(This story was first published in the October 1967 issue of the Canadian Churchman.)
MARRIAGE CANON PASSED
With second reading of the Canon on Marriage and Related Matters (Canon XXVIIB) passed overwhelmingly at General Synod in late August, the Anglican Church of Canada became the second member of the world-wide communion to approve the remarriage of divorced persons.
Two years ago in Vancouver Canon XXVIIA was approved by synod. The second reading is confirmation of the same canon with slight modifications.
The Episcopal Church in the United States has a canon allowing the remarriage of divorcees administered on the diocesan level. The Canadian canon provides for the remarriage of divorced persons while the other partner is still living unless there is some civil impediment. The remarriage is subject to investigation and approval by a commission to be established in each of the Church’s 28 dioceses.
These commissions are to be set up by the diocesan bishop to review the circumstances surrounding the divorce and to ascertain whether the applicants have a true conception of Christian marriage.
A vote by the three orders of Synod on August 23 overwhelmingly approved the canon. In an unusual procedure the 250 delegates voted separately as clergy, laity and bishops.
The basic purpose of the canon, however, is not to make divorce easier but to strengthen marriage and family life by making provision for preparation and support of those who are already married. The part of the canon on divorce is only one section.
Rt. Rev. Stanley Steer, Bishop of Saskatoon, in his capacity as chairman of the Primate’s Commission on Marriage and Related Matters, stressed that divorce was not being made easier but that support for the Christian concept of one man one woman for life could be strengthened.
The section of the report dealing with remarriage of divorced persons was reported by theologian Rev. Dr. Charles Feilding who acknowledged that the church blesses only the Christian concept of marriage as indissoluble.
“But some marriages fall into sin. They die, or perhaps they were never Christian marriages to begin with, since the partners never intended to enter into a lifelong partnership,” he told the delegates.
Prof. H. R. S. Ryan, Chancellor of Ontario Diocese, and a member of the commission explained the divorce section clause-by-clause.
“Society may release the parties from a civil bond of marriage through divorce and under the law they may remarry. It is a statistic that three-quarters of divorced persons now remarry and that will likely increase,” Prof. Ryan said.
The Church does nothing for these people. Prof. Ryan said that the theory of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches has always been that marriage can only be dissolved by death.
“While admitting that civil divorce exists and is legally valid the Church still regards them as theologically bigamous and regards the parties as adulterers,” he said.
He pointed out that in the Roman Catholic Church such people are excommunicated but until the passing of the marriage canon, the Anglican Church regarded remarriage as agreeable civilly and perhaps even socially but refused to remarry people or to legally admit them to Holy Communion.
“The Church has always released Christians from the external obligations created by every vow they can make except those of marriage. Why this should be, when there is a bond that no longer offers any hope of Christian partnership is incredible.
“We forgive a penitent murderer, rapist, prostitute or adulterer. Why is remarriage after divorce by a sinner who repents of his former misconduct the only unforgiveable sin?” he asked.
In moving acceptance of the whole marriage canon, Bishop Steer stressed that once a marriage is dead, the surgery of divorce is necessary and remarriage by two people who could satisfy a commission that they understand the Christian concept of marriage should be allowed.
Applicants to the diocesan commissions must show evidence of penitence for past sins and a firm resolves to adhere to the standard and fulfill the obligations of Christian marriage in their new unions, Bishop Steer emphasized.
During the debate, which veteran observers of Synod described as one of the best in many years, some delegates expressed doubt about the safeguards of clergy who, in good conscience, could not perform a remarriage. Bishop Steer and Dr. Feilding both emphasized that no clergyman is ever, or would ever be forced to marry anyone.
The canon became effective the date it was approved by Synod. It is expected that commissions to hear evidence for remarriage could be established as early as Nov. 1.
The canon is fully applicable to priests and bishops who might seek remarriage as well as the laity.
Opposition to the canon was basically centred about the indissolubility of Christian marriage. Bishop Munn, one of three bishops who opposed passage of the canon, explained that he felt, “in conscience that if our Lord Jesus Christ were here today he would not want to see this happen.
“I appreciate the social and practical implications of this change but I feel it contrary to all the Church’s teaching and word as laid down in Holy Scripture.”
Two other bishops – Bishop Watton and Bishop Marsh, both heading dioceses made up largely of Indian and Eskimo people opposed the canon on grounds that their people took a completely different sociological view of marriage.