In 1983 the Church of England thought it had finally hit on the scheme that would end its troubled debate on what to do with divorced people who wanted to get married again (to different people). Two years earlier, the Church's General Synod had accepted that there were "circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner". The problem was how to decide what those circumstances were. Options A to F are lost in the mists of time; Option G, if I recall correctly, was accepted at one Synod meeting and thrown out at the next. Had it come into force, the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles would have had to submit their request to marry in writing to their local vicar, providing various details of past relationships. He would have passed it on to his bishop who, in turn, would have referred it to a pastoral panel to consider. A verdict would then have come back down the line. The applicants, meanwhile, would have had plenty to time to fall out with each other. They would almost certainly have fallen out with the Church.
When the scheme collapsed in the following year, the bishops acknowledged the awkward truth that they could not legally stop vicars and rectors marrying whom they wanted. There followed nearly two decades of anarchy, as successive committees attempted to impose some sort of order on the Church's practice. Finally, four years ago, the Synod agreed a set of guidelines that clergy could consult when approached by a divorced person seeking a second marriage in church. One clause concerned the possibility of scandal, particularly if the new partner had been implicated in the break up of the first marriage. In such circumstances, the recommended course of action was a civil marriage followed by a service of prayer and dedication.
When the announcement was made by Clarence House on Thursday morning, it was followed by a flurry of e-mail statements from bishops saying how "delighted" they were at the news. I can't have been the only one who detected a great sense of relief behind the statements. The Prince of Wales might well have opted for a church wedding - it wouldn't have been hard to find an obliging priest or bishop to officiate - in which case the Church reaction would have been more mixed. As it is, the service of prayer and dedication is deliberately low-key: "the husband and wife should enter the church together without ceremony" say the notes. The rings may be blessed, but there shouldn't be any fiddling about with them; they should stay on fingers. The service contains a confession, though this is optional. The object is to pray with the couple that God will bless their life together.
Theologically, it has to be said, there is no essential difference between this and a wedding service. There, too, the couple marry each other; the priest's role is to mediate God's blessing on their relationship. Nevertheless, by separating the two acts, and avoiding some of the trappings, it is thought that this arrangement prevents any undermining of marriage. It's an argument that I've always found rather odd. I fail to see the logic behind the approach that says, in essence, that if we treat divorced people coldly, it bolsters everyone else's marriage.
This has been National Marriage Week, and it provides an opportunity to ask a few pertinent questions. Does the Church help people when they first consider marriage, so that they enter it with the right expectations? Indifferently, at best. Does it regularly support married couples, especially when they hit difficulties? Hardly. Does it apply censure and sympathy when one partner strays? It depends very much on the parish and clergy. What does it do instead to bolster marriage? It waits until someone from a failed marriage approaches it to support a second attempt, and then gets all sniffy.
Such behaviour might keep pure the conceptof church marriage, but it only does so by staying out of the mess and confusion that people make of their relationships. My sort of church is one that gets involved. Yes, separation and divorce are hugely undermining, but chiefly of the individuals affected. If the Church found a better way of looking after them, I feel that the institution of marriage would look after itself.
Prince Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles have been more aware than most of the painful mess caused by people falling in and out of love. They are certainly aware of the danger of making a wrong move. Given the enduring nature of their relationship, the Church's blessing on their proposed marriage seems entirely the right thing.
Paul Handley is editor of the `Church Times'Reuse content