When the vow breaks

Church ritual when marriage ends would aid couple and community
June 30, 2005

I’ll bet you’ve heard it, too: the argument that if the church were to observe the divorcing of its members with a ritual in its worship, this would be tantamount to approving of or even blessing divorce. But is this so? And why might churches need to have some ritual observance of the ending of a marriage? (Some might add: Isn’t private confession and absolution enough?)

Christian marriage properly takes place in our public worship. The community of faith gathers to witness the exchange of vows, to pledge our support for the couple as a new family and our respect of their family boundaries (remember “let no one put asunder”?) and to ask God’s continued presence and strength for the marriage while we give God thanks for already beginning to be shown forth to the community in the new relationship. We return thanks to God (we bless God) for blessing us through those members’ lives and love.

When a marriage comes apart, there is undoubtedly an aspect of sin involved. In some way, everyone has fallen short of the mark, including the supporting community.

There is often more than sin involved, though. There may be lack of insight, unforeseeable changes in the people and circumstances, trauma or psychological disturbance, insurmountable incompatibility, mistaken understanding and more. There may be a shared sense of disappointment, grief, anger and brokenness in the congregation that once gathered so joyfully to launch the new marriage. These things are fitting subjects for common prayer and reconciliation, without which one -- and most often both -- divorcing persons leave their church.

There is also the likelihood that a divorced couple may each enter new relationships. If such relationships are the precipitating cause of the marriage’s end, then they become the proper subject of conversation and discipline within the church. Too often such scandals (and I don’t mean tabloid headlines, but stumbling blocks for the faithful) are met with silence, shunning or denial rather than with prayer, conversation and compassionate concern in a congregation.

Our congregations and clergy aren’t well-practiced in honest public communication about ending marriages, adultery or post-marital relationships. After a divorce has been properly finalized and dating commences, there is likely to be awkwardness all around when the new partner is brought to church. If the two people sit together and attend events as a couple, discomfort is inevitable unless there has been congregational acknowledgement of the end of the marriage.

Some church members may not know of the divorce and may be shocked to see their neighbor sitting beside someone new and behaving affectionately toward him or her. People may wonder what to say to the former spouse or children and how to act toward them, even how to pray for them. When we human beings are unsure and awkward, we tend to withdraw from each other – an added pain for divorcing families.

For all these reasons and more, it is important to offer a divorcing couple (or even an individual, if the partner is unwilling) an opportunity to communicate the new status to the congregation, acknowledge the brokenness, ask for prayers, share sorrow or joy and begin life afresh.

It is equally important for the congregation to be able to communicate its collective love, grief, sympathy, surprise or relief, ongoing support and prayer with its fellow members in the body of Christ. It’s not the divorce we thank God for in such rituals for the ending of a marriage, but the reality of forgiveness, mercy, kindness, communion and new life in Christ.

For too long, despite the congregational pledge of support, we in the church have treated marriage as a private matter and its failure as a private shame. At the same time, we have offered up rhetoric about marriage as a building block of society, an emblem of God’s love for us and a source of strength and stability for the church.

Christian marriage is a “little church,” a place where two come together and God is in the midst of them. When churches, big or little, suffer fracture, it is vital that the larger body of Christ come together to mourn, to seek healing and to ask God’s assistance, considering the severance all of our faithful business.

Until congregations are given opportunity to see what has happened and to ask themselves, “Where did we fail?” “What might we have done differently?” and “How can we help now?” we leave our suffering members to struggle alone, and we behave as less than the one body we are in Christ. 

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