The different churches' teachings about divorce and its effect on remarriage.
Last updated 2009-06-23
The different churches' teachings about divorce and its effect on remarriage.
In Christian law, marriage is a sacred institution. However, a variety of denominations have different approaches to divorce (the legal separation of a married couple).
Whilst the Church of England does not encourage divorce, it has the structure to help and sympathise with those who find themselves in such a situation.
Until the 16th century CE, the Church in England recognised the Pope's authority. However, when Catherine of Aragon failed to produce a male heir for Henry VIII, and was considered too old to give birth to any more children, Henry wanted to divorce her. The Pope refused permission and so the only way for Henry to get what he wanted was to break away from the Vatican and make divorce legal. The Archbishop of Canterbury granted Henry a divorce in 1533 (under pressure) and Henry made himself head of the Church of England.
We've sanitised the Reformation. We've made it sound as though it was a marital tiff between Henry the VIII and Katherine of Aragon... And so he changes the church, and then we go 'Ho, ho, ho - isn't that funny? Y'know the Church of England is founded on adultery,' which is to some degree true.
What we forget is that what it unleashed over the next 30 years was the most... astonishing destruction of the sacred in its visible form you've ever seen.
Martin Palmer, historian
By allowing himself to remarry, Henry made the same thing possible for his subjects. But just because remarriage is legally allowed, that doesn't mean couples have an automatic right to remarry in church.
Remarriage is always allowed if the couple's former spouses are dead. The matter becomes more complicated if one or both of the exes is still living.
The Church has had a clear stance on the subject of a Christian remarriage since the General Synod meeting of 2002. In a vote concerning marriage after divorce, the outcome was 269 votes to 83 in support of change.
The Church of England teaches that marriage is for life. It also recognizes that some marriages sadly do fail and, if this should happen, it seeks to be available for all involved. The Church accepts that, in exceptional circumstances, a divorced person may marry again in church during the lifetime of a former spouse.
General Synod, 2002
Under civil law, clergy have the capacity to marry any two people (as long as the couple can legally marry). The Church advises clergy to think carefully before remarrying couples and to ask them questions to find out how committed they are. The final decision rests with the clergy member.
The Church's suggested questions concentrate on the intentions of the couple and whether allowing the remarriage would be harmful to anybody involved:
This last question became very pertinent when Prince Charles married the divorcée Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005. Had their adultery contributed to the failure of Camilla's first marriage? The Church thought so.
The royal couple could not marry in church. They had to marry in a civil ceremony, although church rules allowed their marriage to be blessed in church afterwards.
The Catholic Church has strict guidelines on divorce. The Church considers the bond of marriage to be a sacred bond, one that is based on life-long love, fidelity and family. Marriage is both a legal bond on earth and spiritual bond which God has witnessed. The latter cannot be broken using temporal laws.
This causes pain to many remarried Catholics because the Eucharist is central to their faith.
An annulment, known also as a Decree of Nullity, is not the same as a divorce. It is a declaration that the marriage was never valid in the first place.
An annulment will be considered if there is reasonable proof that the bond between the two parties was invalid from the first day of marriage. The annulment process can take between 9 - 24 months or sometimes longer. Over 50,000 annulments are granted every year throughout the world.
Grounds for an annulment include:
The annulment process is not arbitrary. There are strict Church guidelines which must be followed as part of a tribunal to establish whether marriage was present from the beginning or not. There are four main phases:
If the bond was not fully established when the marriage commenced, then the holy bond granted by God was not there to be broken.
Reasoning behind this doctrine stems from the teachings of Jesus: "What God has united, man must not divide". (Mark, 10:9). Even if a couple separates legally, they are still joined together spiritually: "He who made man from the beginning, made them male and female. And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder" (Matthew 19:4-6).
