Could a theologian please help…?

I’ve been reading the Church of England’s official response to the government’s equal marriage consultation, and I’m puzzled.

It’s this paragraph near the start that is the problem:

In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.

“One man with one woman”, yes. But also “lifelong”. Now the Church of England has some history when it comes to divorce. Indeed, it was founded to allow one man to divorce…

The current Church of England recognises and accepts divorce:

We recognise that some marriages do fail for all sorts of sad and painful reasons… The Church of England agreed in 2002 that divorced people could remarry in church under certain circumstances. However, because the Church views marriage to be lifelong, there is no automatic right to do so and it is left to the discretion of the Priest.

So my puzzlement is simply this: if the Church of England accepts that “lifelong” is not a permanent feature of marriage, but instead embraces the change that was the introduction of divorce, why does it say that the “one man with one woman” part must be immutable?

Why, moreover, does it see so little connection between the two issues that its arguments that “one man with one woman” is immutable start up front with a description of marriage as being “lifelong” when in fact it accepts that part has changed?

10 responses to “Could a theologian please help…?”

  1. My qualifications for writing this.

    I am a Methodist minister.

    I am divorced and re-married.

    My church has been prepared to re marry divorcees for a long time, though a conscience clause insists that no minister can be made to marry anyone who is previously divorced if they believe that “life-long means “life-long”.

    I hold two degrees in theology and have been a minister for 30 years.

    There are times when we do say no to remarriage. This will include things like a man leaving his wife to marry a younger woman simply because he fancies someone who will give him more athletic sex. On a more serious note a man who has got a neighbour pregnant by committing adultery is not likely to find us welcoming either.

    I am sorry for the length of what follows but it reflects the scale of the issue. You can read the article fairly quickly to get the overall flavour of the argument or, if you so wish, you can read it slowly. You will be left with, yes but, what if, because the whole area is shrouded in tensions and there is no simple, quick answer.

    The teaching of Jesus on marriage as a life long union.
    Mark 10v1. Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied. 4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” 5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’[a] 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] 8 and the two will become one flesh.’[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”.

    a. Mark 10:6 Gen. 1:27 b. Mark 10:7 Some early manuscripts do not have and be united to his wife. c. Mark 10:8 Gen. 2:24

    On the face of it Jesus says that divorce is wrong and that, as disciples of Jesus, Christians must obey his teaching and we cannot divorce.

    The tension between sin and forgiveness.

    Firstly, the church takes seriously the notion of sin. We are not always good people. We can deliberately live in a way that contradicts our faith and the commands of God. The story of Adam is not a scientific explanation of how the universe began but it tells a human truth. We are sinful people and sin is rooted in our disobedience of God.

    The Christian church believes that the reason Jesus came was so that our broken relationship with God may be healed through his death and resurrection. As Jesus shared our humanity so we can share his goodness.
    But it carries the rider that while we must strive to be more like Jesus we are also human. We make mistakes and we sometimes deliberately do what we know we shouldn’t. Christians believe that if they say sorry to God we will be forgiven. (I hope you are still with me!)

    Because we are in a living relationship with God, many Christians believe that He confronts us with that which is wrong and that He ultimately does not allow us to continue our bad behaviour, but will challenge it and make us face up to it. Both parents and teachers do that all the time.

    The point is we live in a tension. We know how we should live. We know that we must strive to be better people and that when we fail we can be forgiven. It is not always straightforward being a Christian. But the church believes that sin and forgiveness is a reality and we live in the tension between the two.

    The reality of sin and forgiveness in marriage.

    So, people fall out of love. Relationships can become abusive. They can sometimes fizzle out. Do we then condemn people to live in a relationship that is no longer truly a marriage? Do we demand that people should live in loneliness and misery simply waiting for the time when either they or their partner die?
    If we believe that God forgives our sin do we say that breaking our marriage vows is not forgivable and that divorce cannot happen? If we believe that, then we must ask, why did Jesus die?

    If divorce is against the will of God, then to choose it is to disobey Him. Technically that is sin. But Jesus died so that our sins can be forgiven. Should a forgiven person be told, yes you are forgiven but you cannot enter into a second marriage in church?

