I suppose my greatest confusion in this discussion of the propriety of divorce and remarriage is the argument (or perhaps I should say assertion) that the existence of two narrowly stated exceptions to the general prohibition against divorce (infidelity and paganism) somehow open the door for other exceptions as well.
This seems to me to be a very odd way of thinking. I mean, look at the situation as described in Matthew 19. The Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is permissible for any old reason at all (which the Law permitted). Jesus says, no; the only reason is infidelity. To transform this restriction into a license hardly appears to be taking the “clear meaning of Scripture” very clearly — or seriously. It strikes me as something like saying, “Cars may only use the left-hand lane for passing; and since they can use the left-hand lane (for passing) they can use it just to drive in, too.”
So this “exceptions” assertion strikes me as deeply flawed. In fact, it reminds me of the caricature of the progressive position on sexuality concerning Leviticus, dubbed “The Shellfish Argument” by Canon Harmon of South Carolina. As he describes it, “You have noted that Leviticus is against same sex practice, but Leviticus says we should not eat shellfish. So how could we possibly listen to Leviticus?” This is, as I say, a caricature; the real argument of the progressives is not that we need pay no heed to Leviticus at all, but that we need to look at Leviticus as a legal code containing some laws that are no longer relevant, and determining which are which.
It is also argued that the existence of the two exceptions for divorce played a large part in the debates and discussions leading to the gradual liberalization of the Episcopal Church’s marriage law. This does not seem to bear up under close examination. This is laid out in White and Dykman’s Annotated Constitution and Canons, pages 399ff. A few tidbits: The 1916 General Convention joined most scholars in seeing (as most still do) that the “exception” in Matthew is not likely from Jesus (being an inclusion on the part of the redactor), and thus was not relevant to determining Jesus’ thought on the subject, which admitted no exceptions in the Gospel parallels. The report to the General Convention of 1937, rather than citing the “exceptions” argued that Jesus’ teaching against divorce representated an ideal, which many fell short; so a pastoral solution should be provided. The mechanism by which these changes ultimately were made was exactly on grounds of “fairness” and “not punishing the innocent” — beginning with the allowance of remarriage to the injured party — all in all a pastoral response to a difficult situation. (One can agree or disagree with this very loose handling of Jesus’ teaching, but this appears to have been the process, in spite of claims to the contrary.)
Finally, let me raise two more parallels that I did not include in my earlier list.
1. Some appeal to the “clear teaching of Scripture,” the historic tradition of “what we have always believed for 2,000 years,” and the unity of Anglicanism: yet surely they realize that on the subject of divorce and remarriage the Episcopal Church was innovative and “unilateral.”
2. Some decry the idea that “local option” should be allowed on sexuality matters; yet this is precisely what we have with divorce and remarriage: it is up to the local bishop to determine if a divorced person can remarry in his or her diocese, and the bishop is free to use whatever rationale seems right — a bishop could forbid any second marriages, or allow them all, and no one could gainsay the decision.
You know, I would perhaps not have raised the relevance of the divorce and remarriage issue to the broader sexuality debate were it not for the fact that so many of the traditionalists cite the passage from Matthew 19 as if what Jesus was addressing was homosexuality, rather than divorce. In this, it seems that the assertion is intended as a protective against accusations of inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst. When I see the “reasserters” more generally reassert the traditional doctrine (as some, such as Dr. Peter Toon, have actually done), and call for renunciations that might well deplete their ranks of some of their most ardent spokesmen, then perhaps they will be taken seriously in this regard.
Tobias S Haller BSG