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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 18:22 GMT
The church of little change

How radical is the Church of England's move to consider re-marriage by its ministers? By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby.

The Church of England's proposals to allow some divorced people to remarry in church have already stirred a storm of protest from traditional Anglicans.

They argue, legitimately enough, that the doctrine the Church proclaims is that marriage is an indissoluble lifelong commitment, which does not allow remarriage while a former partner remains alive.

But the Church, with the peculiar genius it so often shows, has managed for years to say one thing about divorce, and to do something very different.

Officially, remarriage is impossible. But in the parishes of England it is a relatively simple matter to find a priest who will remarry a divorced Anglican.

About one Anglican priest in three in England is ready to use his or her discretion and conduct a second marriage, or even subsequent ones.

The change may ease the path to Prince Charles re-marrying
The advantage of the bishops' proposals is that, if they are eventually approved, they will bring practice into line with doctrine, ensuring that what happens in the parish churches is in line with what is proclaimed in the cathedrals.

They will achieve this, essentially, by changing the doctrine, not the practice, because it will still be left to the conscience of the individual priest to decide whether or not to allow someone to remarry.

So the end result may be something not very different from what happens now, and the Church will find that several years of sound and fury bring about little practical change.

The proposals are an attempt to rationalise the glaring inconsistency between faith and practice. They will probably also have another effect, by allowing the Church to show a more compassionate face to the world.

Slow the rate of desertion

Compassion can do a lot for a Church which continues gently to lose numbers and authority, as the Church of England has been doing for some years. So a new deal on remarriage could help, if not to fill the pews, at least to slow the rate at which they are emptying.

The new deal will not help to fill empty pews
Not so long ago, the Church was a confident player on the national stage, assured of its place in the lives of many of society's influential members.

In those days it was a relatively united Church, willing to emphasise its debt both to the Protestant reformers and to the Catholic Church from which it was formed.

Today, though, it is certainly much less sure of its place. And the old balance has given way to a new stress on the Protestant part of its heritage.

Bereft of its old balance, uncertain of whether it fits in to many people's lives any longer, the Church of England is trying to be a caring, sensible church for the new millennium.

It is a laudable aim. But it is far from certain that it will persuade even the faithful, never mind anyone else.

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25 Jan 00 |  UK
Clergy split on marriage reform

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