A Divorce Liturgy?

“We need a divorce liturgy.” That is the request the editorial team heard over and over as we prepared to revise the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As co-editor of the new edition (released in May 2018), I was surprised at how often we heard this request as we went around the country conducting listening sessions.

Whenever the idea came up in conversation, someone would balk. “We don’t want to bless divorce,” they would say, while others insisted that a liturgy would not connote the blessing of the church but would be an act of pastoral care.

Since I was the one primarily responsible for editing the marriage section of the Book of Common Worship, the decision about whether to include a divorce liturgy fell to me. After several false starts, I concluded that the best we could do was to include a prayer for people going through a divorce. As time went on, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that just one prayer buried in this big book was not enough. People had expressed a need for a liturgy, and we needed to figure out how to provide one.

At the eleventh hour, it dawned on me that what we needed was something akin to a service of healing and wholeness. Once that insight emerged, the shape and content became clear. The liturgy is to be held in a chapel, home, or other intimate setting. It is brief and may involve a couple, a presider, and family members or friends. As the rubrics read, “a couple whose marriage is ending may wish to release one another from their vows and ask God for forgiveness, healing, and guidance.” The rite could be adapted for use with only one spouse.

The structure of the service is simple. The presider begins with words of greeting followed by opening sentences of scripture that express the comfort and strength of God. This moves into a prayer that gives thanks “that even when we cannot keep covenant with one another, you keep covenant with us” and asks for the strengthening of the Spirit “that we may honor one another, and you, in all we say and do.”

A time of confession and pardon may follow, using words commonly heard and spoken in the Lord’s Day liturgy. This is to underscore that while divorce inevitably involves human brokenness and sin, this sin is no different from any other. Even this brokenness is covered by the grace of God.

At this point, a couple may opt to return their rings to one another, saying these or similar words:
N., I return this ring to you,
with gratitude for the blessings of our marriage…
[children of the marriage may be named],
sorrow for that which is broken between us…
and hope for the future into which God will lead us.

The presider than prays for the Spirit to be at work in the lives of those affected:
Where hearts are broken, grant your healing.
Where trust is eroded, restore good faith.
Where bitterness has taken root, plant seeds of forgiveness.
Do not let anger destroy us,
but teach us to love as you have loved us,
even after marriage ends.

The prayer continues, asking God to uphold and strengthen those involved, and to renew their hope in God’s new creation, where peace will reign and all people will be reconciled to God and to one another. The service ends with a familiar charge and blessing that takes on additional meaning in the context of this liturgy:
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord be kind and gracious to you.
The Lord look upon you with favor
and give you peace.
Amen.

Will such a liturgy be used? It is hard to say. A couple may not be able to come together to enact such a liturgy because of acrimony, inertia, embarrassment, emotional strain, or other circumstance.

Even if the rite is rarely used, however, its presence in the Book of Common Worship is significant. The prayers reflect humanity’s need for divine grace and urge us to forgive one another in all things. The service is profoundly eschatological and soteriological, in that human failing is seen against the backdrop of the promise of redemption and God’s limitless grace. Indeed, even when we cannot keep covenant with one another, God remains faithful to us. It is our prayer that this service may be a source of healing and expression of mercy for all who take part.

All quotations are taken from the Book of Common Worship, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you, Kimberly, for showing us your efforts in a very challenging place that the churches have yielded to individual piety and the law. I second your preference for forgiveness, healing and guidance. In my opinion, any rite that engages the divorcing spouses should emphasize what they will always have in common, not what they are leaving behind. They will remain children of God, perhaps members of the same faith community, even friends in many cases. They will continue to pray for each other and strive for a lifetime of faithfulness. I don’t know how a church can accept a rite of marital release as such, and as far as retiring the wedding rings there are severe drawbacks in every alternative that comes to my mind.

  2. This is a good start. Every divorce, brake up is different with various degrees of emotion. The rite may be asked for by only one of the spouses who needs healing and reconciliation before beginning a new relationship; someone whose divorce was very bitter and painful, etc. What ever the reason, the Church must be there, like She is for every other life event, to offer the presence of God in this moment of change. Like the sacraments of confession and anointing of the sick, the rite can be private or public and all offer the same common element: God’s healing grace, words of forgiveness and peace.
    While there is no “official” rite, it doesn’t mean an ordained minister can’t reach out and perform some ritual act.

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