Talk 2: Marriage, the Problems and the Church's Ideal

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The basic truth behind the 'sociology of knowledge' is this: for subjective certainty you need social support. It is now clear that our social environment powerfully conditions beliefs about God, man and the world. Add to that the 16th century English Reformers' psychology, namely that what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind rationalizes, and you have gone a long way towards understanding our current sexual chaos.

And that works itself out like this, certainly with regard to moral beliefs about marriage and sex. When, for example, we are told we must be open to this or that aberrant behaviour or new set of anti-Christian ethics, it is not reason that will be the primary dictator of this new attitude. Rather it will be the 'plausibility structure' that is in place. This is when people are conditioned to feel that such new morality is reasonable. So the view of what is reasonable often has little to do with logic and much to do with the social pressure to conform.

Today this conditioning is effected by public education, all kinds of communication media, and legal enactments. It is influenced less and less by the family which is very serious. With regard to moral beliefs, Peter Berger, the sociologist, expresses things as follows:

"With the possible exception of a few areas of direct personal experience, human beings require social confirmation for their beliefs about reality. Thus the individual probably does not require others to convince him that he has a toothache, but he does require such social support for the whole range of his moral beliefs. Put differently, physical pain imposes its own plausibility without any social mediations, while morality requires particular social circumstances in order to become and remain plausible to the individual. It is precisely these social circumstances that constitute the plausibility structure for the morality at issue ... It follows from this that there is a direct relation between the cohesion of institutions and the subjective cohesiveness of beliefs, values and worldviews ... There are always exceptions - deviants or mavericks, individuals who maintain a view of the world and of themselves even in the absence of social support. These exceptions are always interesting, but they do not falsify the sociological generalisation that human beliefs and values depend upon specific plausibility structures."

Today, therefore, our current 'plausibility structure' means that the latest figures on marriage and divorce for England and Wales from the Office for National Statistics cease to shock. We have been conditioned to treat them as normal. The figures are that 42% of marriages can be expected to end in divorce (assuming 2010 divorce and mortality rates throughout the duration of marriage). Around half of these divorces are expected to occur in the first 10 years of marriage. That is to say, now well over a third of all marriages will end in divorce, if nothing changes.

But that is very serious. For the children involved will suffer as a result, as study after study has shown. One of the most famous of these was that of John Tripp, Consultant Paediatrician in Exeter and Monica Cockett, of the Child Health Department at Exeter University. This was the result of a survey for the Health Advisory Service and published in 1994 on the needs of young people attending psychiatry and psychology services. The BBC publicised the findings by committing an edition of its flagship documentary programme, Panorama, to this research. One of the most striking of findings was that more than three quarters of all the young people making use of these services came from re-ordered families when they were no longer living with both their natural parents. The following are some facts to which Panorama drew attention.

  • First, children from divorced families were almost 5 times as likely to have problems (relating to health, school, esteem and behaviour) as children from intact homes (including intact homes where there was conflict between the parents). To the child the loss of a parent from the family seemed to be much more significant than some of the other factors previously believed very important, the most obvious of those being conflict. The data suggested that that has really a very minor effect compared with the effects caused by a parent leaving the home.
  • Secondly, with regard to children from single parent families and step-families, the following was found. Compared to intact families, psychosomatic problems were twice as likely to affect children from single-parent families but children from step-families were 6 times as likely to suffer that kind of illness. Reports that their behaviour upset others were twice as likely to come from single-parent children, but step-children were 10 times as likely to report it (and with parents confirming these behaviour problems).
  • Thirdly, the survey analysed the situation with children in multiple-families. This was that children living in multiple families on average have many more problems than any other type of family. Compared to intact families, when it came to psychosomatic health problems, while children in single parent families were nearly twice as likely to have problems and step-children 6 times as likely, those in multiply-broken down families were nearly 10 times more likely to suffer. When it came to schoolwork, children with single parents were about three times as likely to need extra help. Step-children, actually, did slightly better. But children in multiply-disrupted families were 8 times as likely to need help with their schoolwork.

So the question for us today is this: How is it that England has slipped from having one of the best marriage traditions in Europe to where we are today? One answer is that the Church of England's tradition was particularly strong. But that is now no longer the case. The Church of England's discipline has been in place more or less from the early 17th century certainly until the mid-20th century, when the Church's Convocation judgments were expressed as follows:

a) No marriage in church of any divorced person with a partner still living, since the solemnizing of a marriage is a formal and official act of the Church, and the Church must not give its official recognition to a marriage which (for whatever reason) falls below our Lord's definition of what marriage is:

b) But the relation of such people to the Church or their admission to Communion is another matter, one of pastoral care for the sinner, and properly a matter of pastoral discretion

But since 2002, when the General Synod voted for, "in exceptional circumstances," remarriage with a former partner still living. So clergy can take a strict or liberal line. Up to that point the Church of England had taken Jesus' strict teaching on marriage and divorce very seriously.

That teaching is argued for biblically by interpreting Matthew's report in Matthew 19 of Jesus' teaching that there is to be "No remarriage" after divorce but with one exception for porneia (a Greek word covering a range of what is sexual immoral and distinct from moicheia meaning adultery) – interpreting that Matthean teaching in the light of Mark and Luke who have no such exception, rather than vice-versa. That is surely right in the light of 1 Corinthians 7.10-11 quoting the remembered actual teaching of Jesus which is no "divorce and remarriage", but if a separation, "remain unmarried or else be reconciled." For Paul writes:

"To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife."

