Church history on divorce instructive on same-sex marriage

The Anglican Church's traditional stance on divorce should serve as a warning on the issue of same-sex marriage

By Muriel Porter

August 8 2016Bishop Richard Condie’s call for the Church to “point out the truth” that marriage is “rightly understood to be between a man and woman” despite what he sees as the inevitability of a change to that definition in law puts the Church in real danger. It is in danger of doing the very same damage it did to itself over divorce.

Older readers will remember only too well the hurt done to Anglicans who were refused remarriage in their Church up until the mid 1980s. The hurt reverberated across families, among neighbours and friends, down the generations and also within congregations. Divorcees, for instance, were not allowed to join the Mothers’ Union. The Anglican Church was held in contempt because of it in many quarters.

While the Roman Catholic Church had, and still has, strict laws against remarriage, its annulment processes continue to provide a way around them; the Anglican Church had room for no exemptions. It was a harsh stand taken explicitly on the grounds of Scripture and tradition, the same grounds Bishop Condie is relying on.

The Church, though, had far greater Scriptural warrant for condemning divorce than it has for condemning same-sex relationships. Jesus had nothing specific to say about gay people, but was quite explicit in his condemnation of divorce – see Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12 for instance. In both these passages, Jesus is quoted as saying “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”. This crystal clear command was the Anglican Church’s fundamental position, a position that continued even as divorce began to be more prevalent in society from the latter years of the 19th century.

Given the changing external situation, the issue dominated Lambeth Conferences from 1888 onwards. Between 1908 and 1948, the conference position became harsher, moving from remarriage not being desirable in 1908, to not being recommended in 1930, until being ultimately forbidden in 1948. Australia was not immune – commissions and Appellate Tribunals examined the matter in detail. In one commission report, Lord Fisher of Lambeth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was quoted as saying that “our Lord stated truly and finally what marriage is in reality and truth… Our Lord left his Church no power to alter the true principle of marriage, for it is not an ‘ideal’ but a fact of God’s will and ordinance. And it is the duty of the Church to uphold that at all costs.”

But the Anglican Church in Australia did change its mind, as eventually the Church of England did as well. Here, the change was led by a Primate, the Melbourne Archbishop Frank Woods, who told his synod in 1973 – two years before “no fault” divorce was legislated – that he had changed his mind about divorce because of the pressing pastoral needs of the people whose lives were impacted by marriage breakdown. He would henceforth allow remarriage of divorcees in Church, even though the national Church had not yet passed the legislation. Twelve years later, the national Church finally did so.

At last, as a Church, we could minister effectively to people whose lives had been so badly damaged by our earlier intransigence.

When same-sex marriage is legislated in this country – and I agree with Bishop Condie that the change is not a matter of “if” but “when” – in like fashion to the divorce debate, we should engage in a mature and thoughtful theological reflection on the biblical teaching relating to same sex relationships to discern what Bishop Condie seeks as “the truth”. Can we remain so absolute in our interpretation of those biblical texts claimed as opposing same-sex relationships while no longer insisting on an absolute interpretation on divorce? 

And we cannot seriously offer “grace and kindness and a welcome to all” as Bishop Condie suggests while ignoring the love that two people of the same gender long to share with each other. This is the “pressing pastoral need” the Church needs to honour today.

Instead of condemning this longing for a permanent loving relationship with the status of marriage, we should instead seek to bless it, as we now bless the remarriage of divorced persons.

Dr Muriel Porter is a Church historian who has written about divorce for the General Synod Doctrine Commission.

TMA invited Bishop Condie to respond to this viewpoint, but he declined.

See TMA’s report on Bishop Condie’s presidential address to Synod hereSee his full address here.