Facing the ancient issue of remarriage

Tom Atkins and Tracy Morgan were waiting in the marriage register's office in London to speak to an official about their planned spring wedding.

Three days earlier, they had asked the vicar of their local Anglican church whether he would perform the ceremony but, according to Ms. Morgan, "He refused, because Tom's earlier marriage ended in divorce, and he said the Church of England does not remarry divorcs,"

So Morgan and Mr. Atkins are reconciled to forgoing a wedding in the Anglican church and intend to be married in a no-frills civil ceremony.

If they had been willing to wait a year or so (both were adamant that they were not), things might have been different.

Facing a rocketing divorce rate in Britain and public pressure for change, the Church of England has published a report (described as a "teaching document") that recommends allowing individual parish priests to use their discretion to agree to perform marriage services for divorced people.

To be put into effect, the proposals will have to be approved by the Church of England's ruling synod of bishops, but Victoria Combe, religious-affairs correspondent of London's Daily Telegraph, says it is probable that they will eventually go through in some form.

She explains: "The report is a clear attempt by the Church of England to adjust to a change in society and open its doors to a large number of couples who have suffered marriage breakdown and wish to start again."

In fact, Atkins and Morgan may have chosen the wrong clergyman to officiate at their marriage.

The Rt. Rev. Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, three miles away in south London, admits that although his church "in theory" forbids remarriage of divorced people, practice "varies from parish to parish".

"The ban," says Bishop Butler, "points to the ideal of marriage as a lifelong commitment, but we have to accept that people's lives fall short of the ideal and they may, with the highest motives, want to do better second time round."

Last September a Church of England spokesman admitted publicly that all 43 dioceses in Britain do allow second marriages. The new report is an attempt to rationalize what Bishop Butler calls the present "confusing and unfair" situation.

According to Church of England statistics, 1 in 10 weddings in its own parishes involves a person who has been divorced, and many couples have a church blessing after a civil ceremony.

For anyone visiting Britain, Anglican rules on divorce and remarriage can come as a surprise, and even for local people they are full of contradictions.

After all, King Henry VIII divorced two of his six wives, and declared himself Supreme Governor of the Church of England - a title Queen Elizabeth II retains.

When in the early 1990s Princess Anne, the Queen's divorced daughter, wished to remarry in an Anglican church, she knew she would be refused. So the couple headed north to Scotland, where the rules of the Church of Scotland permit remarriage of divorced people.

The situation is confused even further by a conflict between civil law and church rules.

While the Church of England officially forbids remarriage of those who have divorced, vicars have the status of legal registrars of their parishes and are thus able, says Ms. Combe, to assert their "civil right" to conduct remarriages.

Certainly the pressure on them to do so is mounting. Home Office statistics indicate that the divorce rate in the United Kingdom is nearly 1 of 2 marriages.

According to London-based matrimonial-law specialist Vanessa Lloyd Platts, the number of couples splitting up is now so large that her firm is having to turn people away. "We're talking about a progressive trend," she says.

Last year, Demos, a social-affairs think tank, proposed that, to reduce the divorce rate, couples should be allowed to enter into marriage contracts with a time limit of, say, five or 10 years.

Lucy Selleck, a counselor with Relate, a marriage-advice agency, reports that people are "more philosophical about relationships now" and are "not as desperate as they have been in the past to stay together."

Despite changes in the social climate, securing change in Church of England rules on remarrying divorced people does not promise to be easy. Anglican clergy are divided.

The Rt. Rev. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, is reported to be sympathetic to change (two of his four children are divorced), but others are fiercely opposed.

The Rev. David Holloway, a leading member of the Church of England's evangelical wing, calls the report "an assault on marriage" and predicts that, if implemented, it will "cause more marriages to break up because people will know they can go off and get married again in church."

It seems likely that as the Church of England debates the new teaching document, various ideas on how much change should be allowed will be canvassed.

A suggestion entertained by some clergy is that a church wedding could be granted if the divorced partner was not responsible for his or her earlier marriage breakup.

Another proposal would deny remarriage to a divorced person whose former partner was still alive.

One thing is certain: The document will be debated by every diocese before being put before the General Synod next year.

The final proposal will probably allow a conscience clause for clergy who believe in the indissolubility of marriage.

If put into effect, the proposed change in doctrine on remarriage after divorce will further distance the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

The report also raises the contentious issue of the personal intentions of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne and himself a divorc.

Charles has an ongoing relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, who is also divorced. He has told friends he would like to marry her, but under Church of England rules, and as a prospective supreme governor of that church, he can not.

In a guarded statement last year, Archbishop Carey made it clear that he opposes the idea of Charles marrying Mrs. Parker-Bowles.

In 1936, when King Edward Vlll decided to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Warfield Simpson, hostile public reaction forced him to abdicate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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