Henry VIII never got a divorce. If so many people (especially the authors of history books) didn’t get this simple fact wrong, they would understand the state of marriage in Britain a lot better. Henry’s marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were both annulled according to canon law. The Church of England, then and since, does not actually recognise divorce. Its 16th-century marriage service, still valid and in use, unambiguously requires man and wife to remain wedded until they are parted by death. It was willing, sometimes, to permit separations. Once again, many do not understand that divorce is not separation, but permission to remarry. That the Church would not give.
How things change. Now there is a Private Member’s Bill before the House of Commons, proposing “no-fault” divorce. It will probably vanish without trace mainly because, in all but name, we have no-fault divorce already; but (after a dreadful political tangle in the 1990s) it is easier to pretend we haven’t got it, and carry on as we are. This is the modern state’s approach to many problems, from drugs to people who use hand-held mobile phones while driving. In theory, it holds the line. In practice, it gives way. How did we get from there to here?
Civil marriage only came about in England in 1836, and when in 1854 civil divorce was first permitted on the grounds of adultery, the Bishop of St David’s grumbled (to the general derision usually reserved for accurate prophets) that this would eventually lead to cheap divorce in the county courts, available to all and sundry. He was already halfway to being right by the end of the 19th century. Readers of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure will find, perhaps to their surprise, that even by then civil divorce was no great matter, and readily available to a stonemason and a schoolteacher if their spouses agreed to it. Hardy’s description of the ghastly scenes in a Reading register office also shows that civil marriage was already a popular thing, not necessarily entered into “discreetly, soberly and in the fear of God”, as the Prayer Book prescribes.
The tension between the two forms of marriage grew and grew. World War I, that great wrecker of custom and tradition, destroyed many thousands of marriages by killing the husband, and introduced many women to the supposed “independence” of wage slavery – which is actually a different kind of dependence, based on cash and work, demanding and giving less than the marriage oath. Civil divorce became easier and easier throughout the inter-war period, though Parliament banned dissolutions until a marriage had lasted at least three years. World War II produced its own bitter harvest of bereavement, ruined marriages and female wage slavery, but for a strange, precarious few years many sought to re-establish the stability of the time before the war.
Maybe it would have held, but the contraceptive revolution made sure it did not. Amazingly few people realise, even now, that the invention and promotion of the female contraceptive pill was politically motivated. The fanatic Margaret Sanger and her super-rich backer Katharine McCormick both understood that it would change forever the relations between the sexes, and wanted this to happen. Their success was the background to the Harold Wilson government’s biggest single social reform, the Divorce Law Reform Act of 1968-69. The harsh, rather coarse old bargain – under which women granted their favours to men only in return for marriage – could not long survive the arrival of the Pill. This allowed women (if they wished) to bestow those favours without any consequences, probably the single most revolutionary application of science in all its history. The old rules began to seem futile. And large numbers of men and women, refused divorce by their spouses, could no longer see why the law sided against them.
The Church of England’s collapse in the face of sexual revolution was astonishingly swift. In the early 1950s – soon after an attempt to weaken the law, by Mrs Eirene White MP, had failed – Canterbury was stern. Geoffrey Fisher, then Archbishop, affirmed in 1954 that lifelong marriage was “divine law”. He wrote: ‘‘Nothing but lifelong monogamous marriage can adequately establish home life, provide for the birth and nurture and training of a family of children.” He predicted that easier divorce would distort ideals, foster lawlessness, encourage self-will, weaken the sense of obligation, provide a cloak of respectability to sin and offer children a precedent for divorce when they grew up.
The culture of the Pill put paid to that attitude. One often gets the impression, studying this period, that someone had put something in the water, so totally and quickly did everything change. But the Pill is probably the reason. Within 12 years, in a document rather gruesomely entitled “Putting Asunder”, Anglican bishops did what Henry VIII would never have done, and justified divorce. The document endorsed the newly fashionable idea that “breakdown of marriage” should replace the old arrangement that required one side to show the other was at fault. And it understood clearly what this meant – that a husband or wife could end up divorced against his or her will.
To people attempting to uphold their marriage vows and their faith, the Cof E could only say: “The sense that it is harsh persists and we cannot claim to have found how to dispel that sense entirely. The fact of the matter is, we believe, that when a marriage comes to grief, wounding cannot be avoided.”
Here was a world turned upside down. In 1954, the same Church had acknowledged that pain might be the necessary price of steadfastness, asking: “Whoever succeeded in raising the moral tone of any society without causing the frustration of some natural desires, and the hardship of having to forgo them?” Who indeed?
And so “irretrievable breakdown” became the true basis of divorce. After five years, such breakdown means the state can simply cancel the matrimonial oath, and if needs be, drag an unwilling spouse from the home under the threat of prison. I think this is unique in English law – the state actively siding with the breaker of a contract against the person who wants to keep it. Knowing this, those caught in the divorce trap realise that resistance is futile. Many divorces still technically involve claims of desertion, unreasonable behaviour or adultery. But the doctrine of “irretrievable breakdown” stands behind every such case.
In a fashion, it is amazing that civil marriage survives at all. The future Lady Justice Hale of the Supreme Court speculated as long ago as 1982 that important legal differences between marriage and cohabitation were increasingly hard to find. Divorce is diminishing mainly because people don’t get married in the first place. But it is even more amazing that the Church of England collapsed so easily on this enormous issue, while engaging in titanic struggles over comparative trivia, such as the sex of priests or same-sex marriage.
But had it stood against the change, could it have fought successfully to save it? Or have we already passed the point at which Christian bodies can seek to influence post-Christian societies? And if this is so, should such bodies simply stop assuming that either state or culture are on their side, or ever will be again, and recast themselves as centres of revolutionary dissent?
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday
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