A favourite quote:
“The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes, but is tolerant in practice because she loves. Enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe, but they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.” Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange
The quote highlights the problem I have with modernist calls, ahead of the next Synod on the family, for radical change in church teaching regarding the admission of divorced and re-married people to communion. I fear the liberal desire falls into the latter category. Let me use a story to explain what I mean.
As a former Anglican I have already served within a church that relaxed its teaching and practice where divorce and re-marriage are concerned. So that today the vast majority of Anglican parishes offer re-marriage without recourse to annulment. So long as the local vicar is satisfied the marriage goes ahead. A few refuse to perform these services but the majority do.
At re-marriages the same vows are made as at first marriages, which is clearly problematic. A man or woman vows to remain with new spouse “till death us do part, for better or worse” even though everyone is aware that those vows were already said to another. How can it not cheapen the vows if most people endorse the breaking of them when things don’t work out? Should they not be rewritten to suggest the new transitory nature?
In defence of remarriage the case is made using the language of mercy. Poor old Mr X made a mess before, but he is now sorry and seeks a new start with Mrs Y? The vows are explained away as representing the intention in marriage, even if human frailty cannot ensure they will stand up. I get the argument, I really do. But if this is where the debate finishes then we are in danger of losing sight of the larger picture. Which is to say that the real victims of divorce are silenced and receive no mercy at all. What of the former Mrs X? What of the children?
Mercy matters but so does justice. And the problem is that divorce is never as clean cut as liberal arguments would have us believe. For every person who is lucky enough to move on to the point that new vows seem desirable, so there are victims languishing in sorrow whose pain never leaves them. I will never forget a grandmother telling me on her deathbed that she still wept about the man who had deserted her sixty years before.
And it is almost always women and children who suffer. A third of children whose fathers leave the family home eventually lose contact altogether. I know of somebody who had no childhood relationship with a grandfather who abandoned his wife and sons for his secretary. Though he eventually patched things up with his boys he would always look to the second family as his own with a more distant attachment to the first. A situation causing more pain than I think he ever actually realised.
So to my story which shows how easily the real victims of divorce are neglected- I am changing names to protect identities.
Colin, an Anglican clergyman, had an affair and broke the heart of his wife, Claire. The first time she forgave him but when he repeatedly returned to his transgression it caused the death of that marriage. A painful divorce followed that inevitably hurt everyone involved.
If we follow his story alone then he suffered as the marriage collapsed but went on to marry again. And, scandalously, during the breakup he was able to remain in office, living in the vicarage and preaching from the pulpit as his lover sat in the pews. The diocese did not want to get too close to what they deemed to be a personal matter.
But for Claire, the victim let us recall, she not only lost husband but home. She was sent packing with less than a months stipend depending on benefits and handouts to survive. Today she holds several low paid jobs to make ends meet and lives in cramped accomodation. The divorce impacted negatively even if time proved a healer. Two decades supporting a clergy family counting for nothing when disaster struck. For a Church of England soft on divorce was impotent to help. As the archdeacon explained to her- it is happening so much we simply don’t have the resources to help you…so much for mercy.
We have to be merciful but never naive. And mercy without justice is no mercy at all. Last time the Synod met we heard much concerning same sex couples and those hungering to have their second marriages acknowledged. We heard nothing about jilted spouses and damaged children- the fallout of broken family life. Why was that? Forget legalism, often touted by progressives as a rebuke to those who resist, simple justice alone surely demands we acknowledge victims of family break down and care for them? That we do not hurt them even more by publicly acknowledging the new relationships that cause them so much pain?
I always imagined the Church stood up for marriage as lifelong union for two reasons. Firstly because God revealed it. That is enough. Secondly because it is the only way to protect those who could so easily be abandoned and deeply wounded if the slightest suggestion is given that divorce is OK. Heaven knows marriage is hard enough, at times, without the sense that leaving it for somebody new doesn’t really matter.
In an era when families are falling apart, we should be using the Synod and year of mercy to highlight the needs of children and to double our efforts on holding all families together. Not acquiescing to the prevailing culture under the pretence that divorce can ever be a merciful thing worthy of the church’s praise.
The bottom line: I am genuinely interested in finding new ways to offer hope to sinners in need of mercy. Heaven knows I am the lousiest of sinners myself. But let us move with eyes open and beware laws of unintended consequences. The anulment process is already amazingly generous and helps people move forward. But what else can we do? In helping the remarried find their way forward we must not further betray the real victims of divorce. Those so often forgotten in debates on marital life.