Roman Catholic church law.)

In short, the assumption behind the claim that remarriage of divorcees goes against an affirmation that marriage must be “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union” is highly controversial. To present the claim as self-evident betrays either an astonishing ignorance of other Christian views on the matter or a breathtakingly arrogant confidence that other views can be dismissed without even being mentioned.

An incumbent within the Church of England should not remain in such ignorance. For the benefit of anyone needing a crash-course in the discussion preceding the change in practice within the Church of England I have excerpted David Atkinson’s To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce (St James’s Place, London: Collins, 1979) in notes from chapter 1 (areas of disagreement), chapter 2 (historical sketch), chapter 3 (marriage as covenant), chapter 4 (background and biblical evidence), chapter 5 here (principles for a Christian view of divorce) and here (applications of these principles), and chapter 6 (the pastoral problem of divorce and remarriage). A more recent, very learned but not Anglican discussion can be found at http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/.

Quick summary:

(1) Some believe that no (Christian) marriage ever comes to an end in this life. This is the position usually identified with the Roman Catholic Church.
(2) Some believe that there are two ways in which a marriage can end, through death or through sin. This is the position of the Orthodox churches and of the Protestant Reformers.
(3) Some believe that there are many which in a marriage can end other than death and sin. This seems to be the most widespread view in Western society outside the church.

The phrase "lifelong union" means different things to different people.
  • For those affirming (1) it describes an inescapable fact about marriage. 
  • For those affirming (2) it says something about what marriage intrinsically is according to God's design which is however breakable, a bit like saying a house is a space with walls and roof does not imply that the roof cannot fall down.
  • For those affirming 3) the phrase expresses at best an aspiration rather than something that marriage intrinsically is.

*Note Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (Boydell Press, 2000)