Religious cellophane

New divorce rituals aim to help us feel better about sin

Issue: "Bush wins one," June 9, 2001

Modern ingenuity knows few bounds. Two months ago, after attending several weddings, I had a truly crackpot idea. I thought that a wedding vow of life-long fidelity should include a self-imprecatory sentence-that is, a promise to engage in painful action should the vow be broken.

My idea was that vow-breaking husbands and wives would have a second public ceremony at the same sanctuary where they were wed. Everyone would wear mourning clothes, the bride would walk down the aisle to funeral music, and the minister would give a homily about sin winning this round. As the guilty party or parties fled the building, he or she or they would be pelted not with rice but with rotten fruit.

I suggested that maybe a requirement of that sort would make some people a bit slower to head toward divorce. My wife, of course, pointed out that a promise to return for a dirge, coming from someone who would break the much more important marital vow, was not worth much. Some sweetener would be needed to get people to come back for a trip to the woodshed-but making the ritual pleasant would defeat its whole purpose.

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Well, never underestimate the ability of thoroughly modern ministers to turn lemons into lemonade. Church and synagogue buildings once were venues for teaching the difference between right and wrong; now, those liberally reincarnated are places where any wrong can be declared right. The past few years have witnessed the birth of services sanctifying abortion, so why not do the same with divorce? The United Church of Christ has added to its book of worship an "Order for Recognition of the End of a Marriage," and Reform Judaism has as part of its rabbi's manual a "Ritual of Release."

The Wall Street Journal described one ceremony that included a video montage of family vacations with "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" as the soundtrack. (Bride and groom had chosen Bach's familiar piece for the wedding nearly 25 years before.) Another divorce included the wedding staple, Pachelbel's "Canon in D," with the divorcée wearing a long white linen dress. (But the divorced husband said, "I don't think it brought any resolution to anything.")

The assorted reverends quoted were particularly gassy. An Episcopalian liturgical officer exclaimed, "The time is ripe now for the question of divorce to be addressed ritually." He apparently did not mean the ritual of burning photographs of ex-spouses. A Reform-theologically liberal-rabbi exulted that his new divorce ceremony "allows people to embrace the moment in sacred ritual." (But what about avoiding the moment by maintaining marital vows?)

Unitarians have pioneered in divorce rituals, as in other bad cultural trends, so when I searched on the Internet for a full Unitarian divorce song-and-dance l was not disappointed. "This ceremony marks the end of a long and intense relationship," a Unitarian minister is to intone, "perhaps neither as long nor as intense as some might wish, but ... the days are cold. The nights are long." And perhaps dark and stormy.

The Unitarian ritual turns my crackpot idea upside down by portraying the divorcing folks as heroes who faced "a time when survival as an individual is at stake ... the choice must be made to walk alone. Paths must part. And the journey necessity requires ends in this solemn, courageous-and hopeful-time of divorce."

The new rituals are part of a larger trend of trying to lessen the bite of sin's knife by wrapping religious cellophane around it. Funerals legitimately offer comfort after what cannot be controlled: Adam's fall brought death into the world, and we're all stuck with it until Christ returns. But divorce and abortion rituals attempt to relieve responsibility for what we could control, sins deliberately committed. Instead of helping individuals to acknowledge sin and repent, the Unitarian ritual attacks "the callous judgmentalism of a posturing society."

The new divorce rituals are an attempt to pretend that God smiles at sin, but they forget a basic biblical statement: God hates divorce. Most of us merely react to divorce news, but God is proactive. He provides balm for failing marriages if those in trouble turn to Him. The new rituals make divorce seem satisfactory, but they undercut the belief that leads to silver and golden anniversaries: Marital failure is not an option.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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