At the beginning of the 20th century, divorce in most western countries was not easy. The R.C. church practiced (and still does) the dubious method of nullity, on which even its own canon law was not as clear as it might be. A common nullity verdict has often been based on the “Pauline Privilege” applied to a “mixed marriage”, but canonists are not unanimous that this is a valid procedure.
If divorce was not easy in secular circles, it was impossible for clerics, and for lay people, carried with it excommunication. Until quite recently any member of the clergy getting a divorce was inhibited for a significant period, and if he (there were only males then) remarried, he would be suspended from the ministry sine die.
Relaxed Attitudes in 20th Century
In most Protestant branches of the church, a much more permissive attitude to divorce, even among clergy, developed in the second half of the 20th century. This relaxation has also happened in the Episcopal Church.
The change has not been merely a slipping of standards, and yet another example of a “sliding away from classic Anglican theology and morals” (John Rodgers in The Living Church, Feb. 27, 2000, 8). On the contrary, it has been the application of classic Anglican principles. The change in policy (which departs radically from scriptural prescription) is the result of prayerful consideration of the realities of marriage breakdown. Such psychological, social, and personal realities, (like the realities of scientific revelation) have been taken seriously.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Views
This position is not that of the R.C. church. The classic catholic position since the 13th century is that since marriage is a sacrament, “the marital bond between husband and wife is an, objective, ontological reality that cannot be dissolved”, (Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, 179b). That means that divorce is not only wrong; it is impossible. (Compare the analogous argument about the ordination of women - an ontological impossibility). Conservative Evangelicals who, in spite of deep distrust of Rome and a rejection of many of its theological positions, agree on some moral issues like abortion and homosexuality; they also share a generally fundamentalist approach to scripture, but interestingly, Evangelicals do not, by and large, share the R.C. view of marriage and divorce, (nor its stringent and continuing rejection of contraception).
An alternative view of marriage, which is common in Eastern Orthodox thought, is to regard it not as an ontological bond, but as a moral one, which depends for its stability on a high level of mutual trust. Thus, though ideally a marriage should not break down, the realities of human sin mean that if trust is irretrievably broken, the marriage is “morally dead”.
Change in Anglican Communion
The Episcopal Church has made the change in typically Anglican fashion, piecemeal, with local arrangements first and changes in the National Canons much later. This same process may be seen in the wider communion. The C of E Synod has considered a measure to allow the remarriage of divorced clergy under certain circumstances. The process is not tidy and it can be read as “sliding away” from some imagined neatly formulated position. But is not a sliding away from classical Anglicanism.
No Homosexuality: No Divorce?
Finally, the analogies between policies for divorced people and those for homosexual people need to be noted. There is as much (indeed, more, since there are specific Dominical words) explicit biblical warrant for forbidding divorce and remarriage as there is for excluding homosexuals. There is also quite as strong a tradition in the matter.
If the Anglican Communion cannot bring itself fully to incorporate homosexual persons into its life and structure, those branches of the Communion that have liberal divorce policies ought, perhaps, in all justice and consistency seriously to consider the status of divorced persons among them. If those autonomous churches in the Anglican Communion cannot include homosexual persons, would it not be just for them to inhibit all divorced clergy, discontinue the practice of marrying divorced persons in church, and seriously consider revoking their status as communicants?