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The Church of England and Divorce in the Twentieth Century, by Ann Sumner Holmes

21 February 2020

Pastoral dilemmas over changes in marriage law are nothing new, says Robin Ward

The Winchester report Marriage in Church after Divorce (CHP, 2000)

The Winchester report Marriage in Church after Divorce (CHP, 2000)

THIS book sets out to give a comprehensive history of the way in which the Church of England has tried to cope with the radical transformation of the legal and social attitude to divorce in England during the 20th century. The standard account of the way in which Anglican thought on this topic has developed since the Reformation is A. R. Winnett’s Divorce and Remarriage in Anglicanism, published in 1958, which he updated in The Church and Divorce in 1968; so there is certainly room for a new treatment that takes the story up to the decision of the General Synod in 2002 to repeal the Acts of Convocation and leave to the parish clergy the discretion to marry divorced persons with a previous spouse still living.

Holmes and Winnett cover the ground between the situation as it was in 1900 and the massive changes of the 1960s in roughly the same amount of space, although Winnett gives some cursory attention to developments elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. Winnett’s treatment is more ecclesiastical, and he is, on the whole, a better guide to the way in which exegetical and canonical considerations affected the Church of England’s response to the various attempts to reform the 1857 Divorce Act, culminating in A. P. Herbert’s radical and successful Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937

Holmes gives more attention to the workings of the various parliamentary and governmental initiatives to reform the Victorian divorce law, beginning with the 1909 Royal Commission. She is also much more interested in the ramifications of royal behaviour for changing social attitudes to divorce. So we have a great deal of detail about the Duke of Windsor’s marriage — including a cameo role for “Fruity” Metcalfe delegated to hold the ex-King’s BCP during the ceremony — and Princess Margaret brushing fluff off Group Captain Peter Townsend’s uniform at the Coronation. This is perhaps disproportionate to the matter in hand.

Gordon Dunstan in 1966

Herbert’s Act extended the grounds for divorce beyond that of adultery, and so beyond the possibility of framing the debate as one about the Matthaean exception. The reaction of the Church of England to this was for the bishops to sit on the fence in the House of Lords when it came to the actual voting on the legislation, but for the Church Assembly to reaffirm in an uncompromising and novel way the Church’s adherence to an indissolubilist position, effectively proscribing, in so far as the law would allow, Anglican rites at the marriages of those who had been divorced and whose previous spouse was still alive.

This bifurcation and its consequences was to have fateful repercussions for the way in which the Church of England contributed to the next reform of the divorce law which took place in the late 1960s.

Holmes has been able to draw on the papers and advice of Lady Oppenheimer in her account of this period, with great benefit, not only in respect of Oppenheimer’s own involvement in the key Church of England commissions of the period, but also in her clear-sighted appreciation of the creativity of the moral theologian Gordon Dunstan.

Dunstan’s reframing of indissolubility as meaning that marriage ought to be — rather than actually always is — lifelong, coupled with a willingness to embrace divorce-law reform on sociological grounds only, led to the remarkable volte-face contained in the 1966 report Putting Asunder, in which an Archbishops’ Commission chaired by the Anglo-Catholic moral theologian Bishop Mortimer of Exeter embraced the abolition of the concept of matrimonial offence, and endorsed “irretrievable breakdown” as the standard by which the law should be reformed. When this principle was indeed embedded in the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, the Archbishops had to issue a statement backtracking from the conclusions of their own report and reaffirming the indissolubilist Acts of Convocation as they had been restated in 1957.

The history of the next three decades is, in all important respects, the history of repeated attempts to come up with a church discipline that reflected the acceptance by both clergy and laity of the concept of marital breakdown, and the desire to embody this in a way that superseded the indissolubilist approach of the Acts of Convocation. Holmes takes us through the Root commission, the Lichfield commission, “Option G”, and the Winchester report.

In the end, it proved impossible to do this: no scheme secured the requisite support in the Synod, and in 2002 the Bishops accepted the advice of the Legal Officers that in fact the clergy had always had the right to decide to conduct the further marriages of divorced persons, and that no Act of Convocation could affect this anyway. So the 1957 Acts were repealed, and, despite some cursory attempts to maintain a degree of episcopal oversight through “Advice to Clergy” about such marriages, to all intents and purposes the decision whether to conduct such marriages now lies with the parish clergy whose responsibility it is to take them.

Holmes evidently welcomes this as a straightforwardly good thing: the book is subtitled Legalism and grace, and in her conclusion she states that “what the Church offered at last to the divorced was not inflexible rules but grace.” I ought perhaps here to declare an interest, in that on page 180 she quotes from a speech that I made in a Synod debate on the Winchester report in 2002, as an example of clerical obscurantism. That said, she gives us a comprehensive account of her subject, although much stronger and more engaged on political than theological themes.

Twenty years on, as the Church of England struggles with Living in Love and Faith, the painful bifurcation resulting from the Church’s desire to contribute positively to the common good in the light of the sociological realities of the day, while remaining faithful to the ascetic of Christian sexual ethics, seems ever more acute.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

The Church of England and Divorce in the Twentieth Century: Legalism and grace
Ann Sumner Holmes
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