Cranmer’s Five Reasons for Divorce and Remarriage image

Cranmer’s Five Reasons for Divorce and Remarriage

Domestic violence has long been recognised as a problem in the church. It did not emerge as a pastoral concern a few years or decades ago; it has been identified and responded to in a variety of ways for as long as there has been a church (and even before that, if you consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Nevertheless, in responding to it, it is easy to think that we are the first generation to address questions of spousal abuse, legal involvement, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, and thereby to cut ourselves off from the extensive wisdom of those who have gone before us (many of whom lived in societies where, tragically, it was more accepted than it is now).

Thomas Cranmer, for example, was no stranger to the problem. Most of us would not accuse Cranmer of being soft on the seriousness and irrevocability of marriage; his wedding liturgy revolves around phrases like “seriously, reverently, and in the sight of Almighty God,” and “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer,” and is still used around the world five centuries after he wrote it. Anyway: in a fascinating section of his Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (1553), he identifies five possible reasons for a legitimate divorce followed by remarriage, and two of them were about domestic abuse.

Thanks to Henry VIII, divorce and remarriage was a massive issue in the English Reformation. (It basically caused the English Reformation.) So Cranmer addresses the issue in some detail, clarifying what does and does not count as a legitimate divorce and a legitimate remarriage, and lists the following five:

1. Adultery.
2. Desertion with malice.
3. Prolonged absence without news.
4. Deadly hostility.
5. Ill-treatment.

If we were getting alliterative, we might summarise this using three As—adultery (1), abandonment (2, 3) and abuse (4, 5)—with a distinction made between two types of abandonment (the latter of which, presumably, was a much larger issue in the sixteenth century than it is now), and two types of abuse. The last two sections in particular provide a fascinating insight into the way the problem was addressed in early Protestantism:

10. Deadly hostility is a ground for divorce.

If deadly hostility should arise between husband and wife, and become so inflamed that one attacks the other, either by treacherous means or by poison, and wants to take the other’s life in some way, either by open violence or by hidden malice, it is our will that as soon as so horrible a crime is proved in court, such persons shall be separated by divorce. For a person who attacks health and life does greater injury to his marriage partner than one who separates himself from the other’s company, or commits adultery with someone else. For there cannot be any sort of fellowship between those who have begun to plot or to fear mortal harm. Therefore, since they cannot live together, it is right for [the marriage] to be dissolved, according to the teaching of Paul.

11. The crim of ill-treatment is also a ground for divorce.

If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and deed towards her, as long as there is any hope of improvement, the ecclesiastical judge is to reason with him, rebuking his excessive violence, and if he cannot prevail by admonitions and exhortations, he is to compel him not to inflict any violent injury on his wife, and to treat her as the intimate union of marriage requires, by making him pledge bail, or by taking guarantees.

But if the husband cannot be coerced either by bail or by guarantees, and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty by these means, then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life. Therefore, in her peril recourse must be had to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked ... Both in this and in the above-mentioned offences, it is our will that parties set free in this way may contract a new marriage (if they wish), while those convicted of the said crimes shall be punished either by perpetual exile or by imprisonment for life.

It is also interesting that Cranmer immediately adds a clarification, lest anyone should turn his words into a rationale for divorce and remarriage over any marital conflict whatsoever: “If minor disagreements or grounds for offence creep into a marriage, the words of Paul should act as a check upon them, namely, that either the wife should be reconciled to her husband, a result which ought to be sought after by all ordinary and extraordinary methods of penalties and exhortations, or she is to remain single, a penalty which we decree shall be equally binding on the man.”

Of course, the difference between “excessive harshness” and “minor disagreements or grounds for offence” can be contested, and varies a good deal from culture to culture. But there is wisdom here, and it may be an encouragement to pastors that we are not the first generation to ask these questions, or seek to apply biblical wisdom to complicated realities.

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