Sunday, October 7, 2012

Jesus' teaching on divorce


May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen. 


Our Gospel this morning talks about a difficult topic, that of divorce and remarriage. It would be tempting to 'kick for touch' on this one & talk about something else. But it is too important a topic, I think, for us to ignore simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Jesus says that those who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery, a mortal sin, so the issue is of utmost seriousness - it concerns the salvation of souls. Also, it is a pastoral issue. I know many parents of adult children who are uneasy or indeed distressed when those children divorce and remarry, because they worry that their children are breaking God's law. I know also from speaking to those who are remarried and divorced that they sometimes feel that there are many who do not accept the validity of their second union, despite the fact that their remarriage took place in Church. And I know those whose spouse who walked out on them who are hurt and confused by the Church seeming to take the side of their errant spouse by allowing them to remarry in Church. All of this means that it is a matter that we must look at.

So, what of the words of Jesus on this issue? First, I'm sure you are all aware that there are many so called 'experts' who spend their time endlessly debating what parts of the Gospel are 'true' or not … they will pick the texts apart in minute detail trying to decide whether this incident or that is historically accurate …and the reason I mention these scholars is that even such as these have no doubt that the teaching we have today is truly that of our Lord's ...

One of the main reasons that they all agree is because the teaching would have been so controversial. The Jewish faith was regarded by all in the Mediterranean world as having a very stringent moral code. And yet, for all it's strictness, even they allowed divorce. It was as if human kind regarded it as part of the natural order of things: marriage was something that men and women entered into of their own free will … and therefore why should they not be able to leave it if they so chose with equal freedom?

But this is not what Jesus taught. And so to the ears of his hearers this would have made what he had to say shocking, not to say scandalous. It is what we sometimes call a 'hard teaching' … and it is so hard that those who might doubt almost everything else that they read in the Bible accept that this is not something that his later followers would simply have made up … if Jesus did not say this, & was widely known by all his followers to say this, then it would seemed like something coming out of nowhere if the Gospel writers had tried to include it without this being what Jesus taught … and we must remember that this is a teaching that is in all the Gospels – directly in Matthew, Mark, & Luke, and indirectly in John in the passages concerning the woman at the well & the woman taken in adultery … and also in the letters of St Paul … 

And note also how this scene begins. The scribes come to test him and ask him about divorce. It would be odd to test him this way if they did not already know that this was his teaching ... again adding weight to the truth that there can be no doubt that Jesus unequivocally taught that once a man and a woman were married it was for life – until death do you part as the prayer book says. This is because, as Jesus says, once a man and a woman are married they have become one flesh. This is not something that they do themselves. God has joined them together. And what God has joined together, human beings may not put apart. And yet we live in a world where there not only is divorce, but the Church of Ireland permits the re-marriage in Church of those who have been divorced. 

That secular society should provide for the possibility that there should be a possibility for a couple to end the civil portion of their marriage is not something that I need discuss. But we must bear in mind that when a couple marries in Church there is in effect two things happening simultaneously: one is that a couple's civil marriage is registered; but also that they have entered into what we call Holy Matrimony, which is a separate, sacramental event. This is perhaps clearer in some jurisdictions such as France which does not allow couples to join the two & so therefore they must be two weddings, one civil if the couple is to be legally married, and a second in Church if the couple is to be married in the eyes of the Church.

Now the ending of the Civil side of things is the concern of the state authorities. And the ending of the Sacramental side is a matter for the Church. Historically in the Latin, or Western, Church of which the Church of Ireland is a part, this was dealt with by examining if in fact a true marriage had taken place – if God had actually joined the couple together or not if you will. You may be more familiar with this procedure under the name of 'annulment.' I can't go through all the reason that might lead to a decree of nullity  but for example one issue might be that of consent: had both parties to the marriage freely given their consent to the union? Or had perhaps one been put under some pressure? Not unheard of when the parties were young and their parents were eager for the match; or indeed when the girl was pregnant and terrified of what might happen to her if she was left to bring up a child on her own.

In the Church of Ireland we do not issue a decree of nullity; neither do we have some kind of a central office filled with canon lawyers and other such experts looking at these cases. But that does not mean we simply avoid the issue either. For example, it is clear that by allowing remarriage in church we have not simply adopted a new doctrine in this matter. For example we have not changed the wording of the marriage service where the couple not only declares that will remain married until 'as long as you both shall live', but the priest declares before those gathered that what God has joined together let no one put asunder. And when it comes to the remarriage of a divorced person we will also use this same service  … our canons also continue to affirm that the teaching of the Church on this matter is the same as it always has been. 

So how do we resolve the apparent contradiction of the fact that on the one hand we declare that our doctrine is unchanged but on the other allow for the remarriage of a divorced person in church? My interpretation is that the simple answer is that although we deal with in a different manner, we still follow the same teaching as before in that the Church must still decide whether such a marriage may take place in church .... in other words, it is not automatic. It is not a right that the divorced person may present themselves at the door of their local rector and demand that he facilitate them. Questions must be asked and a decision made, just as it always has been in the Church. 

In the Church of Ireland it is simply that the procedure takes place at a lower more local level. According to the canons of our Church such a decision as to whether a re-marriage may take place is in the hands of the incumbent of the parish and the diocesan bishop … and even though the language of the canons is not terribly specific on the procedures to be followed, the main thrust is that the individual facts of the situation are to be investigated and the decision made based on those facts … and on the basis of the teaching of the Church, which the canons state to be permanent, life-long, & till death to them part … 

And as no incumbent can be forced to perform such a marriage unwillingly, clearly he must be satisfied in his own conscience that the marriage will be a valid one … and as always, when I speak of someone acting according to their conscience I mean that they are acting according to the dictates of informed conscience, a conscience that is formed by the teaching of scripture and the doctrines of the Church as has been passed down to us, not according to their own whims and pleasures …

So, theoretically at least, when such a marriage takes place, no outside party should have any doubt as to the validity of the union. One must in Christian charity presume that the parties to the marriage have acted with integrity when providing the needed information to the bishop and incumbent; and that the bishop and incumbent have diligently performed the sacred task entrusted to them by the Church in coming to their decisions – stressing here again that it is a long-standing tradition that the Church does indeed have the authority to make such decisions … 

truthfully, I could wish that the Church of Ireland did have some kind of central office for making these decisions ... it would give greater certainty that all the needed information had been gathered and correctly assessed ... and it would avoid the danger that those deciding might be thought to act according to their own prejudices on this issue, whether liberal or conservative. However, in the absence of such an office it is not, I think, for those entrusted by the Church to make a decision to avoid their responsibilities to do so.  

And once that decision is made all the community must accept it ... even if that is naturally harder for some ... the former spouse, any children of that union, and the parents and in-laws of both the past and prospective marriage. And so this morning I end by asking you to keep all those people in your prayers ... even as I ask that you pray for all those who must make these decisions ... the couples who have gone through the pain of having previous unions fail and who faithfully seek to follow God's will in the contracting of another union in Church … for the clergy who must help them in this process … that they may all engage humbly and honestly in this sensitive task … faithfully seeking to follow the teaching of Christ & his Church in all that they do … we pray this in the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen. 

sermon notes 7 October 2012 (18th after Trinity) 

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