So following W.K. Lowther Clarke and then F.F. Bruce, R.P. Martin and many others including the translators of the Jerusalem Bible, porneia (with its wide range of meanings) is said here to refer to 'the forbidden degrees' of Leviticus 18. This certainly has to be the case in the letter to the Gentile Churches following the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15.29 and also the case in 1 Corinthians 5.1 where Paul writes:

"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality [porneia] among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife."

Of course, the big issue for Jesus' generation and for which John the Baptist was executed was Herodias who had incestuously married Herod Antipas the brother of Herod Philip whom she had left. John the Baptist had been imprisoned for saying to Herod (Mark 6.18),

"It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife"

So when Jesus taught on marriage and divorce, what he said, as reported in Mark 10, would have rung a very big bell. Jesus had just said of the married couple (adding to Genesis):

"So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mark 10.8-9)

Then in verses 11-12 he says:

"whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

But the subject of discussion was "is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" (Mark 10.2). For under Jewish law only a man could initiate a divorce. So why does Jesus introduce a wife divorcing a husband? Answer: because everyone knew what Herodias had done under Roman law not Jewish law which allowed women to initiate divorce. Of course, such an incestuous marriage was a scandal. For a parallel, think of Mrs Simpson and Edward VIII, Camilla Parker Bowles and Prince Charles and, yes, sadly Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Old Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop at the time of Edward VIII, would have said a 'scandal' was involved in wanting the Church of Christ to bless what Christ taught are "adulterous unions". And the Church of England clearly taught that prior to 2002. For the Church of England's "must not give its official recognition to a marriage which (for whatever reason) falls below our Lord's definition of what marriage is" according to its true tradition. Yes, Jesus recognises these marriages as marriages. He said to the woman at the Jacob's well in John 4.17-18:

"You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband."

While some of the woman's husbands may have died, the implication seems to be that she had been sexually liberal. So Jesus recognised her formal marital unions, even though defective, as distinct from her present cohabitation. Of course, John reports that this woman became a wonderful disciple and a great evangelist. God certainly can use mixed up people. But Christ first made her face reality.

Contrary to much thinking, it needs to be said, that Paul himself seems to follow this strict ethic. In 1 Corinthians 10.39 where a wife is not "bound" through death and free to marry again, and in Romans 7.2 where a wife is "bound" until the death of her husband when she will then be free to remarry, Paul uses the Greek verb, deomai. However, Paul uses another verb, doulomai, in 1 Corinthians 7.15 when an unbelieving partner separates from a believing husband or wife who does not have to fight this initiative. For "the brother or sister is not 'enslaved' [dedoulotai]. God has called you to peace." Then the goal for such a person, surely, is to follow those words of Jesus' as remembered in the early Church (1 Cor 7.10-11):

"the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife."

It seems clear enough. But the problem has been that you can find commentators taking a liberal line where they say that in Mark and Luke, Jesus was exaggerating to make a point. Or else everyone assumed you could divorce for adultery and it was so obvious it didn't need saying. That is unconvincing. But, of course, it avoids conflict and makes life easier as a clergyman not having to say "No!"– but not for any children involved! And once you get a divorce culture it spreads like wildfire.

However, this liberal tradition goes back to the Continental Reformed and Scottish Presbyterian and Free Church tradition. The Reformation saw its own sexual revolution with Reformed clergy now getting married. And with so much generally being reviewed, divorce and remarriage was inevitably included. But this led to differences of opinion. This was evidenced by the famous Westminster Confession. It was agreed by the Westminster Assembly in 1647 and adopted by the Presbyterian assembly of the Church of Scotland the same year. But when it went before the English Parliament the paragraph that had to do with divorce and remarriage was removed in 1648. This paragraph reflected the teaching of the Continental Reformers where they had said not that adultery allowed for divorce because of Jesus' exception, but that adulterers should be executed. But if the state did not do its business, adulterers should be considered "as dead". As death ends a marriage, you can be free to remarry. So the original Westminster Confession of 1647 (that most have copies of today) says:

"In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and, after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead"

But after Elizabeth, the English Reformers and others seem to have adopted a stricter understanding of Jesus' teaching. At the Restoration in 1660, the Book of Common Prayer and the Canons of 1603 resurfaced. For interest, Canon 107 entitled 'In all Sentences for Divorce, Bond to be taken for not Marrying during each other's Life', said this:

"In all Sentences pronounced only for Divorce and Separation a thoro & mensa [bed and board – a modern separation] there shall be a Caution and Restraint inserted in the Act of the said Sentence, 'That the Parties so separated, shall live chastely and continently: neither shall they, during each other's Life, contract Matrimony with any other Person'. And for the better Observation of this last Clause, the said Sentence of Divorce shall not be pronounced, until the Party or Parties requiring the same, have given good and sufficient Caution and Security into the Court, that they will not in any way break or transgress the said Restraint or Prohibition."

By contrast, with the Pilgrim Fathers and others going to America, the Free Church tradition (from Luther, Calvin, Knox and the Westminster Confession unamended) went also.

Sadly the long-term result has been a plausibility structure that has produced a divorcing culture in many US churches. And polls have found that those claiming Evangelicalism can have the highest of divorce rates. No wonder homosexual people can ask the question, 'why, if our Evangelical critics are entitled to ignore the text of the Bible regarding marriage and divorce, cannot we do the same over homosexual sex?' Surely they have a point.

I know we are dealing in all of this with broken and often desperate people on all sides. But facts have to be faced.

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