In November 2002, the House of Bishops, the Convocations and the General Synod completed their work on this long-standing and complex matter. In brief, after many years of opposition to such marriages by the former Church Assembly and the General Synod, the House of Bishops proposed an acceptable way of discerning the appropriateness or otherwise of such marriages. Statute Law has always left the decision to the parish Priest, and this remains the case. The House of Bishops has, however, issued Advice to Clergy contained in Marriage in Church after Divorce (GS1449), which effectively replaces the old Convocation rules.
The civil law places clergy under an obligation to conduct the wedding services of all who are legally entitled to be married. The clergy are offered an exception to this general duty in regard to those who are divorced and whose previous married partners are still living. Clergy may conduct the marriages of such divorced people, but are under no obligation to do so. That has basically been the position since the matrimonial acts of the 1930's and 40's.
It is important to recognise that, in affirming the position in law as it existed before, as well as after, the convocation acts, the Church is not, in any way, changing its doctrine of marriage. Canon B30 succinctly states the doctrine and remains in force. A contemporary statement is to be found in Marriage: A Teaching Document from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, Church House Publishing (1999 ISBN 0 7151 3829 4).
The motions passed by the General Synod use the language of 'exception' in relation to the conduct of such weddings. That language is not quantitative but qualitative in meaning. It is not saying clergy should only perform such services rarely. It is saying that a marriage following divorce in the lifetime of the previous partner is exceptional in relation to the doctrine and teaching of the Church on marriage. It is also the case that requests for marriages in Church are less frequent than such marriages before a civil registrar.
Statute Law recognises that clergy may, in conscience, not be willing to conduct marriage after divorce during the lifetime of the former spouse. For some, that will be on doctrinal grounds of indissolubility and the sacramental character of marriage. All Christian Churches, however, find pastoral solutions to the tragic fact of marital breakdown. The law rightly protects the consciences of clergy who do not feel able to conduct these marriages for a doctrinal reason.
Bishops do not possess the power to direct their clergy as to what they are to do in these matters. Any guidance offered by the Bishop must be seen as advice to help clergy who have the responsibility, in law, for these decisions themselves. Clergy must make up their own minds as to whether they will offer this ministry.
The decision about whether to conduct marriages in Church following divorce is not, strictly speaking, a matter for the PCC, but consulting them about the principle (as opposed to individual cases) ought to be an important part of any decision-making process for parish clergy. Though an individual Priest may not wish to marry those who have been divorced, he or she is free, though not obliged, to permit another Priest to solemnize such marriages in their parish. It is for the incumbent, subject to due consultation, to decide whether and how to delegate the interviewing of couples who apply for a marriage after divorce. For example, it might be felt approriate in some circumstances to ask the Priest who will be preparing the couple for marriage also to conduct the interview process. It would be unfair, however, to expect title curates in IME 4-7 to undertake this task without proper supervision. It will be important to have a clear statement of principles in the light of the advice paper of the House of Bishops, and to clarify who will adjudicate if a particular case seems to contradict the norms set out in these guidelines. Further advice on this matter is available from Willow Grange.
In determining whether or not to marry a particular couple, clergy must have in mind the House of Bishops advice to clergy contained in Marriage in Church after Divorce, (annexed to the current edition of the Canons of the Church of England). This includes a leaflet for enquirers, providing an explanatory statement and an application form. The form and booklet are also available on the Church of England website.