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Sunday, September 19, 1999 Published at 23:04 GMT 00:04 UK


Church tackles divorce and cohabitation

'Till death us do part' speaks for fewer couples today

By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

The Church of England brings out a document on Monday in an attempt to clarify its position on marriage.

Marriage, in the timeless words of the Book of Common Prayer, is "for better or worse, till death us do part".

The BBC's Emily Buchanan: "The church wants to bolster marriage"
The problem for church leaders is that with every passing year, fewer of us believe that to be true.

In 1998 there were only 279,000 weddings, less than ever before. And of those only 75,000 got married in church.

In the same year 165,000 couples decided to divorce.

Religious Affairs Correspondent Emily Buchanan: "Growing numbers are opting against church weddings"
On present trends, four married couples out of 10 are likely to part long before death can intervene.

The new booklet on marriage is intended to form a basis for teaching in parishes.

Advance publicity says the booklet is an attempt "to reaffirm the Church of England's teaching on marriage by restating that lifelong marriage should be one of the bedrocks of a rapidly changing society".

Reluctant clergy

Many people whose marriages end in divorce marry again. And many of them want their second marriage to take place in a church, with holy blessing.

But not many achieve their desire, because relatively few clergy will agree to marry divorced people. If marriage really is indissoluble, they argue, there can be no remarriage.

[ image: Most Anglican bishops are traditionalists on marriage]
Most Anglican bishops are traditionalists on marriage
This traditionalist line is the church's official position. And all the new booklet has to say about remarriage in church is to restate the current discouragement of it.

"Should the church as a whole decide upon an alternative, it will be on exactly the same principles that have guided it up to this point - that marriage is an unconditional commitment for life.

"A further marriage after a divorce is an exceptional act, not a routine one."

A draft of another Church of England report, by a group headed by the bishop of Winchester, the Right Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, was given to the bishops almost a year ago.

Traditionalists in charge

That is believed to say that remarriage in church should be allowed, so long as the new partner did not cause the break-up of the first marriage.

Church officials say the Scott-Joynt report is unlikely to be published "this side of Christmas". But they say the bishops are not deliberately delaying publication.

At the moment, therefore, it looks as if the traditionalists will continue to call the tune. But there are small signs of change.

[ image: Bishop Holloway: Proponent of a new morality]
Bishop Holloway: Proponent of a new morality
One leading liberal is the bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Revd. Richard Holloway. He is the leader of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of England's equivalent north of the border.

In his book "Godless Morality", published this year, Dr Holloway writes: "Sexual love and its discipline of faithfulness, while the relationship endures, is a contemporary version of the traditional ethic of marriage".

"Traditional supporters of marriage may see this ethic as a severely attenuated version of the old one.

"But it does bear witness to the continuity of the moral principle that informed the sexual aspect of marriage."

Richard Holloway is not by any means a typical Anglican bishop. But his understanding of morality speaks for many Anglicans in the pews.

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