Leading Article: When marriage turns into a life sentence

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THE CHURCH in Wales is considering whether to recognise divorce. That is what the dispute about remarriage in church is about. All churches in practice accept that some marriages break down and cease to function as a human relationship. The question is whether a marriage that has broken down can also cease to exist, so that a new one can be entered into.

This is a problem deeply troubling to those who believe that marriage is a sacramental and divinely ordained institution. If a marriage is purely a human or social relationship, it can obviously come to an end and be replaced by another without its essential character being affected.

None the less, many believe that the churches should uphold life-long and indissoluble marriage as the Christian ideal. St Mark's gospel seems quite free of loopholes on this point. 'Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.'

In St Matthew's gospel, this bald prohibition is qualified by allowing divorce on the grounds of adultery, though even that softer line horrifies the Disciples. 'If this is the case between husband and wife, it were better not to marry,' they reply. And St Paul, extending the argument, thought almost anything better than marriage.

For most of Christian history, it was possible to take these positions literally, as the Roman Catholic Church still pretends to do, with its insistence on annulments rather than divorce. That position is almost untenable nowadays. Marriage is no longer an economic necessity for most Western women; if it seems intolerable, they will leave - and they do. Also, people live longer; 'till death us do part' was a very much shorter term in the 16th century than it is today.

To chain people inside loveless marriages and deprive them of all hope of a better one can be neither good policy nor good Christianity. The sweeping commandments of the Gospel were, even in their historical context, intended to make a vivid moral point, rather than to legislate. They cannot be literally binding on the churches today. The purpose of Christian churches must be to nurture living marriages. To do this, they must recognise that dead ones sometimes need be pruned away.