Divorce is not a new issue for the Catholic Church. In the 5th century AD, one of the most famous Catholic thinkers, St. Augustine of Hippo, made his and the Church's position clear. In his work, Of the Good of Marriage, Augustine was explicit: "The compact of marriage is not done away by divorce intervening; so that they continue wedded persons one to another, even after separation; and commit adultery with those, with whom they shall be joined, even after their own divorce."
Adultery is a sin, according to the Old Testament: "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). Therefore, using Augustine's reasoning, if a man and woman have been separated legally but not spiritually, they are still married in God's eyes.
Augustine wrote about divorce over 1,600 years ago. His ideas on the subject are still pre-eminent in today's Catholic doctrine.
The subject of divorce was discussed at the Synod of Bishops in October 2005. There were 50 propositions to come out of the discussion. Proposition 40 was unequivocal in defining what it is to be a divorced Catholic: "According to the tradition of the Catholic Church, they cannot be admitted to Communion, finding themselves in conditions of objective contrast with the Word of the Lord who returned marriage to its original value of indissolubility."
With regard to those who have remarried without an annulment, Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass but should refrain from consummating their new union. Proposition 40 explains: "Blessing these relationships should be avoided, so that confusion does not arise among the faithful regarding the value of marriage." Those who do so are committing an act of adultery, because in God's eyes they are still spiritually married to their previous partner.
The Synod has drafted and redrafted the language used to describe Catholics who may no longer receive the Eucharist.
We know the sadness of those who do not have access to sacramental communion because of their family situations that do not conform to the commandment of the Lord. Some divorced and remarried people sadly accept their inability to take sacramental communion and they make an offering of it to God. Others are not able to understand this restriction, and live with an internal frustration. We reaffirm that, while we do not endorse their choice, they are not excluded from the life of the Church. We ask that they participate in Sunday Mass and devote themselves assiduously to listening to the Word of God so that it might nourish their life of faith, of love and of conversion. We wish to tell them how close we are to them in prayer and pastoral concern. Together, let us ask the Lord to obey his will faithfully.
General trends show that non-Catholic EU countries tend to have higher divorce rates.
Until February 27th 1997, divorce in Ireland was illegal. In 2001, Italy and Ireland had the lowest divorce rates in Europe (0.7%) and Spain had a comparatively low divorce rate (1.0%) compared with Belgium having the highest (2.9%).
The UK also has a high divorce rate (2.6%). Whilst France considers itself to be a Catholic country, its divorce rates are considerably higher (2.0%) than other European Catholic countries. (Figures are rates per 1,000 population - 2001).
The Church of Scotland is clear on remarriage of divorcées:
Marriage is not understood in the Church of Scotland to be a sacrament, and therefore binding for ever. A minister may therefore conduct the marriage of a divorced person whose former spouse is still alive.
Church of Scotland
However, the minister will meet with a couple wishing to remarry in an attempt to establish whether or not the second marriage will suffer from the same problems which led to the downfall of the previous marriage.
The Methodist Church asserts that marriage is a life-long union, but is understanding to those who have been divorced. Methodists take a more practical, logical approach to belief and allow for more figurative Bible interpretations. This includes accepting divorce and ordaining women priests.
In the Methodist Church policy on remarriage (1998) there is a clear acceptance and open mindedness to divorcées:
If one or both parties have been married before, [it is Methodist policy] to ensure that a couple is directed to a minister who is not prevented by conscience from considering their request
Methodist Church policy on remarriage, 1998
This is not to say that the Methodist Church regards divorce frivolously, but it does treat the situation with a sympathetic level of pragmatism.
Perhaps it is because of this more liberal approach to divorce that the majority of marriages in the Methodist Church involve at least one partner who has been divorced. In a 2001 survey, it was recorded that around 70% or marriages involved at least one divorced party.
The Baptist Church has no centralised policy regarding divorce. Those who have been divorced are welcome to join. The decision to remarry a couple lies with the minister. Some feel that it is inappropriate and will not perform the ceremony whilst others will.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.