Divorce and Remarriage in the Church of England, 1936-2005: Comparison of Edward VIII and Prince Charles
In 1857, for the first time in English history, divorce became available in secular courts; the only ground was adultery. Through bishops in the House of Lords, the Church of England accepted the dissolution of marriage on that ground, but opposed both remarriage after divorce and the extension of grounds. In 1937, the Archbishop of Canterbury abstained from voting on the Matrimonial Causes Act that would extend the grounds for divorce because he believed that the Church could no longer impose a Christian standard on a largely non-Christian population. In 1957 the Upper House of Canterbury Convocation declared that the marriage service should not be used by anyone who had a former spouse still living. For the remainder of the twentieth century, the Church of England continued to maintain the doctrine that no divorced person could be remarried in church during the lifetime of a former spouse. On 9 July 2002, the General Synod voted to accept a motion that "there are exceptional circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former spouse." In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry a woman who had been twice divorced. Currently, Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, is planning to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles, a divorced woman whose former husband is still living. In both instances, the British monarch's position as head of the Church of England inspired an examination of the Church's position on the remarriage of divorced persons. A comparison of the two situations illuminates the meaning of the changes in the Church's doctrines regarding remarriage. The plans of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles to marry in a civil ceremony call for an exploration of the meaning of the words "exceptional circumstances" in the 2002 General Synod statement.
Keywords: Divorce, Church of England, Edward VIII, Prince Charles
Dr. Ann Sumner Holmes
Associate Dean, Honors College, Louisiana State University