Divorce Bill undermines marriage, says bishop

14 February 2020

Bishop of Carlisle: ‘Legislation creates more difficulties than it solves’

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A BILL that seeks to allow couples to divorce without having to blame each other for their marital breakdown “undermines the seriousness with which marriage and divorce are regarded”, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, has said.

Speaking in the House of Lords in a debate on the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill last week, Bishop Newcome said that, while he appreciated the motivation behind the Government’s Bill, “this deceptively simple piece of legislation actually creates more difficulties than it resolves”.

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He continued: “Reducing divorce to a statement made by one party that the marriage has broken down undermines the seriousness with which marriage and divorce are regarded, and has the unfortunate effect of shifting any power in the process away from the respondent to the person initiating the divorce.

“What is more, studies suggest that making divorce quicker and easier will significantly increase the already high divorce rate, with all the implications that has both for human misery and financial cost.”

When the plans to simplify divorce were introduced last year, they were criticised by multiple Christian groups (News, 12 April 2019).

The current law requires people suing for divorce to give evidence of one or more of five facts: adultery, behaviour, desertion, two years’ separation (if the other spouse consents to the divorce), and five years’ separation (otherwise).

Bishop Newcome told peers: “If the Bill simply proposed that divorce could happen when both parties agreed, which is one option, that would be one thing, but to suggest, as it does, that the divorce can go ahead when only one party wants it seems perverse.

“As for the children, it will further threaten the stability that marriage is meant to provide, and contribute still further to the growing incidence of mental-health issues among our young people. Divorce is far more than just a temporary crisis: it has long-term effects, as I know well from experience in my own family. I am quite sure that, in this respect, I will not be alone in your Lordships’ House.”

He concluded: “We need to reduce the divorce rate in this country, not increase it. I cannot, therefore, support the Bill as it stands.”

The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the same debate. He argued: “While I wholeheartedly endorse the overall aspiration of reducing conflict when marriages break down, which is a good one, I hope the Government will recognise that the Bill by itself will not succeed as claimed in removing — a very strong claim indeed — issues that create conflict.”

He continued: “If we are truly to address the financial and emotional fallout, to reduce family conflict and to minimise the impact on children, which, again, are the Government’s laudable intentions, I suggest that fuller and wider reforms be considered. Divorce needs to be kinder to all involved rather than easier.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, said: “I would like an assurance from the Government — which need not be given now, but perhaps in committee — that marriage according to the law of the land, whether in church or by a registrar, is not simply a contract but an unconditional commitment.”

Other Lords news. In a separate House of Lords debate last week, on climate change, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said: “The earth is God’s gift as well as God’s creation. We need to recover the insight that human beings are far more than consumers. We are called to be just stewards of creation, to care for the poorest and the weakest. Human fulfilment lies not in escalating consumption, but in meaningful rest and labour and learning to be content.

“Along with others, I invite the Government to provide clear and ambitious policy signals, as they have just done with petrol and diesel vehicles, and to invite every institution and organisation to engage in this great question of our day, so that the leadership we offer to the COP summit is demonstrably grounded in the trinity of policy intervention, technology solutions, and changing the lives of our entire population.”

In a debate on NHS targets last week, Bishop Newcome said that “one of the biggest problems facing the NHS is what many now call a crisis in social care. . .

“The crisis consists of several factors . . . that lead to delays in discharge, the cancellation of elective operations due to lack of beds, and an increase in A&E admissions, including elderly people whose health has suffered as a result of a lack of adequate care.

“I support calls that have been made for a Select Committee, or cross-party group of some kind, to be established immediately to produce specific long-term proposals . . . to break the current deadlock. . .

“Without it, the situation will only get worse to the detriment of all concerned. As we have already been eloquently reminded, a well-funded and good-quality social care sector is fundamental to a well-performing NHS.”

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