I don’t know if I was being clever by ending our Summer of Love series talking about ending relationships, but here we are. Ending relationships is not well or compassionately supported, not in our culture and certainly not in our churches. The irony for churches is that a part of the Gospel, if it is Good News for anyone at all, is that every ending is also a beginning. Yet we cling to the necessary permanancy of relationships, as if there can be nothing beyond, as if nothing new can grow in its place.
I suppose this isn’t entirely true. The Church has not been very consistent on the issue of divorce. It begins in the Bible. Mark’s Jesus sees marriage as completely indissoluble, a narrowing of the law. But Matthew’s Jesus allows divorce because of adultery and Luke’s Jesus doesn’t allow divorce, but does allow separation. Paul doesn’t think anyone should get married at all, but if you do get married, certainly don’t get divorced.
Each of these views is quite different and informed by different concerns. Mark’s Jesus is dealing with the reality of patriarchy, a world in which women must be under the control of a man. The prohibition on divorce protects women from becoming unprotected. Both Paul and Jesus understand that the resurrection is imminent and that resurrected bodies, spiritual bodies, will be somehow sexless, either by becoming like angels or by reconstituting the primal androgyne, two becoming one again. Dissolving marriage complicates that resurrection. And everyone is dealing with the Roman Empire, how to resist and how to assimilate, how to survive. In any case, there is a consensus that divorce is bad and we shouldn’t do it.
Interestingly, the Church has never held too closely to this view. First, no Christian denomination has ever held that divorce is completely indissoluble. It could always be justified in some way. For two thousand years it was always justified in favor of men, which is precisely Mark’s Jesus’s concern. Henry VIII was only an extreme example of what was generally true: men could cast women aside at a whim, but women must endure all. But as women gained rights in the 20th century, divorce became an option. Then the indissolubility of marriage was sustained by social stigma, but it couldn’t last.
Now that we live in a time when divorce is commonplace, it’s time for the Church and society to become supportive. Nothing is gained by shaming people. No one is helped by insisting that people save their marriages even if it destroys them.
One of the things we’ve learned in this series is that family has changed. It used to be an economic arrangement. The ethical call of family was an orderly household in support of an orderly state. But now we have moved from a household to a home. Family is now supposed to be a place of belonging where everyone can become most fully themselves, where we learn to love one another as ourselves. If a family can’t do that for us, it needs to be dissolved. The Church can help with that.
First, support rather than shame. In our pastoral care, in our community support, in our prayers, we should not seek the preservation of the family, but the wholeness of the people.
Second, sacramentalize separation. A wedding is a marker of a moment of transformation. Divorce is a transformation, too, but we try to ignore it because it is painful. Even under the best of circumstances, done for the best of reasons, divorce will bring up feelings of loss and grief. The Church needs ways of ritualizing that transformation to process those feelings so that people can be born again. That’s supposed to be what we do, but divorce gets relegated to barstools and karaoke. Not bad things, but maybe the Church can do better.
Third, affirm all families. In the struggle for marriage equality, the naysayers tried to evoke the fear of the slippery slope. Supporters tried to allay those fears by presenting same-sex relationships as exactly like heterosex relationships. But queer relationships arose without a prevailing paradigm. Queer people have been free to acknowledge the fluidity of relationships as well as make different kinds of commitments. Open marriages, polyamory, and coparenting – and probably many other arrangements I’m not thinking of right now – can all be perfectly healthy. Maybe people wouldn’t split up so much if they were able to enter into the kinds of relationships that allow them to flourish. The Church needs to say yes to all of it.
Finally, affirm single people. Paul writes of the freedom of single people to do God’s work. For him, that meant evangelism, recruiting people for his churches, trying to get as many in the door before the end. In our language, for our theology (if I can even speak of such a thing) maybe that means becoming the most fully ourselves, nurturing the Divine within. For some, in certain seasons, that can be done in relationship. But for some, in certain seasons, we need to walk alone. If we then choose to enter a relationship, we’re bringing our full selves. Less egos bumping into each other; more knowing selves coming to know one another. Or maybe you find out that you have everything you need after all.
Churches should not be factories that produce families, but families that produce healthy, self-aware, compassionate people. This cannot happen by fetishizing the nuclear family. The traditional ideal of marriage and family gives us the illusion of control and certainty, but it has never delivered. So the ideal, which is supposed to inspire us to the heights, becomes a burden that drags us into the depths. Love is too complex. People are too complex. Relationships are too complex. Rather than try to wrangle all that complexity and set it into neat boxes, maybe we should slide into that fecund abyss where everything is possible. As individuals, as a society, as a Church, maybe it’s time to let old things pass away, so that new life can begin.