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Religion: A Historic Barrier Drops

3 minute read

The Church of England approves a new divorce policy if Prince Charles were marrying Lady Diana Spencer in another day, there would be protocol problems aplenty. As late as the 1920s, divorced persons were never received socially by Britain’s royal family, and Lady Di’s parents are divorced and remarried. The reason for that barrier in social protocol: the British monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which, like the Roman Catholic Church, refuses to recognize divorce or allow a second marriage while the original spouse is still living.

The strictness bemuses those who recall that the Church of England was created because Henry VIII, against papal orders, wanted to shed Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, and marry Anne Boleyn. As it happened, the much married monarch did not actually divorce Catherine, but engineered an annulment. Nor did he divorce Anne or any of his succeeding four wives.* The ancient Anglican church tradition forced King Edward VIII to abdicate in 1936 so that he might marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, the twice-divorced “woman I love,” and led Princess Margaret to reject the divorced Peter Townsend in 1955. Margaret’s 1978 divorce from the Earl of Snowden was the first to occur in the immediate royal family.

Meeting last week in York, the Synod of the Church of England voted to change the rules. In a historic step, it decided by an overwhelming vote of 296 to 114 that divorced Anglicans could remarry in church. The key sentence declared that the synod “considers that there are circumstances in which a person may be married in church during the lifetime of the former partner.” The meaning of “circumstances” was left undefined, pending further discussion.

In making the change, the synod was facing up to statistics and popular pressure. Great Britain now has the highest divorce rate in Western Europe: two for every five marriages (a 1979 total of 163,000 in England and Wales). Even the church hierarchy has been affected. Last month Suffragan Bishop Stephen Verney of Repton was married to a divorcee, setting off an untidy flap among conservative churchmen. At present, many Anglicans are remarried in civil ceremonies and are then blessed privately by a priest. Other couples resort to Methodist marriages, lie to Anglican clergy about previous marriages, or simply live together.

Officially, the Church of England does not yet permit its remarried members to receive Communion, though it does authorize the bishop in charge of a diocese to make exceptions. Last February’s synod meeting voted in principle to rescind that prohibition. However, a committee headed by the popular new Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, must prepare regulations on both remarriage ceremonies and Communion, and the synod must pass them, before the liberalization is final. That will take at least two years. But most priests are expected to liberalize their practices immediately. Even before the vote, many parish priests had been making informal rulings that remarriages were entered in “good conscience.”

The change was backed by Archbishop Runcie, but its main proponent was Bishop John Taylor of Winchester. Said he: “The rush is on, and if the brake hasn’t held, we have to do something else. We are dealing with a social epidemic.” British reaction was generally favorable, but the decision does add to the long list of problems complicating reunion with the Roman Catholic Church.

*Anne Boleyn was beheaded; Jane Seymour died after childbirth; the Anne of Cleves marriage was annulled; Catherine Howard was beheaded; and Catherine Parr outlived Henry.

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