If people marry then they are legally recognised as a couple. A marriage carried out in a church or in a registry office is legally binding. Consequently, if a couple want to separate and legally end their relationship then they must go through the legal process of divorce.
A civil partnership is also a legal recognition of a same sex relationship. It can be ended by a dissolution order.
Divorce has only been possible for normal people since the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 (before that you needed an act of parliament to get a divorce!). The original act made it much easier for men to get a divorce than for women (women had to prove that their husbands had been cruel or raped them - infidelity alone was not a sufficient case for divorce).
Under current UK law (The Divorce Reform Act of 1969), a couple can only divorce if they can prove that one of the following conditions applies:
In practice, if couples want a quick divorce (i.e. they don't want to wait five years) then they are likely to try to prove 1 or 2. This means that one partner has to accuse the other of either adultery or unreasonable behaviour (and provide some evidence for it).
The majority of people would agree that divorce is sometimes necessary, especially if one of the following applies:
In many instances people just grow apart over time and if they no longer have anything in common or have any love between them then many people would say that it makes sense for them to get a divorce. Divorcing one partner obviously enables them to potentially start another relationship and perhaps find happiness. Some card companies now even offer 'happy divorce' cards.
That said, for most people divorce is not something to be celebrated. It still represents a failure of hopes and a loss of love. It often involves the splitting up of a family and parents no longer living with their children.
Sir James Mumby (a judge who works in family law courts) has said that divorce ought to be made easier (he also wants cohabiting couples to have the same rights as married ones).
If divorce were made easier then perhaps it would be less painful for those involved. A quick separation would enable people to move on. However, the other side of the argument is that if you make divorce too easy then you might make it more likely that people would give up on their relationships rather than try to resolve their differences.
The Christian ideal for marriage is that it should last until death. The vows (promises) made by the couple include the promise to stay together 'for better for worse' and the priest says 'what God has joined together let no man divide.' Therefore, from a Christian perspective divorce represents failure.
That said, many Christians recognise that life is not perfect, people can change and divorce is a fact of life. Protestant Churches accept that a couple who have got a divorce are no longer married (and are thus free to remarry). The Church of England specifies that remarriage in a church after divorce is not a right - it is up to the conscience of the priest. However, depending on the circumstances, divorce and remarriage is acceptable and priests may also be remarried divorcees.
The issue is different for Roman Catholics as they see marriage as a sacrament. A sacrament is something done primarily by God (though the ceremony that accompanies it is obviously conducted by humans). God is believed to be eternal, omniscient and omnipotent which means that anything he does is done for eternity. In other words, if God has joined a couple together then nothing humans can do can change that. 'What God has united, man must not divide'. (Mark, 10:9).
If a married couple gain a legal divorce they are still married in the eyes of God and any subsequent relationship would be considered to be adultery.
Roman Catholics are not supposed to take communion if they are divorced (although Pope Francis reportedly challenged this ruling earlier this year).
Whilst Roman Catholics do not permit divorce it is possible to apply for an annulment. An annulment is not the ending of a marriage (which is the definition of divorce) instead it is saying that the marriage never happened in the first place. The ceremony may have taken place, it may have appeared to be a marriage, but it was not really a marriage as God did not do his bit and eternally bind the couple together.
If a couple want to annul their marriage then they have to be able to fulfill very specific criteria. Essentially, gaining an annulment means being able to show that there was some reason why God would not have recognised the original marriage as valid. An annulment can be granted if:
If a couple want an annulment they first have to petition their priest and explain their case. The priest then gathers evidence (interviews with family members etc). A discussion is written on the basis of the evidence and then the bishops meet and pass judgement.
If a person has had a marriage annulled then they are free to remarry.
Obviously divorce has serious implications for the people involved. There will be many practical things that need to be sorted out. These might include:
Some couples are able to come to arrangements about these things amicably, but sometimes it is not possible for them to agree and the courts need to make a ruling on who should have custody of the children and how much maintenance should be paid to whom.
The implications of divorce on society are difficult to prove. The break down of marriages leads to more children being brought up in single parent families. More often than not they are brought up by the mother which means many children grow up without a father figure. There have been suggestions that in some (obviously not all) cases children brought up in single parent families are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour and crime. This means that divorce is bad for society as a whole. There is also some evidence to suggest that children of divorced parents are more likely to experience the break down of their own relationships later in life to the problem is repeated.
All Christians accept that people are free to remarry if their spouse dies.
Remarriage after divorce is more complex. As we have already seen, attitudes to divorce are different between Protestants and Catholics. Consequently, attitudes to remarriage also vary.The issue of divorce is discussed in the Bible. In the following passage Jesus explained that divorce was not part of God's plan and was only permitted within Judaism because people are not perfect. However, in this uncompromising passage Jesus said that if a man divorces his wife and marries another then he commits adultery.
The ruling seems clear, remarriage is the same as adultery. However, the same conversation is reported in Matthew's gospel. However, there are slight differences. Matthew wrote:
This implies that there are some cases (sexual immorality) in which divorce is permissible and therefore remarriage might be blameless.
St Paul disagreed and gave the following advice to married couples:
For Catholics, a couple may separate and live apart, but they cannot divorce and may never remarry.
The Church of England has issued specific guidelines for priests when considering allowing a person who has been divorced to remarry in the Church. Ultimately it is up to the priest themselves to decide whether they can in good conscience marry the couple.
The Methodist Church also allows the minister to make their own decision based on their conscience. However, they also specify that if any minister feels they cannot marry a couple who want a church marriage they should refer the couple to another minister who would be willing to do it.