Note on Divorce as a Disqualification for the Episcopate


This note from Professor Oliver O’Donovan was made available to the House of Bishops as background material for its consideration of these matters prior to its decision to release its statement at GS Misc 960, following its meeting in May 2010.


To the House of Bishops Group appointed to advise the Archbishops

In the following Note the potential bishop is referred to as a “candidate”, though that term only loosely applies to someone whose general fitness for future episcopal office is the subject of a preliminary enquiry. The candidate is spoken of throughout as a man, the marriage-partner as his wife. If the Church of England should proceed to consecrate women as bishops, the same observations will apply with the appropriate reversal of gender references.

1. General Considerations

1.1 The question has been asked whether the appointment as a Bishop of someone who is divorced, remarried, or married to a divorced person is consistent with the doctrine and practice of the Church of England. This excludes consideration of Bishops who divorce, remarry, or marry a divorced person while in office. Yet a policy governing episcopal appointments will naturally have knock-on effects for shaping expectations of a Bishop in office, and is likely to be a point of reference for Metropolitans in their pastoral handling of problems with serving Bishops. It therefore has an additional corollary importance beside its importance on its own terms.

1.2.1 How does the Church of England view Christians who are divorced or remarried? The history of the discussion would be far too long to dwell on here, and a brief summary of the conclusions reached by the Church of England will have to suffice. The essential elements of these are to found (a) in the House of Bishops’ Teaching Document (TD ) of 1999, entitled Marriage; (b) in four resolutions passed by the General Synod in July 2002 (GS (a-d)), concluding the process of deliberation initiated by the Winchester Report (Marriage in Church after Divorce, 2000);  and (c) the House of Bishops’ “Advice to Clergy” (AC ), annexed to GS (d), on conducting the marriage of a divorced person with a partner living.  

1.2.2 Reaffirming the teaching of Canon B30, Synod affirmed that the Church of England believes that marriage is “a solemn, public and life-long covenant between a man and a woman” (GS (a)). Yet “some marriages regrettably do fail” (b). The understanding of this failure is spelled out by the Bishops in TD (15f.):  “a broken marriage is not simply the result of chance or accident…(but) the fruit of lovelessness and carelessness”, and that “everything that contributes to the breakdown of marriage offends against God’s love.” As for remarriage, GS affirmed (b) that “there are exceptional circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former spouse”. In some circumstances remarriage may compound the wrong already done, the Bishops had explained, but in other circumstances it may be a responsible course of action (TD 17). The Church has the right “to decide whether such a marriage should be witnessed and solemnized in an act of worship”. We may sum this up as a policy of pastoral accommodation and care, based on an understanding of marriage-breakdown as a moral failure. Pastoral care is important in the wake of a broken marriage, to help the partners “search themselves honestly” and avoid self-justification (TD 16). The Church of England does not view the divorced Christian as still married to the previous partner, though some Anglican Christians have believed this, and “demand respect” (TD 15).   

1.3.1 Why should the appointment of Bishops present a special problem in this context?   The question is parallel to that of why the conduct of clergy should be considered as a special question apart from the conduct of the laity. The functions of ordained leaders include “being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).  The BCP Ordinal asks would-be deacons, priests and bishops to promise to frame themselves and their families to be “wholesome examples”. In this respect Christian leadership within the church differs from most other paradigms of leadership current in secular society, which tend to concentrate on certain technical competences and bracket out the wider life-context. The seriousness with which the church maintains its understanding of priesthood and episcopacy will be judged on its readiness to maintain this, albeit unfashionable, aspect of its historic understanding of Holy Orders. In order to fulfil episcopal functions a man must be a “good example” in the most general terms - i.e. a good example of the Christian life. This example is not confined to, but includes, the conduct of family life, a point drawn out in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:12) and in the Ordinals. Relevant to the exercise of the function is the candidate’s conduct before being appointed to it (1 Tim. 3:10), the reputation for which will give Christian people confidence in his or her ministry. In keeping with this understanding of Christian leadership the Clergy (Ordination) Measure 1990 (No.1) stipulated that a candidate for ordination who had married twice and whose former spouse was still living, or who was married to a person with a former spouse still living, required a faculty from the Metropolitan. This was to ensure adequate pastoral examination of the circumstances.

1.3.2 While these general principles apply to all positions of ordained leadership, and even to lay leadership too, they have special weight in the case of the episcopacy. Most of the bishop’s flock will have to trust and follow him on the basis of his reputation and office without ever making his personal acquaintance. Furthermore, bishops represent the local church to the Catholic church, and must therefore be credible Christian leaders not only in the eyes of their own dioceses but in the eyes of the wider church. The crisis over the New Hampshire consecration illustrates vividly the deep institutional difficulties in which the church becomes mired when a bishop is unrecognisable to the rest of the church as a responsible Christian leader.

