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Do we need a ceremony for divorce?

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Christians get divorced too

I’ve been to a lot of weddings in my life. But so far I’ve been to only one divorce ceremony.

It happened last year, when I was visiting a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. Near the end of the service the pastor asked the congregation to stand to read a “blessing of separation” for two members whose marriage had sadly come to an end. The brief ceremony found us reading a litany that invoked God’s blessing on the former couple as they went their separate ways. It was a sad occasion, yet hopeful at the same time.

Later, I was told that this couple had tried counselling. They had worked on their issues. But in the end they, and others involved in trying to help them save their marriage, agreed that divorce was the best option.

That Mennonite church is not unique. A number of denominations now offer blessing ceremonies or special prayers for people who are getting divorced; Reformed Judaism has also added a “ritual of release” to its list of services.

For some, any talk about blessing divorced people is tantamount to surrendering to modern culture’s belief that nothing is permanent and marriage vows are meaningless. But none of these groups have abandoned their belief in lifelong marriage. They are simply coming to terms with reality: Christians get divorced too. In fact, research in the U.S. by evangelical pollster George Barna shows that people who consider themselves “born again” are just as likely to get divorced as the general population.

So, why a ceremony for divorce? In their book A Healing Divorce, authors Phil and Barbara Penningroth note that faith groups have rituals that symbolize rites of passage. These include christenings, weddings and funerals, all of which mark a transition from one stage of life to another.

Although there are rituals for these stages, until recently there was no special religious ceremony for couples whose marriages end. “Whether one sees [divorce] as a failure or as a sin, it is without question a major life transition for millions of couples and their children,” they say, adding that for many this transition is “handled coldly and impersonally by law and the courts,” leading to anger, bitterness and pain. They believe that “reframing divorce as a life transition and using ritual to facilitate the divorce process can heal hearts and transform lives.”

What does a divorce ceremony look like? In one, a couple simply repeated their vows, replacing the words “I do” with “I’m sorry.” In another, the couple confessed to each other about where they failed, asked forgiveness and blessed each other as they began their future apart. At that point, the pastor pronounced them free from their marriage vows.

One Canadian church leader who has officiated at a divorce ceremony is the Reverend Canon David Luxton of St. George’s on-the-Hill Anglican Church in Islington, Ontario. “I was really glad I did it,” he is quoted as saying. “The couple felt they needed a ritual to end their marriage . . . It was wonderful to be able to provide a healing service for them, rather than having only a civil statement to mark the end of their marriage.”

The church should continue to preach that marriage is for life. But with more Christians divorcing, finding new ways to provide healing and care for people whose marriages are ending is a pressing challenge today. Some people may be very uncomfortable with divorce ceremonies, and others may consider it wrong. But if marriages start in the church, maybe they should end there too.

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