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General Synod digest: Members vote to ease impediment to ordination in relation to divorce

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) moves his private members’ motion

Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) moves his private members’ motion

THE General Synod voted on Tuesday afternoon on a private members’ motion to remove the canonical impediment to ordination in relation to divorce — either of the candidate from a former spouse, or of a candidate’s current partner, who has previously been married, and whose former spouse is still living.

Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) described his motion as a “modest but important reform”. He was not proposing a change in doctrine, but in practice. Nor would his proposal end “appropriate enquiries into the suitability of candidates for ordination”. Separating the fact of marriage after divorce from the wider picture led to “a range of anomalies and inconsistencies”, and was an accident of history, he suggested.

Under Canon C4, a faculty from an Archbishop was required for candidates for ordination who were divorced (with a living spouse) or married to someone who was divorced (with a living spouse). This now affected one in six ordinations, he said, but had originally been designed for a small number of exceptional cases. The process usually involved contact with former spouses, and this gave rise to safeguarding issues when a marriage had been abusive. He agreed that candidates’ previous relationships should, “of course”, be considered as part of assessment, ideally carried out by people who knew the candidate. But the Canon needed to be changed.

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) is a divorcee who has married again; so the topic was close to her heart, she said. Her first marriage had broken up a couple of months into her curacy, and her diocese had been “amazing”. The only two judgements made were from other Christians. “We are a faith called to forgive and not to judge,” she said. “And yet, because of the Canon 4 faculty process, this is exactly what we seem to do.”

It was unfair, because, although she was separated before being ordained priest, she was not divorced and remarried, so did not need a faculty to be ordained. “Why should anyone who has faced the trauma of a marriage break-up have to go through this intrusive process?” She warned that the Synod was sometimes “holding marriage up to be like heaven”.

The Revd Chris Moore (Hereford) said that, in 2009, he had required a faculty because his wife was divorced. There were some things in the faculty which he had found good and helpful: it was an important defence against the charge of hypocrisy, and helped the Church to obtain a good balance between law and grace, he said. “Let not a concern over process lead to be abandonment of principle.”

Carys Puleston (Exeter) had experience of Canon C4 in the discernment process, because her husband had been married before. It involved having to ask him to “dredge up painful memories” and be questioned about them, and to involve his former wife, too. “The complexity, intensity, and sheer length of the process, and the sense of distant judgement hanging over him, took its toll.” After ten months, the faculty had been granted.

The assessment could be made, she said, “more quickly, more sensitively, and with less trauma” through a diocesan director of ordinands or a diocesan bishop. She was due to be ordained in June, and was celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary this year.

The Revd Jenny Bridgman (Chester) had worked with candidates for ordination for more than a decade. The discernment process should be “searching and thorough” — the rigour had increased after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Candidates were being asked to reflect on areas including “use and abuse of power, family history, addictive and destructive behaviour, relationships, vulnerability, authority, personal boundaries, and their use of social media”. The “seeds” of something to replace the Canon C4 process were there.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford) brought an amendment, supported by Canon Bennet, that would revise the Canon so that a diocesan bishop, or acting diocesan bishop, could grant the faculty, “with national assessment guidelines issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York acting jointly to ensure consistency across dioceses”. The Canon sought to uphold the Church’s teaching that marriage should be lifelong — an ideal held in balance with the pastoral realities of living in the real world, he said. This balance must not be destabilised, he warned, and reminded the Synod that the agreement to remove the impediment to ordination had been “hard fought” on the floor of the Synod 30 years ago.

The Archbishop of York said that both he and the Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the amendment, and would be happy to develop the proposed guidelines. He said that he had never yet known a faculty to be turned down.

The Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham) did not feel that the Church had become less committed to the ideal of marriage as lifelong. She did not like having to state on a job application that she had married someone who was divorced: “It’s not relevant to my suitability for a job.” Her partner could not face going through the process when they had felt called to ordination. Abuse was far too common, she said, and women often bore more of this. It was damaging to put marriage on a pedestal, she suggested; and many in the room were not able to get married.

