Divorced and remarried clergy
It is a fact of life that a couple can be invalidly married in the eyes of God. I chose those words carefully, because in the absence of bigamy they are married in the eyes of the state and of society, and that is a legal fact. Indeed, if such a couple later is determined to have had a marriage that was, by the standards of the Church and her Lord, null, the children are by no means bastards. They are legitimate, because the marriage was a legal fact, and the Church does not declare otherwise.
To most Protestants marriage never gets beyond the legal definition, and therefore they have no conception of annulments. Unfortunately, this is also somewhat true in the minds of many of the Orthodox, although the real teaching of Orthodoxy on this matter is impossible to determine, and has different versions in different places. By many in Catholic churches of the west, both Roman and Anglican, the notion of annulment is badly misunderstood.
Like Fr. John Hollister, I dislike the word "annulment." He is right, and as he stated in a comment: "I would go just one step further and relegate the term 'annulment' to the rubbish bin, replacing it with 'declaration of nullity'. Using 'annulment' too often suggests erroneously to the uninstructed that the Church is arrogating to itself the authority to undo something which Our Lord Himself had previously done."
Here we need to turn to the scriptures:
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. Matt.9:1-9
(If anyone doubts how seriously Anglicans have taken these words, he needs to look at the Church of England in the year 1936, when the king was forced to choose between a divorced fiancee and his crown. In the final analysis, it all boiled down to one constitutional issue: The king was going to excommunicate himself upon marrying Wallice Warfield Simpson.)
The fact that a man and woman exchange vows which result in the work of God makes marriage a sacrament for Christians. This is not even debatable unless we presume (as many do) to redefine the correct meaning of the word "sacrament." The result of a man being joined to his wife creates a divine response, that is, Form, Matter and Intention result in a condition for which the Lord used the words, "What therefore God hath joined together." Therefore, if the sacrament was not valid, the Church may decree nullity. But, it cannot annul in a proactive sense, as if changing reality. Despite the attempt by one Gene Robinson of the Episcopal "Church" to create such a thing, there is no sacrament of separation and divorce. Bishops cannot annul marriages that are valid; they may investigate to see if a marriage was invalid, and make a judgment based on the facts.
The most common reason given is a lack of Intention. However, to use the words of Jesus, quoted above, called the Matthean Exception, in a loose and simplistic manner, is not justified. The Lord did not refer to isolated acts of adultery that might follow a valid marriage, but to a marriage that is itself "fornication." That is, that it is no marriage in the eyes of God. An isolated act, even as grievous as adultery, does not mean that the marriage was invalid, but rather that it was violated and trust was betrayed. Only a pattern of such behavior could demonstrate that one party never had the right Intention to make the marriage valid. (In cases I am aware of, where some Roman Catholic bishops have used deficiency of Form as their reason, their annulments have been null, not the marriage. Such false annulments are a disgrace.)
The question about Decrees of Nullity is not whether the Church may make such judgments, but rather can that authority be abused? The obvious answer is yes. In the matter of the clergy, we are faced with a more complicated problem. I cannot help but feel compassion for John, who asks a very honest question:"All this...which disturbs this poor layman as I may have to make a decision somebody because one of these men could end up theoretically as my bishop (or yours) by the stroke of another bishop's pen. If we have struggled and sacrificed for 30 years only to produce divorced bishops we are in no position to criticize our neighbors and that raises the question 'what the h... are we all doing here?' Why not have stayed in ECUSA?"
Let us assume that someone ends up with a bishop who was divorced, found to be free of impediment by a Decree of Nullity, and remarried. Let us add the complication, theoretically (theoretically, as I am not aware of any real life case I can condemn with confidence or evidence) that his remarriage is rightly a scandal, and that everyone can see through the case as a sham annulment to justify adultery.
Here we would have two related problems. The first problem has to do with sacramental validity. On that subject, the teaching of the Church is very clear, that a sacrament is not rendered invalid because of an unworthy minister. To teach otherwise is to fall into the heresy of Donatism. When St. Paul warned St. Timothy, "Lay hands suddenly on no man," (I Tim. 5:22) and when he listed the character requirements for postulency (I Tim 3, and Tit. 1:5-11), it is quite obvious that he never questioned the validity of unworthy men should they become ordained. Rather, he instructed Timothy on how to avoid the creation of a monster; a real life minister (be he deacon, priest or bishop) who ought never to have been ordained, partly because that ordination is real, and indelible. The Church would have to apply the remedy of discipline, but such cases always leave wounds and scars. The bottom line regarding sacraments is stated in Article XXVI. Of the unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometime the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments; yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the word of God and in the receiving of the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church that inquiry be made of evil ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty by just judgement, be deposed.
But, this does not answer the real cry I hear in John's question.
The extra weight that is rightly placed on our backs as clergymen is there because, in addition to our sacramental role, our manner of life before the world and before the Church could destroy our credibility and therefore take away our ability to teach. Worse, our lives, as publicly known, might even teach error, and they may do so to the peril of souls. And, they may send a false message despite our doctrinal orthodoxy. That is the message of the third chapter of St. Paul's first Epistle to St. Timothy. When St. Paul says that a man who desires the office of a bishop must be "apt to teach," the context indicates that his public reputation must not destroy his ability to represent Christ. Otherwise, he cannot teach effectively, partly because he has lost all moral authority.
Perhaps the Anglicans of fifty years ago might seem severe today. After all, at that time any divorce at all in a man's past, or that of his wife, was enough to render ordained ministry beyond his reach anywhere in the entire Anglican Communion. This may have had more to do with community standards than with actual morality. Should a man be considered unfit for ordination because of a marriage that fell apart many years earlier, perhaps even before his conversion, and that was really and truly not a valid marriage? On the other hand, what does fairness have to do with it? Is this life of ordained ministry supposed to be fair? Can it be fair?
I have no authority to pontificate, but neither can I give my hearty approval to everything that may go on in bodies that are associated with, or even part of, the Continuing Church jurisdictions. But, I would hope that more consideration be given to the basic cry that is in John's question than merely a legal and technical one, even one that is theologically accurate. What John wants from all of us in the ordained ministry is an example to follow, and one that children can learn from. He wants an example that commands the respect of Christians in other churches and also of unbelievers. It is a matter of compassion and of responsibility that we hear that cry, and that we not seek to defend ourselves rather than caring for the sheep. And, yes, perhaps some of the men in ordained ministry should ask themselves if their life is a scandal, whether the answer is fair or not.