Marriage canon relaxed

Published June 1, 2004

St. Catharines, Ont.

Divorced Anglicans hoping to re-marry in church may soon have to deal only with their parish priest instead of having to apply to a diocesan matrimonial commission for approval. General Synod gave second reading to an amendment to Canon XXI (the church’s marriage canon or law) allowing each diocese to decide if it wants to make the parish priest the decision maker or continue with a matrimonial commission. Until a diocese chooses what it wants to do, its situation remains unchanged. The decision was part of the first major revision of the marriage canon since its adoption in 1962. Before then, Anglican priests were forbidden to officiate at any wedding involving a divorced person whose former partner was still living. The matrimonial commissions formed a key element of the 1962 canon, and three previous attempts to abolish them were defeated. Other major amendments approved included changes in the “Table of Kindred and Affinity” to bring it into line with present Canadian law, and permitting marriages to be solemnized in places other than church buildings. All the revisions, involving a total of six motions, were approved by substantial majorities and will have an immediate effect in every parish. Because they involved issues of doctrine and discipline, changes had to be passed by two-thirds majorities in separate votes by bishops, clergy, and lay delegates at two successive General Synods. Following approval at the 2001 session, they were sent to all provincial and diocesan synods for review and possible amendments.It was this process that resulted in the “local option” amendment to allow each diocese to decide whether or not to retain its matrimonial commission. Two provincial synods, Canada (made up of seven dioceses in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces) and Rupert’s Land (northwestern Ontario, the three prairies provinces, and the Arctic), called for changes that would permit each diocese to retain or discard its matrimonial commission and thus allow for cultural differences about divorce and remarriage.”This is a very sensitive and difficult issue among first nations people,” said Bishop David Ashdown of Keewatin. “Less than five years ago the diocese threatened to divide over it – local self-determination is absolutely essential.” Bishop Donald Harvey of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador said, “It would be sad to lose something so pastorally effective” as the matrimonial commission, but lay member Jan Best of Rupert’s Land described the experience as “degrading.” Dean Allan Reed of Kootenay said the present matrimonial commission leads the church “by rule rather than grace. It’s the only process that doesn’t trust the integrity of the parish priest.” The original proposal would have given decision-making power to the parish priest alone. As finally approved, the change gives either the parish priest, or the matrimonial commission, or in the absence of a commission, the bishop, the power to approve the marriage of divorced persons in the church, depending on the decision of the diocesan synod. Until then, the status quo remains in place.One change with immediate effect is a simplified list of prohibited relationships which disqualify persons from marrying each other, which brings church law into line with civil law, replacing the Table of Kindred and Affinity (Book of Common Prayer, p. 562) which lists 15 relationships within which marriage is forbidden. The federal law permits any marriage except between persons related through a line of descent whether by blood or adoption, as brother and sister by whole or half blood. One addition for Anglicans forbids marriage if “they both live, or have previously lived, in the same household and one of them is, or has been, treated as a child or parent.”While affirming that “the body of the church (building) is the appropriate place for the solemnization of a marriage,” the canon now permits marriage ceremonies elsewhere as long as solemnity is preserved. Commenting that “this gives us flexibility,” Bishop Caleb Lawrence of Moosonee added, “one of my three children wanted to be married outdoors and I had to say ‘no’ – I regret that.”

Synod repealed a now disused provision for divorced and re-married persons to request a ruling from the bishop regarding their admission to Holy Communion – on the theory that prior to the 1962 canon, any person who remarried after divorce contrary to then church law was automatically excommunicated. Two new special forms of service were approved: for renewal of marriage vows on a wedding anniversary or at a time of marital reconciliation, and a form – explicitly restricted to heterosexual unions – for a church blessing after a civil marriage.


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