The Church underlined its traditional view of marriage as a "lifelong union" in a teaching document yesterday, but said there was no simple rule for discerning whether someone should be permitted to marry again after divorce because "each case is different".
For centuries the Church viewed marriage as an "indissoluble" union, exemplified in the wedding vow "till death us do part". But amid rocketing divorce rates, many clergy are bending the rules and remarrying divorced people in church. Whether the Church decides officially to endorse second marriages will depend on another report due in weeks.
This second report is believed to argue that remarriage in church should be permitted, as long as the new partner did not cause the break-up of the first marriage.
The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, who chaired the committee producing the forthcoming report, said yesterday the Church was concerned with "how to hold together its conviction about marriage and the reality that marriages for a variety of reasons break down".Britain has the highest divorce rate in the European Union, with two out of every five marriages ending in divorce, as well as the highest number of remarriages.
In 1996 a total of 278,975 marriages took place in England and Wales. In 201,043 of the marriages, at least one partner was a divorce. About one-sixth of remarrying couples had religious ceremonies.
Yesterday's document hinted at the direction the Church is taking. Under the heading: Does the Church believe that a further marriage is possible after divorce?, the bishops said in some circumstances "it may be responsible, prudent (eg, in relation to the care of young children) and emotionally wise". They stressed that, in such cases, "a new relationship is needed, avoiding suspicion that the new marriage consecrates an old infidelity".
The document says the Church will advise a divorced person against hurrying into a new marriage, but, "if, after a serious length of time living alone and dealing responsibly with the legacy of the past marriage, you are certain that God has called you to a new one, the Church will pray with you and your new partner".
The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Rev John Gladwin, described the teaching document as "the basis of all the work we are doing affecting marriage, including the question of marriage after divorce".
On the issue of cohabitation, the document acknowledges some unmarried couples are "living naturally together among (their) friends as husband and wife".
But the superiority of marriage is underlined: the Church would always encourage such couples to "make the public stand that is implied in (their) way of life", the report says.
Bishop Gladwin was asked if he would prefer divorced people to cohabit in the long-term or remarry. "One of the amazing things is that people who experience the trauma of breakdown (of marriage) nevertheless return to it," he said. "We are in the business of helping people to recover the vision of what this gift of marriage is. We are saying, `Don't get stuck short of the real thing. We are here to help you, as best we can, to make a go of it'."
The Church also said it would take a fresh look at the preliminaries to marriage, particularly the reading of banns. It plans to review residence qualifications formarrying in a church of one's choice, the use of non- Anglican rites in Anglican church wedding services, and the times between which a marriage may be solemnised.Reuse content