The damn broke, in the Episcopal Church, in 1973. That year at the General Convention in Louisville, KY, church law was changed to allow remarriage in the church after divorce. It was “sold” to the community of the faithful as a compassionate recognition of the new reality in America (by that year the increasing divorce rate had become a constant subject of discussion in the church). Soon it would become true that most Episcopal Congregations were peppered with divorced and remarried people, and in very little time what was first allowed for the laity became true among the clergy. Before long it would be true even for bishops. What was once unthinkable became normal.
Almost certainly as a corrective to constant criticism about King Henry VIII from without, the Church of England had centuries before instituted one of the most restrictive marriage disciplines in the global church. If you were validly married and your spouse was still living there was no divorce. Period. That canonical tradition, rooted as it was believed in the teaching of our Lord, came to the New World with the preaching of the Faith. But in the breakdown of sexual morality that swept over the country in the 1960’s, the number of divorces even inside the church was growing rapidly.
The Anglican Family had always provided for the compassionate care of those divorced, and especially those who were deemed “innocent,” but it had never accepted as right that a second marriage – with a spouse still living – could be presided over by a clergyman using the liturgy for Holy Matrimony. It had for some time been possible to argue that the “Matthean Exception” (when there has been adultery) and the “Pauline Privilege” (when a wife has been abandoned) provided circumstances allowing a second marriage in private, but these were then still rare. And no ordained clergyman could ever be an exception. After 1973 that ceased to be so. First there was a trickle then a stream of divorces, and finally a flood. By the end of the twentieth century some Episcopal dioceses would have a majority of clergy who had been divorced and remarried. And lay divorce and remarriage was so common throughout the whole country that almost no clergyman dared preach about it in church.
How was it possible for this transition to occur?
Time had proven once again, that when small matters are overlooked, soon larger ones will be as well. But it would get worse. By the middle of the 1990s so many other clear teachings of the Holy Scriptures had been marginalized or ignored, that it was easier and easier to accept the latest erosion. When in AD 2003 an openly gay and partnered man was elected, and confirmed, as bishop of New Hampshire, many people holding to what they would have called a “high doctrine’ of scripture, departed the Episcopal Church. What was little noticed by most of those who left was that the new bishop had been previously married twice and was the father of children. It did not start in AD 2003. The church had “sown the wind” and was “reaping the whirlwind.”
Next Week: The Moral Law