Wrapping Divorce in Religious Cellophane

Posted: Jan 01, 2001 12:00 AM
What an optimistic month June is! The Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs are both in first place, and I am looking forward to a replay of the 1918 World Series, which is the last time the Red Sox were world champions. Furthermore, in weddings across the land new husbands and wives are pledging lifelong fidelity -- and I hope they keep those vows. But what if they don't? Many liberal denominations are developing rituals that wrap religious cellophane around divorce defeat. You might think that in a divorce service everyone would wear mourning clothes and the bride would walk down the aisle to funereal music. Maybe the exes would be pelted not with rice but with tomatoes, or at least cream pies, as they left the building. Nope -- that's retro thinking, for these days we must not do anything to lessen self-esteem. A new Unitarian ritual, for example, begins with the minister intoning: "This ceremony marks the end of a long and intense relationship; 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 divorcing folks are heroes who make the choice to walk alone at "a time when survival as an individual is at stake." Realizing that "paths must part (as) necessity requires," they embrace a "solemn, courageous -- and hopeful -- time of divorce." Other clerics are jumping in. 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 goal is not to show the sadness of divorce but to make the divorce ceremony upbeat. Video specialists are putting together marriage highlight films -- vacation photos and all -- for showing at divorce ceremonies. Dressmakers and musicians are also busy, although so far some of the favorites for weddings -- Pachelbel's Canon in D and white dresses -- seem to be also on call for divorce ceremonies. It would be far better to acknowledge that a tragedy is a tragedy. 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. Funerals legitimately offer comfort after what cannot be controlled, but divorce rituals attempt to relieve responsibility for what we could control. Instead of helping individuals to repent, the Unitarian ritual attacks "the callous judgmentalism of a posturing society." Curiously, these new divorce rituals are gaining attention at the same time new research shows that fewer than one-third of divorces result from marriages where abuse, neglect or even fighting is the norm. More than three out of five marriages break apart because of creeping loneliness and boredom. "Community Marriage Policies," through which religious and civic institutions take a stand to encourage people in troubled marriages to hang in there, have reduced divorce rates dramatically in 25 cities. Instead of establishing divorce ceremonies, let's emphasize recommitment to marriage. Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, in "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially" (Doubleday, 2000), show that bad marriages often show dramatic turnarounds if people just stick it out. Over three out of four people who rated their marriages as very unhappy in 1987 and 1988, but did not get a divorce, viewed their marriages as "very happy" or "quite happy" when they were surveyed again from 1992 to 1994. Christians and Jews particularly should keep in mind what the Bible teaches: that God 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.