Can the Church Bless Divorce?
by John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 28, 1984, p. 1126. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
But this was not a marriage. It was, rather, A Service for the Recognition of the End of a Marriage,” a liturgy designed to offer to God the pain of a divorce. This man and this woman had once stood before the altar and, in the words of the prayer book, pledged their troth each to the other, til “death us do part.” It was a vow that they had not been able to keep.
Theirs had been the not unfamiliar experience of growing alienation. There had been more hurt than healing, more offense than forgiveness in their marriage. An increasing inability to communicate had seemed to result from the radically different life paths that each partner was taking.
Finally each realized that there was no more life or potential for life in their relationship. Lacking the capacity to try again, they decided to part: they separated, divided their property and made provisions for caring for their children, and, finally, divorced.
Because the man and the woman remained committed Christians, the church which had been a central focus of their marriage somehow also had to be a part of their separation. Hence, this service -- painful, traumatic but intensely real -- was planned to offer the all-too-human reality of divorce to God, and to seek God’s healing and new directions for their lives.
The opening hymn, “Abide with Me,” announced firmly that this would be no Pollyanna attempt to gloss over human pain. The eventide of death had fallen on this couple’s relationship. They had experienced the deepening darkness of human brokenness. Although they had sought help, it had failed. So we sang help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
The call to worship used some of the words of the Psalms, speaking of God as shelter and strength in the time of a shaking earth, when mountains fall into the ocean depths. Then, the liturgist announced that this man and this woman have decided after much effort, pain and anger that they will no longer be husband and wife. They wish to be friends and to respect and care about each other. They are now and will continue to be parents to their children, and they wish to be responsible for each of them.
The congregation responded, “In this difficult time we join with you as your friends. We have been with you in your joys, your struggles and your tears. We have not always known how to be helpful. Although we may not fully understand, we honor your decision. We care and we give you our love.” We joined in a confession asking God to “embrace us when frustration and failure leave us hollow and empty . . . in the confession of our lips show us now the promise of a new day, the springtime of the forgiven.” The Lessons followed. Isaiah exhorted us to remember not the former things”; the psalmist proclaimed the reality of the God who hears when we call “out of the depths”; Paul reminded us that nothing in either life or death ‘‘can separate us from the love of God”; and John echoed Jesus’ words that when we trust in God we can “let not our hearts be troubled.”
The man and woman faced each other land spoke of their pain and failure, and of the seemingly inexorable nature of their separation; of loneliness and the need to learn new ways of relating; and of the sense of death, which both were experiencing. They asked each other for forgiveness, and pledged themselves to be friends, to stand united in caring for their children and to be civil and responsible to each other. They thanked their friends for their willingness to share that moment of pain.
And it was painful for everyone there. All shared the excruciating pain of human brokenness, the irrevocable fracture in a relationship that had once brought joy and fulfillment. The divorced couple wept, and so did every member of that gathered group. Hearts cried out for an easy answer, for an embrace, for someone to say that this was a bad dream that would depart, leaving the past restored. But this service took place in real life, not in fantasy. The pain could not be removed; it had to be endured and transformed,
When the man and the woman had returned to their seats, we sat in an aching silence for what seemed an interminable time. Some prayed; some tried to dry their tears; some wished that they had not come. But all remained.
Finally we rose and said together: “We affirm you in the new covenant you have made: one that finds you separated but still caring for each other and wishing each other good will; one that enables you to support and love your children, one that helps to heal the pain you feel. Count on God’s presence. Trust our support and begin anew.”
Then we prayed the “Prayers of the People,” culminating in these words which the congregation spoke together: “On behalf of the church which blessed your marriage, we now recognize the end of that marriage. We affirm you as single persons among us and we pledge you our support as you continue to seek God’s help and guidance for the new life you have undertaken in faith.” During the passing of the peace, the healing power of the embrace of friends washed over each of us. We celebrated the Eucharist together as a holy community that had shared an experience that would never be forgotten.
The closing hymn pointed us to new beginnings: “When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain, thy touch can call us back to life again. Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”
Those human relationships that promise the greatest joy also hold the potential for the deepest hurt. I do not believe that any relationship offers more possibilities or binds us more deeply to one another than marriage does. To that connection we make the most solemn pledges, promising “to love, honor and cherish” each other “for richer. for poorer, “in sickness and in health,” ‘‘forsaking all others to be faithful as long as both shall live.” Life, destiny and hope reside in marriage.
The children born of that relationship represent a binding unity. To be able to raise those children to adulthood, to share together in their moments of transition, to give them the security enabling them to leave home and to fly with their own wings is a joy indeed. To be able to offer grown children a place to visit that is a happy refuge populated by people called grandparents is one of life’s deepest dimensions. Such opportunities are the serendipities of a good marriage. When childraising responsibilities have been completed, for a husband and a wife to be able to grow old together in mutual trust and love, cherishing memories of the joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats that have bound them closely together -- surely, that is an ideal to be sought, a vision not to be relinquished, a goal worth the striving.
But in our broken world ideals are often unrealized. Visions are frequently compromised and ultimate goals, it seems, are seldom fully achieved. When we fail, the church needs to meet us in our pain, to enable us to stand even though we have fallen, and to give us courage to live, love and risk again.
No one should abandon a sacred relationship without making every effort to heal and transform the brokenness. Not to struggle to preserve a sacred trust is to reveal a shallowness that will continue to plague one’s life. But when that struggle has been engaged deeply and honestly and still has not succeeded, then the church must reach out to its hurting people with a faith that embraces the past in forgiveness and opens the future in hope.
The pressures on marriage today are enormous. Mobility, loneliness, rootlessness and many other factors take a daily toll. Without compromising its essential commitment to the ideal of faithful, monogamous marriage, the church needs to proclaim that divorce is sometimes the alternative which gives hope for life, and that remaining in a marriage is sometimes the alternative which delivers only death.
The fullness of life for each of God’s creatures is the Christian church’s ultimate goal for human life. When a marriage serves that goal, it is the most beautiful and complete of human relationships. When a marriage does not or cannot serve that goal, it becomes less than ultimate and may well prove less than eternal. In such a case the church needs to accept the reality and the pain that separation and divorce bring to God’s people, and to help redeem and transform that reality and that pain.
I am convinced that no divorced couple could go through the service for “A Recognition of the End of a Marriage” without knowing that in the searing pain of human brokenness there is redemption, forgiveness, hope and the opportunity to seek a new fulfillment along a new path.
We Christians serve a God who can bring resurrection out of crucifixion, life out of death, joy out of sorrow, redemption out of pain. Perhaps this God can also bring us to wholeness despite our brokenness. In that hope we live.