1.3.3 Moreover, the more prominent the position of leadership, the more exposed to criticism - the “Caesar’s wife” principle. In our own time the public media have been merciless in pursuit of real or imagined scandals, demonstrating a frightening power to render otherwise effective leaders impotent. While no general insurance policy against base rumour-mongering can or should be expected, it is important not to offer hostages to fortune. 

1.3.4 For all these reasons it is necessary to adopt the principle that when someone is considered for the new and higher responsibility of the episcopate, the personal record, and with it the record of the married life, should be looked at afresh.   Marriage problems that may have been successfully contained in the priesthood may prove to be a serious handicap in the episcopacy. Yet this does not mean that everything in the past has to be investigated again from scratch, which would be both distressing and impossibly burdensome. Where a candidate’s marriage problems have been responsibly handled by a diocesan bishop, either when he was a serving priest or when he was an ordinand, it should be possible for those considering his suitability for episcopate at a later stage to rely on what was done at the time.

1.3.5 In the past divorce has been considered, though as an informal convention rather than a legal rule, a bar to episcopal ordination. In some Anglican churches the consecration of a divorced bishop is effectively unthinkable. Should this situation not simply be maintained? The difficulty that answer raises takes us to the wider problems of our present age, in which, as the Bishops put it, “contemporary society imposes heavy pressures on marriage” (TD 15).   Not merely is there an increasing number of clergy that has had marital problems, but we are (rightly) less inclined to be immediately censorious of them, since occasions for difficulty in this sphere are so many. And given the number of now responsible Christian adults who were irresponsibly married and divorced when barely more than children, the number of marriage partners available to a priest or ordinand could be significantly reduced if we were strict to mark such iniquities. The matter therefore requires careful differentiation of cases. Against this conclusion it can be argued that although it holds good for the marriage of Christians in general, and even with regard to admission to ordination, it should not be true of the chief pastors, of whom the highest possible standard is required. Pastoral accommodation may include a lot of things;  but it need not, and should not, extend to appointing penitents to episcopal oversight. Yet a total bar would be a blunt tool.   Given the age-profile of candidates for episcopacy, a divorce in youth - whether of the putative bishop or his wife - might seem very much less relevant to the question of moral suitability than a number of other more recent factors. And given the difficulty of finding bishops who fulfil all the many desiderata for the position, it would be frustrating for the church to deny itself otherwise eligible candidates whose conduct did not seem to have been significantly at fault.

1.3.6 We should proceed, then, from the general assumption that a past divorce is a possibly serious drawback in the qualification of a candidate for episcopal ministry, but not necessarily a decisive one.

1.4.1 To focus the discussion it may be helpful to distinguish in advance three kinds of judgment one could reach about a candidate who has been divorced, remarried or married to a divorced person. (i) The marital history presents no significant problem, and the candidacy may be considered without reference to it. (ii) The marital history is such as to constitute a bar;  further consideration of the candidacy would be inadvisable, at least at this point.  (iii) The marital history is a significant problem, but not necessarily decisive.   It must be weighed alongside the range of other evidence for the candidate’s temperament and character. The question to be considered in the second section of this Note is whether there are any kinds of case that can be generically assigned to one or another of these three categories.

1.4.2 The third category of judgment expects that consideration of a range of further factors will allow those considering the candidacy to judge how serious the obstacle posed by the marital history actually is.  A word or two more is needed about the logic of this. In the first place other aspects of the candidate’s conduct which illustrate his character and behaviour are relevant in their own right, since the primary question of suitability for episcopal ordination is clearly much wider than the question of the marital history. A final judgment on that primary question will always need to be broadly based. In the second place other aspects of the candidate’s conduct which illustrate his character and behaviour may contribute to an interpretation of aspects of the marital history - e.g. does a certain decision indicate ruthlessness, or simple failure to anticipate the consequences? The logic, therefore, in these cases where the marital history is not either irrelevant to the candidacy or decisively against it, is not merely that of weighing up - balancing the positive against the negative - but more constructively, of getting a fuller view of the candidate’s character by contextualising the marriage-difficulties in the wider story.

1.5 One further note of warning should be included about the nature of any enquiries that may be made and the judgments that may be reached on the basis of them. The question to be answered is simply whether a candidate’s marital history disables him for an exposed position of leadership in the church. To answer this is not to reach a final and comprehensive view of the rights and wrongs of the marriage-problem. It is neither necessary nor desirable for questioning to be conducted with the thoroughness of an ecclesiastical marriage tribunal. A negative judgment is not necessarily a negative judgment on the candidate as a man, a Christian or a priest. And a positive judgment on the candidate is not necessarily a negative judgment on the behaviour of a former wife. Sometimes the question may arise indirectly whether the former wife behaved badly. Such questioning needs to be kept indirect, focussed on the way the character of the candidate himself emerges from the events.

