Who gets the Church?

Christianity teaches that marriage is for life. There is, of course, a difference here between different Churches: some do not admit divorce at all; some allow it reluctantly in very special cases. It is a great pity that Christians should disagree about such a question; but for an ordinary layman the thing to notice is that the Churches all agree with one another about marriage a great deal more than any of them agrees with the outside world. I mean, they all regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are all agreed that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment. What they all disagree with is the modern view that it is a simple readjustment of partners, to be made whenever people feel they are no longer in love with one another, or when either of them falls in love with someone else. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

We all know that divorce is not a good thing. Sometimes it’s necessary, but even in such cases no sane person would argue that divorce is good in and of itself. No one, given the choice, would willingly choose to go through this experience. While divorce is permitted – Jesus mentions in the Gospel, for example, that divorce is allowed in cases of sexual immorality (Mt. 5:32, 19:9) – it is seen as a last resort, and accepted only grudgingly.

Within western society the institution of marriage is under attack. Marriage has lost its value and meaning for a large part of our society. Where people still value marriage at all it is often understood in a completely personal, even selfish manner. A means of “self-fulfillment”, respected in so far as and only as long as both spouses decide that it is good for them personally, with no commitment to spend the rest of one’s natural life together “in sickness and health, for richer or poorer” – this is the attitude one often finds among friends and acquaintances.

Divorce has become commonplace. So, unfortunately, have its consequences: the financial burden it brings, the psychological agony, the damage it does to children, friendships, families and relationships. No less devastating are the spiritual repercussions of divorce.

We all have an idea of what “Christian Marriage” means. But is there such a thing as “Christian Divorce”? After divorce, is it possible for the couple to continue to attend the same parish? The courts will decide who gets the house, the car, the pension funds, and the children. But who gets the Church?

A couple in my parish was breaking up. It was months, if not years in the making. I heard that they had separated second hand. They never called, asked for help, sought counseling, or even indicated that there was a problem. One day it’s “How’s everyone doing?” “Fine, father.” And then boom! It’s not a family anymore.

Many parishioners do not feel the need to seek the Churches opinion, counsel, or help in such matters. Most parishioners, in step with secular society, feel that they, individually, are the only ones competent to arbitrate their own, “personal” affairs. But the issue of divorce is an issue of great spiritual depth which affects a circle of people much greater than the couple involved. Divorce is always the result of sin, and can easily be sinful in and of itself.

It’s probably fair to say that insofar as a couple is trying to live in accordance with the principles of the Gospel, they will be able to have a Christian marriage, and the more successful they are at following the commandments of Christ the less chance they will have of a marital breakdown. If for some reason a breakdown does occur, it is these same principles which will help the couple to either work through the problems or at least split up without hatred and acrimony.

It is recommended that every Orthodox Christian have a spiritual father. In the cases of families it is recommended that the entire family – husband, wife, and children – have the same spiritual father to whom they not only confess, but whose counsel they seek whenever there are problems, questions, or life decisions of great importance. A pious, Christian marriage counselor can be a valuable resource in trying to help a couple through a problem in their relationship – but regular recourse to the spiritual father coupled with regular and frequent confession and communion can help prevent difficulties from becoming problems.

But problems do occur. When divorce occurs among Orthodox Christians the first thing those involved should do is approach for confession. Generally speaking a penance (epitimia) may be imposed, depending upon the circumstances and the particular reasons for the divorce. This penance will usually consist of a particular rule of prayer, perhaps a time of fasting, and in the cases of grave sin, like adultery, a period of exclusion from Holy Communion. Should either partner desire in the future to remarry permission from the Bishop or Church court is necessary.

What can fellow parishioners do to help divorced or divorcing partners? The most important thing is probably not to take sides. As the old saying goes, “no matter how thin you slice the baloney, it still has two sides!” Being Christians, we always try to take God’s side. None of us is perfect, all of us are sinful, and while there are situations in which divorce might be warranted (in cases of abuse, neglect, adultery, or addiction, for example) many, perhaps most cases of divorce nowadays are a result of immaturity, financial problems, or self-centredness. Friends, acquaintances and fellow parishioners often have the knowledge and the perspective to give beneficial advice to those having marriage difficulties, to direct them towards those who might help, to pray for them, and to support good, Christian decisions.

Nothing seems to build up hatred and acrimony as much as the dividing up of the household. The worst is when children must be “split”. I’ve heard it said that the best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother, and I’m sure the reverse is true as well. Jesus speaks in the Gospel about giving good gifts to our children (Mt. 7:11), but I’ve yet to see children who were affected positively by a divorce. Parents who claim to be Christians have an absolute duty never to poison their children with hatred towards anyone, and friends, family, and fellow parishioners must be exceptionally compassionate towards the children of divorce.

Although most couples put on a brave face, divorce often makes people feel like failures. If the husband and wife were not simply being dishonest at their marriage ceremony, they hoped that they would be together forever (and how often do we hear these exact words at weddings?). Although the social stigma of being divorced is not as pronounced as it once was, the feelings of regret, hurt, loneliness, insecurity, and failure, and the financial instability which usually follows a divorce as well, can lead a person to depression.

The positive role of family, friends, and fellow parishioners in supporting the divorced probably cannot be overemphasized. It’s precisely in such circumstances that the need for God’s help is felt most strongly. Those going through a marital breakup or recently divorced probably need the Church more than those in stable family environments. It’s up to the priest and parishioners to make the parish a place of comfort for them.

Two years ago the government of Canada legally permitted “marriage” between homosexual partners. Many Canadians decried this innovation as a devaluation and denigration of the institution of marriage. But how can we, as Christians, say that same-sex marriage is a travesty if we ourselves devaluate marriage so greatly by accepting divorce as something “normal”?

Prevention is the best medicine. Priests must be diligent in their preparation of couples for marriage. Parents and church school teachers must take care that children and youth are taught the holiness and benefit of Christian marriage. And there is no better lesson than the example of couples who, in spite of their problems and personal idiosyncrasies, stay together through thick and thin, proving that love is not simply a word, or an emotion, but a holy way of life.

Everyone planning on marriage should approach this most pivotal life decision seriously, asking God’s help and direction, listening to the thoughts and advice of their family and spiritual advisers. If we take the teaching of the Gospel seriously divorce and its consequences will become rarer and rarer in our parishes and our families.