A friend is going through a divorce. Unlike when someone dies, she said, when a marriage dies there is “no commemoration of a life that you lived, there is no respectful acknowledgement of passage, and there is no announcement in the paper . . . it's an odd thing for a Christian to have to grieve the death of marriage by divorce. I feel very alone in the grief.” Actually, I told her, there are some churches and other faith groups that are offering divorce ceremonies to people whose marriages have ended, as I wrote about a number of years ago.
I’ve been to a lot of weddings in my life. But I’ve only been to one divorce ceremony.
It happened a few years ago. 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.
As a congregation, we read a litany that invoked God’s blessing on the former couple as they went their separate ways. It was sad occasion, yet hopeful at the same time.
Later, I was told that this couple had tried counseling. They had worked on their issues. But in the end everyone agreed that divorce was inevitable.
That Mennonite church is not unique. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Unitarian and Episcopalian churches now offer blessing ceremonies or special prayers for people who are getting divorced.
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 life-long marriage. They are simply coming to terms with reality—Christians get divorced, too.
But it’s still a leap from there to actually conducting divorce ceremonies. So why do it?
In their book A Healing Divorce, authors Phil and Barbara Penningroth note that faith groups have lots of rituals to mark transitions from one stage of life to another—christenings, baptisms, weddings and funerals.
But there’s nothing for divorce, which is a huge transition for the couple, their families and their friends.
“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.
For many this transition is “handled coldly and impersonally by law and the courts,” leading to anger, bitterness and pain.
By “reframing divorce as a life transition and using ritual to facilitate the divorce process,” they believe it can be an occasion to “heal hearts and transform lives.”
Divorce ceremonies vary. In one, a couple simply repeats their vows, replacing the words “I do” with “I’m sorry.”
In another, the couple confesses 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.
After a friend’s husband left her for another relationship, she asked her pastor and some church members gathered in her home to read scripture and pray.
During a short ceremony, she took off her wedding ring and she replaced it with a new ring to symbolize a new beginning. “It was an incredibly emotional” experience, she told me, “but healing as well.”
Couples who want help preserving their marriages often turn to the church. But where is the church when marriages end? Maybe the church needs to find a way to also provide healing and care for people experiencing divorce.
Or, to put it another way, if marriages start in the church, maybe they can end there, too.