Divorced bishops and the teachings of Jesus

By Symon Hill
June 25, 2010

The Church of England is reported to be about to propose a change in its rules that will allow priests who are divorced to become bishops. Journalists looking for negative reactions to this news have not found them hard to find.

The story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph earlier this month. In rather sensationalist language, the paper reported that bishops have been “secretly discussing” the issue. Given the level of detail in the story, it seemed possible that a bishop opposed to the move had leaked the story to the paper in an attempt to whip up opposition before the change can go through.

Predictably, such opposition has been quickly forthcoming. There has been outrage from Forward in Faith, the socially conservative high church group known for its opposition to the ordination of women (and commonly nicknamed “Backwards in Fear”). Forward in Faith's national secretary, Geoffrey Kirk, said that, “Promoting divorced bishops is a far more serious matter than homosexual bishops because it is undermining one of the fundamental teachings of scripture”.

Well, at least he does not make the mistake (unlike many of his allies) of regarding opposition to homosexuality as “one of the fundamental teachings of scripture”.

David Phillips of the Church Society, a conservative evangelical group, said it was not “appropriate for bishops to be divorcees” because the Church should be “modelling the teachings of Jesus”.

Like Phillips, I very much want to see churches modelling Jesus' teachings. But it is inaccurate to claim that Jesus said divorce is always wrong.

Let's look at Jesus' precise words. He said, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16,18).

The “anyone” clearly refers to men - “anyone who divorces his wife”. This is not surprising. In the society, in which Jesus spoke, only a man could initiate a divorce. By doing so, he could well reduce his wife to poverty and social rejection. Jesus rightly denounces those who would use their power to throw their partners into poverty.

The notion of a woman initiating divorce, or a couple amicably agreeing to a divorce, were unknown in the context in which Jesus spoke. I am not of course claiming to know what Jesus would say about such possibilities. But he constantly focused on power and the abuse of power, and it seems likely that this informed his attitude to divorce.

I am certainly not advocating a casual attitude to marriage and divorce. These are very difficult issues, and they deserve to be considered sensitively, thoughtfully and prayerfully. We do Jesus a disservice if we simplistically quote his words out of context with no regard to the wider nature of his message.

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