This is a year of significant commemorations, some of which are being celebrated with great pomp and splendour. One that is likely to go unnoticed though, is the eight hundredth anniversary of the Fourth Lateran Council, which was summoned by Pope Innocent III in order to put the finishing touches on a series of church reforms that had begun nearly a century before. Not many people are aware of it now, but some of the practices it established are still familiar today. One was the establishment of benefices as a way of remunerating the clergy. Another was the institution of banns of marriage, which are still regularly heard at services, even if some of the trendier clergy want to abandon them on the ground that they interrupt the flow of worship.
Banns of marriage were devised as a means of regulating matrimony in a society where marital status was all-important in determining inheritance rights. Clandestine weddings and informal arrangements of various kinds had got out of hand, and the church was determined to bring order out of chaos. We have no way of knowing how successful it was at the time, but in the longer term it helped to created a climate of expectation towards holy matrimony that has endured to the present day. Marriage became, and has remained, a solemn vow taken in the presence of God and buttressed by safeguards protecting it from abuse. It was also formally recognised as a public and social occasion. If anyone knows any just cause why two people are not to be joined together, they are expected to declare it, and every once in a while, somebody actually does this. Usually, of course, impediments to marriage will have been teased out before the banns are read, but they are still a reminder that every member of the parish has an interest and a responsibility in what is being proposed.
This needs to be restated in a day and age where individualism has gone to such an extreme that most people think it is nobody else’s business whether they marry or not. Nor is it up to anyone but the parties involved to decide whether the spouse is suitable, though perhaps if he or she is already married most people would accept that a bigamous union should not be permitted. At least, that is the general consensus at the moment, though recent developments are a warning that what we have always taken for granted may not last much longer.
In most fundamental respects, holy matrimony remains what it has always been, but assaults on it have multiplied in recent times and the Church has been caught up by the spirit of the age. The worst problem is widespread divorce and remarriage. Traditionally the church has reluctantly tolerated the former but not performed the latter, and apart from cases of adultery, that is what the Bible teaches. But in the past few years we have seen more and more instances of divorced people remarrying in church, and this is now extending to the clergy and even to bishops. Only a few months ago we were treated to the spectacle of an avowedly ‘traditionalist’ bishop who divorced his wife and received permission to remarry in church, much to the astonishment of those whose traditionalism does not embrace such flexibility. Protests from them led him to step down, but not to repent, and we can only suppose that his example has set a precedent for the future.
The introduction of same-sex ‘marriage’ complicates matters still further. In one well publicised case, a clergyman who had been married with a family not only divorced his wife but decided to ‘marry’ his homosexual partner, with the express approval of some (though by no means all) highly-placed people in the church. An attempt was made to discipline him but whether it will stick (or for how long) remains to be seen. In this climate, harking back to the Fourth Lateran Council is not merely an academic exercise. The threats to the sanctity of marriage today are not the same as they were in 1215, but the need to protect the church’s teaching is as urgent as ever. The difference between then and now is that then there was a hierarchy that was determined to root out the corruption and re-establish Biblical principles as the norm for everyday behaviour. Today, alas, we are saddled with a hierarchy that seems to think that bending over backwards to keep everybody happy (apart from traditionalists who uphold the teachings of Christ, of course) is its chief task. All the while, just causes why two people should not be joined together in holy matrimony are multiplying all around us. How long will we have to wait before a worthy successor to Innocent III calls us back to order and restores the godly discipline that is being steadily, and increasingly rapidly, eroded in our midst?
Gerald Bray is the Director of the Latimer Trust
This article was first published in the CEN in July 2015
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