A Ceremony Emphasizing Healing and Forgiveness

According to Beliefnet, United Methodist divorce ceremony is designed to celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about healing and new life. Through concrete action, it affirms that none of us is without regret and sin, but that we all have the power to rid our lives of those burdens.

Official Stance on Divorce:

“When a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church).

Churches are encouraged to offer pastoral care and mediation to resolve painful issues between the parting spouses, and divorce ceremonies are viewed by some ministers as part of that mandate.

When? Whenever you are ready. Close to your legal divorce date or several years later.

Who Participates? One or both partners and a minister. This ceremony emphasizes community and congregational wholeness, so supportive friends and family from both spouses’ sides can be invited to share the occasion, along with any children who are old enough to understand—if they’re mature enough to not disrupt the service. Children fear the worst when their parents’ divorce; this ceremony can help them understand concretely their parents’ regrets while emphasizing that they themselves are wanted and loved.

Where? Chapel setting, with three candles at the front; only the middle one is lit. The altar is arranged for Communion, with the addition of a large (flameproof) dish or pot with a lid. Pencils, pads of paper, and envelopes are placed in the individual pews.

The ceremony:

The congregation is welcomed and the purpose of the liturgy is explained: “We gather to remember the marriage of _____ and _____. We gather to mourn their divorce.” The holiness of the couple’s marriage is acknowledged, along with the bitterness of divorce: “You now cry with us at the premature end of this holy marriage by divorce and stand ready to provide healing to _____, to ______, and to all who call on your name.” This is followed by a silent prayer.

Participants take pencils and paper, provided in the pews, and write “something of their past or present that they are holding on to that they need to let go of.” The papers are sealed into envelopes provided, then burnt in a pot. Bible verses and parables of forgiveness are read at this time.

Scripture passages deal both with the importance of marriage and with God’s forgiving nature: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) In place of a sermon, thoughts of celebration, regret, and affirmation can be shared by the partner(s) or celebrant as well.

Communion is celebrated over bread with wording appropriate to the healing message of this ceremony: “Lord, this bread is full of human frailty. Bring your perfect love and bless our human failings. Create in this basket the perfect host and sustain us for the journey.” Before eating the bread, congregants are asked to focus on it in their minds as “that piece of yourself from which you need freedom and release.” This can be a specific behavior, like rebellion or pride, or they may describe it in painful detail. The bread is then eaten.

Finally, the couple themselves (or perhaps a representative of the family of the other spouse if he/she is not present) come forward to light the two outer candles which have remained unlit. The middle candle, the candle of the marriage, is extinguished. Only the separate candles burn on; the couple’s life together is over.

Scott Small, who created this ceremony, warns that even though you feel you need this ritual, others may not be as receptive to the concept: “Do not be surprised if some of your best friends do not come or do not want you to do it.” They may feel you’re just re-opening old wounds or even object on religious grounds (feeling this implies church sanction for divorce). Also, he cautions, “Do not invite your ex-spouse unless you are absolutely certain it will help you heal.”

God Says . . .

“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”—Mark 10:9

The Bible notes, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” This divorce service provided by the United Methodist Church certainly seems right to that Denomination, but the end is death.

First, this religious ceremony it is the death of the divine ideal. Jesus said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). This ceremony validates the putting asunder what God has brought together.

Second, this religious ceremony is the death of any hope for reconciliation. It is not enough to say, “We tried to be reconciled.” The heaven’s open to hear God say to the Church, “Try again.” That is what love does. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud. Love suffers long (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

Third, a divorce ceremony is the of true grace and replaces it with cheap grace by focusing attention on what will help a person to heal. When Jesus was on the Cross, He was not thinking about self-healing, or how to be happy. Others were on His mind. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed, “for they know not what they do.”

Fourth, this divorce ceremony, as it is set forth, is the death of authenticity. It is hypocritical. It encourages an acknowledgment of the “importance of marriage” while symbolically doing everything to make the marriage meaningless, null, and void–dead. The irony of the service cannot be more poignant.

Finally, the foolishness of having a religious service honoring that which is dishonorable is the death of integrity for a vow was once made before God in a marriage ceremony. Now, in the name of God’s grace and forgiveness, the incredible hardness of the human heart is manifested. Jesus said that “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). Someone should stand up in the United Methodist Church and cry out, “Stop this service. Away with this ungodly ceremony. From the beginning it was not so! Do not call right that which is wrong. Let there be healing in the gospel of love and reconciliation.”

If a man is going to hurt his wife, put her away, and seek comfort in the arms of a chippie, if a woman is determined to leave her husband, and chase after a paramour, it will happen. People cannot stop others from acting in an evil manner. But there is no need for the Church to honor evil with a special service pretending it is the Christian thing to do. 

Scott Small, who created this ceremony, notes: “Do not be surprised if some of your best friends do not come or do not want you to do it.” One such Best Friend Forever that would fall into this category is Jesus, the Friend of sinners. Christ died to save His people from their sins, not leave them in the muck and mire of human depravity. Only believe. All things are possible to the person who believes. Hope thou in God. Do not seek, celebrate, or participate in a divorce service, in the Church, or outside the sphere of saving faith. For those in a difficult marriage, whoever you are, wherever you are, I will pray for you now.

“While we pray and while we plead,
While you see your soul’s deep need,
While our Father calls you home,
Will you not, my brother (sister), come?

Why not now? Why not now?
Why not come to Jesus now?
Why not now? Why not now?
Why not come to Jesus now?

You have wandered far away;
Do not risk another day;
Do not turn from God your face,
But today accept His grace.

In the world you’ve failed to find
Aught of peace for troubled mind;
Come to Christ, on Him believe,
Peace and joy you shall receive.

Come to Christ, confession make;
Come to Christ, and pardon take;
Trust in Him from day to day,
He will keep you all the way.”

—D. W. Whittle

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