Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Church hints at change on remarriage
They start with high hopes - but more than a third of marriages break down
By News Online's Alex Kirby
The Church of England has released a report which it is calling "its most important teaching document on marriage in this generation".
It is an important document, but not for reasons which the church is keen to mention.
The church's present dilemma is cruel. Fewer people are marrying in church, and fewer of them are staying married.
In 1995 there were 80,000 C of E weddings, a figure which had fallen to 71,000 in twelve months. Britain's divorce rate, the sixth highest in the world, is still rising.
On present trends, 40% of marriages are likely to end in divorce.
Many go away disappointed, because relatively few clergy will agree to marry those who have been divorced. If marriage really is "till death us do part", they argue, there can be no question of remarriage.
That remains the C of E's official position, and it is restated in the report - but with significant additions.
"For some time now, the Church of England has been discussing changes to this policy", it says.
It points out that several dioceses have drawn up "experimental guidelines for alternative practices", and says that a change by the whole church would be "on precisely the same principles that have guided it up to this point".
"Marriage is an unconditional commitment for life; and a further marriage after a divorce is an exceptional act."
Change on the way?
But the report's last page, addressed specifically to people whose marriages have broken down, says that "a marriage in church may currently be a possibility if you live in a parish where experimental diocesan guidelines are being followed".
The implication is clear: that the church is contemplating change, and that this report is intended to prepare the way for it.
What reinforces the expectation of change is the C of E's establishment of a working party on marriage law, including the places where marriages can take place.
At present single people have the right to be married in their own parish church, or in that of the person they are marrying.
But the working party could recommend allowing couples more freedom in deciding where to be married.
The Church of England is already split over women priests, with many parishes welcoming them but a minority still refusing to have anything to do with them.
If the rules on remarriage after divorce change in the way that looks likely, the church could soon be divided between those parishes which will remarry divorced people, and those that will not.