2. Some specific types of case

2.1    Initially we should distinguish candidates who themselves are divorced and remarried from candidates whose wives were previously divorced.  The questions posed by candidates who fall into both these categories need not be gone into separately here. There is no need, on the other hand, to distinguish candidates who are divorced from candidates who are both divorced and remarried. Marriage breakdown is the focus of the church’s moral concern. A willingness not to enter a second marriage may reflect well on the candidate’s self-discipline and the seriousness with which he takes marriage;  but, as the Bishops say, a second marriage may, in some circumstances, be “responsible, prudent…and emotionally wise” (TD 17).

2.2.1 First, as posing the lesser problem, let us consider those whose wives were previously divorced. The heart of “the disaster of a broken marriage” is the actual breakdown, the “fruit of lovelessness and carelessness” (TD 15).   Remarriage is a problem only insofar as it reflects back on the breakdown.   But someone who marries a divorced person was prima facie not party to the failed marriage.

2.2.2. Why, then, was the marriage of a divorced person  historically treated as an issue? First, it is explicitly included in Jesus’ condemnation of divorce. Here we should recall that Jesus’ words envisage a social and legal situation in which divorce was instantaneous and remarriage likely to follow very shortly. Remarriage, therefore, was part and parcel of the divorce, certain to “compound the wrong”. Secondly, the Western church between Augustine and the Reformation universally interpreted Jesus’ words in the sense which the Bishops repudiate, namely that “such a marriage is, strictly speaking, impossible” (TD 15). Thirdly, with the introduction of civil divorce and civil marriage in the nineteenth century, the church was able to bear its witness to the evangelical expectation of marriage by refusing remarriage in church to divorced people without absolutely denying marriage to them. This position, though never maintained without some sense of strain, continued to be the official position of the Church of England until the rescission in November 2002 of the 1957 resolutions of the Convocations of Canterbury and York.  

2.2.3. It would be wrong to conclude that in present circumstances there simply are no questions to be asked about the conduct of someone who marries a divorced person. Our own context has in recent decades come much closer to the kind of situation envisaged in Jesus’ teaching, with divorce expedited and remarriage simple. The question of the remarriage that “compounds the wrong” is an important one, and in such a case, of course, the new partner is an active party to the wrong.

2.2.4. The House of Bishops advise the clergy to ask themselves, among other things, whether conducting a new marriage would be “tantamount to consecrating old infidelity” (AC 3e) This points directly to the typical case of “compounding the wrong”:  when the partner in the new marriage has been a significant factor in the breakdown of the old marriage. It would certainly be scandalous to appoint as a bishop someone positively implicated in the breakdown of his wife’s previous marriage. The Bishops stressed the importance of “a clear distance between the new marriage and the old:  a distance of time, of local setting and of relationship” (TD 17).

2.2.5. Of these three distances, the distance of time is most easily measured and may usually be enough to ensure the distance of relationship. As a practical working rule, then, a sufficient time-lapse between the candidate’s wife’s divorce and her marriage to the candidate would serve to remove anxiety. Such cases could then be treated under category (i) above, as not significantly reflecting on the candidate’s own suitability. On the amount of time required it is perhaps only necessary to say that it should be plausible to assert that it makes a distance of relationship probable.  

2.2.6. When this criterion is not satisfied, the question of distance of relationship may have to be taken up directly. If on enquiry there appear to be no reasonable grounds for suspecting that the candidate was a factor in his wife’s earlier marriage-breakdown, the result will be the same:  no further attention need be given to the candidate’s marital status.

2.2.7. And if the answer is not so satisfactory? There may be two possibilities to distinguish here:  one in which the candidate’s behaviour was so significantly imprudent or unguarded as to constitute a bar against the candidacy (category ii), and one in which the record is simply ambiguous, in which case the logic of category (iii) applies. 

2.3.1 In the second place we address cases in which the candidate himself has been divorced. In its lengthy discussions of the marriage of divorced persons, the Church consistently took a nuanced view on the question of marital offence.   It was, in the first place, evident that marriages do not break down as “the result of chance or accident”, as the Bishops said;  they break down by human failure. In the second place, however, “it is unwise, and may also be uncharitable, for those outside the marriage to say precisely where the fault lies in any case” (TD 16). In the third place, however, this reluctance to pronounce a final judgment does not mean that there can be no particular faults laid to the door of one or another party. The Bishops explicitly single out violence in marriage as an instance of this (TD 16).  In advising pastoral enquiries into the circumstances of a divorced person seeking marriage, the House of Bishops identified certain types of position which an individual could be in that might make it difficult to authorise a second marriage if the full implications had not honestly been faced:  lack of forgiveness and repentance of past wrongs;  unfinished business in the form of continuing court proceedings;  the failure to honour responsibilities to children and the former spouse. Furthermore, they thought that an individual who had been divorced more than once should “normally” not be married again.   The same general concerns will be present in evaluating the past marriage-breakdowns of candidates for episcopacy.