    While the Church does not want marriages to break up we must also recognise that forgiveness for the mistakes that we made in our relationship can be forgiven and that we can move on.

    Historic Background.

    In ancient Israel – and in some Jewish movements of today – a man might divorce his wife. He had to give no reason and there was no appeal. If he said, I divorce thee, three times the marriage was ended.
    Where then did the woman go? Divorce was a disgrace both to the woman and to her family. How would she earn her living? Who would support her? What if her family would not take her back? These were live issues.

    A Jewish woman could not divorce her husband. The very most that she could do was to persuade the elders of the village to bully her husband into divorcing her. He could be a child abuser and yet she could not divorce him. (Incidentally, the Times reported a case in modern Israel where a man in prison for abusing a minor refused to divorce his wife. The rabbi’s could not grant the woman a religious divorce even though she had gained one from the State. It is huge issue and it can be found here in Britain as well).

    In a world where a man could divorce a woman for the simple reason she had burned his dinner the words of Jesus gave her protection.

    Jesus clearly subscribed to the idea that it is God’s will that marriage should be life-long. Marriage is something that is good for the fabric of society and it is a good place in which to raise children.

    But we live with the reality of life as it is. There is a tension and we can no longer say, divorce is a sin that cannot be forgiven.

    We also live in the tension that in an ideal world we live with God’ will that marriage should be life-long but that a forgiving God surely does not want the Church to turn away those are divorced. The father welcome back the prodigal son, should we not reach out to those who turn to God and the church as they seek to make a new start in their life?

    ps, never, ever ask a theologian (or for that matter a minister) for an answer. It will never be short because faith and life can be messy.

    • Tash there has always been alternative lifestyles to marriage. Even our understanding of what we mean by Christian marriage varies from culture to culture and age to age. In some periods of history marriage has been simply about producing children and to help men deal with their lust (See the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer). I would hope to God that we have kicked that into the dustbin of history.

      I prefer to see marriage as that God given place which is good for people’s spiritual, emotional and physical well being. That Does Not mean that I condemn other forms ways of people living together; it is not my place to impose my beliefs on others, but despite my own life story I hold to the concept that marriage is the will of God and is what is best for us. But it is a personal viewpoint and I do not deny that others find ways of being in a stable, happy and fulfilling relationship.

      I simply wonder why people do not take the logical step and enter into the legal and public commitment of marriage when the reality of their life is that is where they are at.

      Unless there are compelling reasons, the Christian Church should not turn people away when they come to us to enter into something which we believe God has made us for.

    • As the ex wife I do not regret my marriage as we have two amazing sons. We were no longer in love and I believe that staying together would have been more of a sin than going our separate ways. I also think the demands of the Christian church on it's clergy had a lot to do with it …. but that's a while new discussion.

  2. If I dare add to Philip's comprehensive answer. While divorce was allowed in both the Old and the New Testaments, gay sex is not. I can't see that this is something we can change our minds on. the New Testament is specific in it's opposition to same sex relationships. The issue has been muddled by those who forgotten the maxim to 'hate the sin and love the sinner' and are guilty of homophobia and that is wrong. I don't have a problem with same sex couples who want to get married, but I can't pretend that this is in line with the teaching of the Bible and therefore couldn't support church marriage.

  3. I just love the lengths we go to to deny "love". Maybe it is my particular "liberal theology" showing, but whenever it takes us pages of text just to deny that two people can marry, I am reminded of the indictment Jesus made against the "white-washed graves". There is considerable evidence that Jesus would not be an overly legalistic thinker.

    Indeed even Paul, from all we think of his rules and regulations, produced that famous "love is patient" tract. Which does of course, state that love is superior to anything, INCLUDING faith, as in "if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."

    Given that Jesus and St Paul are the two founders of Christianity, and that both place love at the centre of their theology (and the agape love of Christians is an instinctively liberal concept), to me means that the rules against gay marriage (based on an outdated natural law) are no longer applicable.

    Just let people marry each other, let love win.

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