A Church of England official working party has proposed that the church should drop its ban on the remarriage of divorcees whose former spouses are still living.

The working party, chaired by a senior diocesan bishop, Michael Scott-Joynt of Winchester, insisted in its report that it was not abandoning the church's teaching that marriage is for life, but added: "We believe that it can be said in a literal sense of two living people that they were married and are no longer married."

Launching the report January 25, Bishop Scott-Joynt said it addressed the "reality" that marriages break down.

"We're not proposing indiscriminate further marriage," he stressed.

One of the strongest restrictions in the report's recommendations is one stating that remarriage should not be allowed where a partner's adulterous relationship was a direct cause of the breakdown of the marriage. Another restriction is that anyone who has been married and divorced twice should not be granted another church wedding. Priests would also be able, as a matter of conscience, to refuse to conduct remarriage ceremonies.

After the release of the report, there was immediate speculation that the proposals would open the way for Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, to marry his companion, Camilla Parker Bowles. However, Bishop Scott-Joynt commented: "There is in law no way in which the marriage of an heir to the throne could be seriously discussed without the engagement of the church in the shape of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"The archbishop, George Carey, has publicly warned that the marriage of Prince Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles, who is divorced, would create a crisis for the church because of the British monarch's role of supreme governor of the Church of England. Commentators also pointed out that Prince Charles, who before his legal separation from his wife referred in a television interview to his relationship with Mrs Parker Bowles, would be unlikely to surmount the bar on adulterers benefiting from their adultery, as well as another restriction that the remarriage should not cause hostile public comment.

The report, Marriage in Church After Divorce, will be considered by the church's ruling general synod—though this is not expected to happen before the 2002 synod—where strong opposition is expected from traditionalists. The report will first be sent to parishes for consideration.

Accepting the report's proposals would mean a change in church law. The issue of remarriage of divorcees has been simmering at least since July 1981, when the general synod carried, by large majorities, a motion stating that "there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner."

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The number of Church of England marriages involving divorcees has been rising steadily since then. According to one estimate, about 7,000 Church of England marriages a year—a tenth of those performed by the church—now involve divorcees with living ex-spouses.

A further general synod resolution in 1994 prompted the bishops to set up the working party.

The report recommends what are described as "a common set of pastoral criteria, principles and procedures to be followed in every diocese to achieve the maximum degree of consistency in the church's practice."

The pastoral guidelines include a recognition that divorce is a breach of God's will for marriage, a determination for the marriage to be a lifelong faithful partnership, sufficient distance of time from the former marriage and adequate arrangements for the partner and any children of the former marriage.

The decision on whether to grant a remarriage in church would rest with the parish priest in consultation with the diocesan bishop. A leading evangelical, David Holloway, who is vicar of Jesmond, northern England, told Ecumenical News International (ENI): "The proposals are both wrong and foolish. Jesus' teaching on marriage is clear. What seems difficult at first instance [the indissolubility of marriage] is for our best, and is the loving action to take."

Britain is the divorce capital of Europe. The report shows how out of touch bishops are with life on the ground.

"Holloway said church attendance figures showed that the public were responding to the evangelical message, which included the sanctity of the marriage vow. He predicted that the proposals would be strongly opposed in the general synod.

A spokesman for another major branch of Anglicanism, Anglo-Catholic Geoffrey Kirk, who is national secretary of the traditionalist Forward in Faith movement, described as "barking mad" the proposal for parish priests and parish councils to decide whether to allow remarriage in church.

Kirk told ENI: "Priests are often under great pressure in this matter. It's the 'churchwarden's daughter' syndrome. You don't marry divorcees until the churchwarden, who is a good giver to your collections, mentions his daughter's case, and then you find it's a good idea."

For the local level to decide on one of the sacraments of the church is something I wouldn't defend. This is yet another ducking of pastoral responsibility by bishops.

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"Kirk predicted that if the proposals went through, the church would allow "indiscriminate remarriage within 20 years."

London's Daily Mail, a popular, conservative newspaper, commented in a broadly supportive editorial: "The church deserves credit for its attempt to cope with the explosion in divorce."

But it warned: "Unless it takes the greatest care, it may discover that in trying to accommodate itself to modern mores, it appears more confused and uncertain than ever."According to the Guardian newspaper, also published in London, nearly half of all marriages in Britain end in divorce. In its editorial, the newspaper accused the report of trying to replace "one muddle with another," and added that it would be difficult for priests to make the psychological judgments which the report's proposals would require. "The report obviously attempts to soften a punitive morality, but ducks the central challenge to any religious institution in the West—that marriage is now perceived, for good or ill, as a matter for the dictates of the individual's own heart, and no deference is paid to any external authority," the newspaper commented.Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

The Times of London has published several articles on the report, including, " Remarriage in church for divorcees," " Fixed ideas won't mend broken vows," " Once smitten, twice - Why?" and " Church may call on divorcees to repent."

See related coverage in the

Independent, the

Washington Post, the

Times of India, the

BBC, the

London Evening Standard, The

Dallas Morning News, the

Boston Globe, the

Chicago Tribune, the

Los Angeles Times, and the

Miami Herald were all among the U.S.'s top papers to run the related

Associated Press story.