2.3.2 If factors that might in the view of the House of Bishops give a priest pause in deciding to marry a couple are present in the history of the candidate, it would seem to be an indication that the candidacy should not be taken further. The case would belong to category (ii). One such type of case will be evident from the start without further enquiry:  the candidate has been divorced more than once. Others might emerge on enquiry:  the candidate is unforgiving or inclined to self-justification;  there are extant court proceedings;  there has been failure to meet financial and other obligations to the former spouse or children of the former marriage;  adultery, violence or neglect on the part of the candidate was a factor in the divorce. And to the list identified in the Bishops’ questions it is perhaps necessary to add one more disqualifying factor: in the divorce and any subsequent remarriage the candidate did not conform to the disciplines of the church as they then were, in matters such as obedience to the pastoral direction of the Bishop, following the guidelines of the House of Bishops etc. etc. Failure here will suggest a disquieting wilfulness that should disqualify him from the exercise of authority.

2.3.3 There is one other respect in which the hurdle may reasonably be set higher for a candidate for episcopacy than for an applicant for marriage. For the latter these questions are asked only arise if the former spouse is still living. If he or she is dead, the applicant is eligible to marry as a widow or widower.   In the case of the episcopal candidate, however, it is irrelevant to his suitability whether the former partner is still living.

2.3.4 Two factors may be identified tending to make some cases less problematic. They are:  long lapse of time since the marriage breakdown and remarriage of the candidate;  previous enquiries into the case conducted by those with pastoral authority, perhaps in the context of ordination. Where both these factors are present, we may reasonably treat the case as a matter of the past, and classify it in category (i). The time lapse in question here needs to be long - long enough to assign the events to an immature phase of the candidate’s life and to see the existing marriage as long-standing and faithful. 

2.3.5 Time may also be a factor working to the opposite effect, highlighting serious anxieties. If the marriage-breakdown is still unresolved, or has been resolved only quite recently, it would seem highly imprudent to clear a candidate for episcopacy, even he appears to have been an innocent party. On the best possible moral scenario, a significant lapse of time is still needed for emotional recovery and stabilisation, as well as for the community that has lived with its priest through the crisis to believe in his complete recovery.   The case of a recent or current breakdown, we must surely judge, belongs in category (ii), and should lead to the candidacy being shelved for a significant period of time.


3.1 We have provisionally identified some typical cases that might be expected to be the subject of a general rule either (i) allowing the candidacy to be considered without further reference to the marital history, or (ii) barring its consideration. To summarise, these were:  

(i) Candidates whose marital position requires no further consideration:

Candidates  not themselves divorced, whose wife was divorced a reasonable time prior to the present marriage.

Candidates not themselves divorced, if it appears on enquiry that there was no suspicion of implication in the breakdown of the wife’s first marriage.

Candidates  divorced and remarried a long time ago  and before ordination as priest.

(ii) Candidates whose marital history constitutes a bar:

Candidates suspected of adultery, violence or neglect in a former marriage.

Candidates whose conduct in a divorce or remarriage did not conform to the pastoral expectations of the church.   

Candidates who have failed to meet financial or other obligations, informal or imposed by a court, to their previous spouse. 

Candidates presently in the course of divorce proceedings or recently divorced.

Candidates divorced more than once.

3.2 Many cases will not fall into these categories, and in these it will be necessary to weigh the information that can be gained about the marriage-breakdown, and perhaps the subsequent remarriage, alongside other evidence for the candidate’s temperament and character. Here, too, it might be valuable to draw up a list of typical circumstances which, when they reflected seriously on the candidate, could count decisively against his candidacy, but which, if they reflected only indirectly on him, could be offset against compensating virtues. For example, we might consider a candidate whose relations with the children of his first family were persistently bitter and unreconciled: their incapacity to forgive him could, of course, indicate no more than their own dispositions, but the church would wish to make sure that the candidate had done everything possible to overcome the unhappy legacy.

3.3 Impartiality in these judgments will be difficult to achieve, especially if the warnings (1.5) about excessive thoroughness are taken seriously. A likely episcopal candidate will have many admirers, and it is natural that his side of any story will come to the fore. We would not wish to see those whose task it is to assess a candidacy go fishing for less creditable versions. That is why the broader view is so very important.   Character weaknesses revealed in the way a marriage-breakdown occurred or was handled are likely to be reflected in other ways, too, and the important thing in these delicately balanced cases is to have the fullest overall picture of the person that can be obtained.

Oliver O’Donovan
New College, Edinburgh
8 March 2007

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mr. Jonathan Neil-Smith.