The amendment was carried.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield)

The Revd Jeremy Moodey (Oxford) moved an amendment, supported by Canon Bennet, to state that the guidance given to dioceses should ensure “that enquiries of previous spouses will only be made in exceptional cases”. He had been divorced and married again before beginning the discernment process. Canon C4 had been “distressing”, and had almost led him to give up on his sense of calling. At one point, he was told that his three children from his first marriage might need to be contacted. He had been sent to a BAP with the faculty still lying unapproved; if it was a formality, then what was the point of it? Canon C4 would be a “stumbling block for many”, and, in some ways, amounted to “indirect discrimination”. He asked what could possibly be gained from contacting former spouses.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, spoke in support of the motion, but was undecided about the amendment. She was aware of marriages that had broken down in cases of abuse.

The Revd Alicia Dring (Derby) spoke as her diocese’s “C4 person”. She had worked with people in the process who had had to place their future into the hands of those who had “abused their trust, minds, and bodies”. She asked: “Where is our trauma understanding of all that they have been through?” It was “invasive and archaic”, she said.

The Revd Lis Goddard (London) echoed her Bishop’s point, having walked with former spouses who had said “I want my voice to be heard. I want them to hear what happened.” She questioned how the “exceptional circumstances” mentioned in the amendment would be judged.

Canon Andrew Cornes (Chichester) said that, in parish ministry, while listening compassionately to stories of marital difficulty, he would think, “I’m pretty sure there’s another side to this story.” He spoke of the “very tough teaching” of Jesus, who had constantly brought up the question of marriage, even when asked about divorce. Canon Cornes described it as adultery, while giving exceptions. Therefore, a faculty could not be merely a formality, and it was essential, he said, that bishops take into account as much of the circumstances as possible. “It will often be right to hear the other side of the story.”

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liverpool), said that, for him, exceptional meant “unusual” and “rare”. He opposed the amendment. The issue was more nuanced than had been suggested.

The amendment was lost.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said that guidelines were important, and needed to be suitable for every person. She knew of people in clergy marriages in which there was abuse.

The Revd Ross Meikle (Oxford) said that, as a single person, he noticed “how easy it seems to [be to] change the rules around marriage, divorce, remarriage, and relationships when it affects white, straight people”. He supported the motion, but also heard the pain of those who could not be married at all.

The Revd Dr Patrick Richmond (Norwich) said that it was rare to be told that there was some problem or objection to a marriage in church after divorce, but it did occasionally happen. That was something to take into account. In terms of the debate’s references to judgement, there was also language of discernment in scripture: not condemnation, but seeking the right sort of people to be “overseers”. The image of marriage in the Bible was used for Jesus and the Church. This did have a powerful place in Christian life and faith, and clergy had a part in modelling that, he argued.

John Wilson (Lichfield), the only lay person to contribute to the debate so far, said that he was horrified by what he had heard about the hoops that clergy had had to jump through. What would the impact of retaining the Canon be on increasing the number of ordinands, he asked.

Lucy Docherty (Portsmouth) said that Bishop Mullally’s point about abuse was important and asked who would produce the guidelines mentioned.

The Archdeacon of Ludlow, the Ven. Fiona Gibson (Hereford), said that the Synod had been working on the assumption that the prospective ordinand was the person who was the victim or survivor of marital abuse. It was not unknown for an ordinand to have manipulated their way through the process. “It may be that the only way in which coercive controlling behaviour on the part of a prospective ordinand would come to light would be by speaking to a former spouse.”

Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) praised the close working of Canon Bennet and Dr Atherstone across differences in a contentious area, and the character of the debate. Could this be an opportunity for the Synod to discover a new kind of theological, pastoral, and spiritual imagination, she asked: to see or at least glimpse the longings of those who had been excluded from the institution of marriage.

The motion was carried by 300-12, with seven recorded abstentions.

That this Synod request that the Archbishops’ Council introduce the necessary legislation to revise Canon C4.5 so that a diocesan bishop or acting diocesan bishop may grant a faculty to remove the impediment under Canon C4.4, with national assessment guidelines issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York acting jointly to ensure consistency across dioceses.

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