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Why you can't just walk away from marriage

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 morality.

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 justice.

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 marriage.

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