Some Anglican clergy have recognised a need for couples to absolve the guilt of marital failure with a special church service. Paddy Burt reports
Three years ago the Reverend Richard Woodham, Anglican Vicar of St Mary Magdalene in Norwich, performed a formal "divorce service" for a couple planning to get married. "It was second time for both of them and they were still racked with guilt over the failure of their first marriages. They just couldn't let go. They needed to leave the past behind," he says.

He wrote the service himself, basing it on the marriage service. It contains phrases like: "Release me from my vows, forgive me all that is past" and "Father, I give you this ring as a sign that my marriage is over". It ends with: "You stand in the presence of God, you are legally divorced, you have been released from your vows."

"I have children of 18, 20 and 23 and was married to a clergyman for 20 years," says Cathy Shiret. "I left the marriage because there had been a total communication breakdown between us and, as you can imagine, it was very traumatic time. The service was the result of a discussion between Father Richard and myself. I felt very let down by the Church because I was getting no help at all, and eventually a friend invited me along to his church to meet Father Richard, I spent a long time talking about the divorce and my feelings about it. And then, when I met David and began to look towards the future, it really did become apparent I needed to get rid of the past.

"The service itself was a low-key event. We just turned up one Sunday evening at Richard's church, after Evensong. It was very quiet, no one was around. We lit a couple of candles and I suppose the service took about half an hour. I found it very emotional, very painful. It was difficult to say the words. I cried - mostly because of my part in the pain I have caused my family, particularly my children. That was the main thing. Their pain. It was purely my feelings as a mother. Somehow the service just felt right ... though I still get choked up when I talk about it."

"We were both in the same situation," says Cathy's new husband, David. "Each of us wanting to tie up the loose ends of our previous marriages and this seemed such a positive thing to do. The church should realise it has a pastoral role to play in society and that, at the moment, there is nothing it can offer to people like us. Obviously the service doesn't have to be for two people - we did it as a pair because we were going to be married.

"And as both of us still had our wedding rings hidden away in drawers, we felt that returning them should also be part of the service. They are blessed during the wedding ceremony, so it seemed logical they should go back via the same channels. They were a symbol, when you first started out, of what was good and what was love and the last thing you want is to have them lying around as a reminder of the past. They were sold and the money given to Christian Aid.

"When I said `Father, I give you back this ring', I really felt I could go forward from that point, I was able to ask for forgiveness for the fact I hadn't been able to keep my vows. It really did make me feel better. I felt I had made my peace with God and was able to go forward and remarry. Guilt plays a big part in the whole process of divorce, and what I felt was guilt, shame and failure. The guilt was that I had said in the presence of God that the marriage would be until death us do part ... and it wasn't. Maybe if I hadn't been contemplating another relationship, I wouldn't have done it. I would probably still be struggling with my guilt."

Their story has only come to light because another priest, Canon Michael Woods, of Great Yarmouth, last month sought to get the practice of "divorce ceremonies" officially recognised by the Norwich Diocesan Synod. His calls for an approved form of words were voted down two to one, a decision endorsed by the Church of England General Synod. Church leaders were reported to be "appalled", saying that the service breached the Church of England's unambiguous belief that marriage is for life.

The Rt Reverend Michael Gear, Suffragen Bishop of Doncaster, puts it rather more succinctly: "While the Church of England recognises that divorce takes place, the idea that it could be marked by an act of worship does not seem a good one," he says.

"Nonetheless I am confident this issue will be back on the agenda in a year or two," says Canon Woods. "I believe there is a movement afoot towards more enlightened thinking within the Church. My attempt to get the practice of `funerals for marriages' approved did, after all, come from a unanimous vote in the Yarmouth deanery and, since then, people have written from all over the country saying that there are a lot of these services around."

One was conducted by the Reverend Steven Allen, Vicar of St John's, in Horton, Bradford. "It was for a woman, let's call her Ann, who had been divorced against her wishes. She came to me for help. She told me that, while she felt God had been present at her marriage, which was in church, the divorce simply consisted of letters and solicitors and, in a sense, was very Godless. Where did she go from here, she wondered? She felt lost. The point of the service was to reassure her of God's love and how we - and all her friends - still loved and accepted her. She brought her parents and a few close friends along, there were about eight of us altogether."

Although Mr Allen's service deliberately avoided absolving Ann from her vows - "I don't think priests have the authority to do that" - it did include asking God to release her from her feelings of guilt. "I felt I could go that far, because even an innocent person in a divorce - if there is such a thing as a totally innocent person - bears a tremendous burden of guilt."

"We have a lot of backing," Mr Woods insists, "particularly at ground level. It's when you go off the ground that you mix with people who aren't quite as in touch as they might be. The problem is that most Church leaders now are career people, so consequently we are dealing with their fear of rocking the boat - the fear of losing support, of losing people. People say to me: `Well, yes, Michael, I think you're right, but ...' "

Then something totally unexpected happened. The Church Times, which many might have thought would be against the practice of home-made ceremonies, published a sympathetic leader. Entitled "Damping the Ashes of a Former Marriage", it said: "Acknowledging and absolving guilt is the Church's business ... and guilt there is in plenty when a marriage breaks down, especially for those who have tried to live up to the Church's standards. Unlifted, it can prove a heavy burden ... The fear that such services will undermine the institution of marriage is unfounded. All the indications are that those clerics who offer such services do so diffidently and in response to genuine need."

Glyn Paflin, who works as an editor on the Church Times, and who was brought up to believe that marriage is for life, has reservations. "Marriage vows are between the couple and God and it's their business what they do with them," he says. "What makes me uneasy about this particular service is that the priest claims to release the couple from their vows and he doesn't have the Church's authority to do that. Maybe there could be a form of prayer for people who have decided that divorce is the best thing for them."

But suppose one of those people "with genuine need" had also been the so-called guilty party in a divorce? "Um," says Father Richard. "It seems to me that, in almost every relationship that fails, it takes two. I would never do this kind of service unless I was sure that the people involved had reflected on what had gone wrong and their part in it. And even if someone was perhaps more sinned against than sinning - well, we do collude, don't we, and a perception of how you allowed someone to walk all over you is a recognition of your own sinfulness, isn't it? Yes," he concludes, "I believe that if people have looked at everything and repented of all the stuff that caused pain, no prob."

And at least priests like Richard Woodham and Michael Woods are doing their best for their flock as they see it. And surely such a caring attitude makes people warm to the Church, not turn away. Perhaps the Church should reflect on whether it wants to retain credibility in a rapidly changing society and, if so, whether its public face should become more human. Or, as Glyn Paflin more graphically puts it: "With so many people getting divorced, the Church can't be seen to be doing nothing at all."