Monday, January 07, 2008

Remarrying the Divorced in Church: “Light” from Orthodoxy

Discussion starter of a sensitive topic from Peter Toon, January 7, 2008

As Episcopalians or Anglicans in the U.S.A., and whether conservative or liberal, “orthodox” or “revisionist,” we live within “an Anglican Way” where some forty-per-cent or so of members, including clergy, are divorced, or divorced and remarried, once or more.

There seems to be no way out of this situation; and so, in the main, we do not mention it, and we seek to carry on as it were not really part of the ethos in which we live. We hardly dare consider the implications which it has both upon our thinking (moral, spiritual and theological) and upon the function of discipline in the parish and diocese. And the fact that its presence has been a major entry-point for the radical homosexual agenda into TEC we dismiss it the very moment it enters our minds.

Recalling the Orthodox Way

If we recall the reign of Justinian I, who became Roman Emperor in 527, we encounter a situation where (a) the Emperor required Christian priests to take and bless marriages; (b) the state allowed divorce and remarriage and therefore (c) the Church had to do as this most “orthodox” Emperor required and make provision for second marriages.

So it obeyed the “Powers that be” (Romans 13:1) but in doing so modified the requirement as far as it could. First, it stood by its doctrine that there was no possibility of a second marriage for an ordained priest; he was only allowed to be married once (1 Tim 3:2, 12) and that before ordination. In the second place, it designed a new and different marriage service for those marrying for the second time; and in this service there was a special emphasis on penance in preparation for the new marriage. (Of course for this to be pastorally effective the local priest had to work with it in the preparation of the couple.)

To get some understanding of this penitential flavor to the second marriage, I render two of the major prayers of the service into modern (literal) English.

Here is the first:

O Master, Lord our God, you who show pity on all men, and whose providence is over all your works; you who know the secrets of man, and understand all men: Purge away our sins, and forgive the transgressions of your servants, calling them to repentance, granting them remission of their iniquities, purification from their sins, and pardon of their errors, whether voluntary or involuntary.

O You, who know the frailty of man’s nature, in that you are his Maker and Creator; you who pardoned Rahab the harlot, and who accepted the contrition of the Publican: remember not the sins of our ignorance from the days of our youth. For, if you will consider iniquity, O Lord, who shall stand before you? Or which person shall be justified in your sight? For you only are righteous, sinless, holy, plenteous in mercy, of great compassion, and do not remember in judgment the evils of men.

O Master, you who have brought together in wedlock your servants, N & N, unite them to one another in holy love; grant unto them the contrition of the Publican, the tears of the Harlot, the confession of the Thief; that repenting with their whole heart, and keeping your commandments in peace and oneness of mind, they may be deemed worthy also of your heavenly kingdom.

For you are He who orders all things, and unto you do we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Here one can see the emphasis upon the penitential preparation for the second marriage after the failure (for whatever reason) of the first.

Here is the second which is much more pointed:

O Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who was lifted up on the precious and life-giving cross, and who destroyed there the charges against us and delivered us from the dominion of the devil: Cleanse the iniquities of your servants; because they, being unable to bear the heat of the day and the hot desires of the flesh, are now entering into the bond of a second marriage, which you render lawful by the word of your chosen vessel, the Apostle Paul, who said, for the sake of humble sinners, “It is better to marry in the Lord than burn.”

And so, as you are good and love mankind, graciously show mercy and forgive. Cleanse, put away, pardon our transgressions; for you are He who did take our infirmities on your shoulders; for there is none sinless, or without uncleanness for so much as a day of his life, except you, who without sin endured the cross and bestowed upon us life eternal.

For you are God, the God of the contrite in heart, and unto you do we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Here a biblical justification for a second marriage is found in a text rarely cited today for such purposes (1 Cor 7:9). But again the penitential preparation is clear and prominent.


Maybe those Episcopalians and Anglicans, who wish to see genuine reform of church marriage into Holy Matrimony, can follow the general mindset adopted by the Greek Church in obeying the Emperors. This will mean following the important but absolutely necessary steps of:

First, prohibiting from a date certain the presence of divorced and remarriage priests in pastoral ministry (including those who have been given so-called “annulments” by continuing church bishops); and,

Secondly, mercifully but wisely in allowing and conducting second marriages of laity, incorporating in appropriate and clear ways the necessity of full penitential preparation. (What God has joined together let no one put asunder!)

In the context of human rights and therapeutical assessments of the human person, this new way will be difficult to follow in the U.S.A. but not impossible.


Joel said...

As a remarried Episcopalian, I think the form of service is a reasonable one except for a few small choices of words: if only one party is remarrying, then the contrition and sin references seem applicable only to that party.

However, the ban on remarried clergy seems pretty infeasible (however desirable). Perhaps if you allowed the Matthew 5:32 loophole you could make it work while remaining biblically sound. The only risk is that it could lead to RCC-style annulments and associated phony processes to avail parties of the loophole (since civil courts no longer issue findings of fault).

A Twice-Divorced Priest said...

Perhaps a good place to begin to understand divorce is the brokenness of humanity. As a child growing up in a family marred by mental illness and dysfunction, I had no understanding of what a healthy marriage was. My greatest hope was that my father and step-mother would divorce. I prayed for it to happen. Not having experienced intimacy in my family, I jumped at the first opportunity for what appeared to me to be intimacy, entering into an ill-advised marriage. Is it surprising that in my first marriage I was ready to jump ship when things did not go well?

It is also not surprising that upon leaving my first marriage I was quick to want to escape the loneliness, failure, and self-hatred that I felt by quickly entering into another marriage. Does the fact that my divorce and remarriage occurred while I was in seminary add any more to my sin and shame?

My second marriage fell apart because I was the same wounded, hard-headed, and hard-hearted person that I was in my first marriage. I left the ministry because, though I had a desire to serve God and my neighbor, I was bound and held captive by my own sin.

Nearly twenty-five years later I became a priest. A priest who has been married three times. What a horror! No matter that I had experienced the healing presence of Jesus Christ in my life. No matter that, true to His word, He had set me free from my captivity to sin. What right did I have to be a priest?

None. Yet, I offered myself to my Bishop, withholding none of my past wickedness and brokenness. Yet, my Bishop accepted me, and I did what he asked in my faith community to discern my call. Yet, my community examined my faith and my life and chose to ordain me deacon and priest.

I humbly seek to serve Jesus Christ and His people each day. I have no righteousness of my own. Yet I am His, and I have His righteousness. One of the benefits of being broken is an awareness that the source of healing and strength is not to be found within. Jesus Christ is the source.