I’m bored, so I’m releasing this article into the wilds to stir up trouble…
I’m being facetious in my post title today, I don’t really believe in a Sacrament of Divorce. However, I have been thinking a lot about the notion of separation of church and state and how it applies to various aspects of life, including marriage and divorce.
When my wife and I were married just under 3 years ago, we understood that we were essentially being married twice: once before God, our friends and family, and once by the state (Province of Ontario). The first was the most important and the second more of a detail. It’s important to keep these things separate in your mind so you understand the true nature of a Christian marriage. In the Anabaptist tradition which historically takes a very hard line on separation of church and state, it would not be unheard of to find two Anabaptist-Christians who were married in the church but never register their marriage with the state.
Here’s my question: in a situation as that, where the division between church and state is so sharp, how do they get a divorce? Pretty much all churches but the Catholic Church, grudgingly concede that divorce is possible; a concession to our fallen natures. We’re not going to discuss the merits of either position here, but I’m curious as to how a church recognizes a divorce apart from the state.
Point 1: Whether you take a sacramental or ordinal view of marriage, it is almost always seen as the one event that the individuals involved perform on each other and the officiant simply oversees, witnesses, and testifies to its’ validity . That is, it is not up to the priest/minister, etc to marry two people, it is the couple that declare that reality. The role of the priest is simply to give the churches’ assent to the proceedings.
Point 2: If a marriage happens when the two people involved, together with the assembled church (and other guests), declare it to be so, when does a divorce happen? A couple is married in the eyes of God when this is complete, it has nothing to do with the states opinion. In fact, in some sense, the states recognition of a marriage is retroactively applied because you have to send in the paperwork, etc. So, if we value a distinction between a valid state marriage and a valid church wedding, when does a church recognize that a divorce has taken place?
Point 3: Even if you are married before the church and in the eyes of the state, when does a divorce happen? When the state says so? This is problematic because now we’re giving power and control over to the state for a marriage that was also validated by the church. We are ceding jurisdiction over to the state for something that we agreed initially was valid in the eyes of the church regardless of what the state said.
So, again, the question is: how does the church know when a divorce has taken place? What is the church’s role in marking that divorce? If a couple is validly married in the church but never seeks state recognition – how do THEY get divorced and what is the church’s role in that? And what about remarriage?
This isn’t meant to be a polemic against divorce and remarriage, I’m still in the air on this myself. These are simply some questions that I’ve been asking myself as I ponder the question of separation of church and state. If a divorce is only valid and real when the state says it is, then why does that not apply to marriages as well and are we not giving up power to the state?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this.