Faith & Reason: Does the Church do enough to support the institution of marriage?

The Church of England should look after those caught up in the mess we sometimes make when falling in and out of love

Share

There is a certain vintage of church journalist, and sadly I am one, who can be identified by our reaction to a simple phrase: "Option G". Whisper it into our ear, and the blood drains from our limbs.

There is a certain vintage of church journalist, and sadly I am one, who can be identified by our reaction to a simple phrase: "Option G". Whisper it into our ear, and the blood drains from our limbs.

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'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This winner of the best new business in shrops...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Email Marketing Services

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are looking for a highly or...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultan...

Recruitment Genius: Plumber

£22000 - £25900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is expanding and th...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The seven leaders of Britain's main political parties took part in the general election live debate (AFP)  

General Election 2015: The idea that one party can represent all that we believe in just doesn’t apply any more

Armando Iannucci
 

You don't have to pity Clarkson. But he raises an important point

Simon Kelner
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders