Why you can't just walk away from
The Church's faith is passed on from generation to generation, but
each generation has to receive it in the light of its knowledge of the
human condition. This is particularly true of social and personal
Jesus himself challenged the narrow legalism of his day and
emphasised ``rightness of heart''. Not only this: in his teaching on
marriage, for instance, or on the lex talionis (an eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth), he set aside the provisions of the Mosaic Law and
returned in the one case to the order of Creation and in the other to
the principle of overcoming evil with good (Mark x, 1-12; Matthew v,
38-48). Throughout the ages the Church, in responding to the world
around it, has had to draw out the implications of the Gospel. This has
sometimes been called ``development'' because some aspect of Scripture
or tradition has been clarified and expounded. Such development cannot
be unprincipled and free-ranging. It must be a development of some
important truth of the Gospel, be faithful to the Gospel as a whole and
make it credible for a particular people at a given time.
On the question of marriage, for example, the Church has always tried
to hold to the teaching of Jesus that marriage is a life-long
relationship between a woman and a man. It believes that this is part of
God's will for us in Creation and applies to all cultures and ages, even
if they are simultaneously or serially polygamous.
At the same time, the Church has known from the earliest period that
marriages do break down and that pastoral provision has to be made for
such an eventuality. The so-called ``Matthean exception'' (Matthew v, 32
and xix, 9) is, at the very least, an example of such provision.
By the same token, the Church cannot be indifferent to the causes of
marital breakdown and to the question of responsibility for such a
breakdown. For the purposes of its own discipline (for example, the
remarriage of divorcees in church), the Church will be interested in the
causes leading to ``irretrievable breakdown'' and in who has major
responsibility for it. In such a context, it is difficult to imagine the
Church being content with a ``no-fault'' divorce.
This cannot be, however, a matter simply for the Church's internal
life. Because marriage is ``a Creation ordinance'', the Church has to be
concerned about marriage in society generally. Here also a concern for
justice should lead the Church to ask how ``irretrievable breakdown''
has occurred and which, if any, partner has the major responsibility for
it. Such a concern for justice is obviously required when one partner
has been wronged through cruelty, desertion or infidelity. The Church
should not be seen to be weakening the contractual nature of marriage
and allowing people to ``walk away'' from it. Certainly, requirements
for mediation and reflection are to be welcomed, but any reduction in
the adversarial aspects of divorce cannot be at the expense of natural
In deciding on terms of a divorce settlement, such as custody of the
children, the courts too will need to have some idea as to which, if
any, partner bears ``major responsibility'' for the breakdown of the
At the heart of every family, extended or nuclear, there is a stable
and public relationship between a man and a woman for the procreation
and nurture of children and for ``the mutual society, help and comfort,
that the one ought to have of the other''.
Because the family is the basic unit of society, it is in the
interests of both Church and State that such a bond should be taken with
the utmost seriousness.
The Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali is Bishop of Rochester.
This article first appeared in Credo in The Times on Saturday
September 9, 1995