The 29 May ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court obliging the Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III to allow divorced Christians to remarry resulted in outraged response from Copts and was rejected by the Pope and the Church. The Holy Synod issued a declaration which said: “The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church announces that, even though the Church respects the judicial system, judicial rulings are not binding to the church where matters of faith are concerned. Marriage in the Church is one of the seven sacraments. Nothing on earth can force us to go against our conscience and abide by rules that contradict the Bible’s teachings.”
Copts demonstrated against being required to go against the teachings of the Bible by court order. They demanded that the unified personal status law for Christians, which had been signed by all the Christian sects in Egypt and presented to Parliament since 1980—and again in 1998—but was never discussed by Parliament, should be passed. This should work to eliminate any discrepancy between Christian faith and court rulings in cases of marriage, divorce, and other family-related matters that depend in essence on Bible teachings.
On 12 June Minister of Justice Mamdouh Marei announced that a committee was established, charged with drafting a unified personal status law for all Christians. Marei set a one- month deadline for the draft to be presented to Parliament for approval.
All of which begs the question of what exactly are the rules for marriage, divorce, annulment, and remarriage in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Marriage is among the seven sacraments of the Church, meaning it is an act which is completed through the Holy Spirit. The marriage rites have to be conducted by a qualified cleric, and both the bride and groom have to fulfill the conditions required for the marriage to take place.
Jesus Himself blessed the wedding at Cana of Galilee and performed His first miracle there when He changed the water into wine. He instituted the bases for marriage and divorce. “At the beginning He made them male and female,” the Lord said. “What God has joined let no man separate.”
“Anyone who divorces his wife except for adultery … commits adultery.” (Matt 19: 4 – 9)
In his epistle to the Ephesians, St Paul said: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her,” and also: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”
Since divorce is restricted, the Coptic Church has set pre-conditions for marriage. The bride and groom should not be younger than 18 years old; none of them should be married; and none should have a mental disease or an incurable physical impediment that would make the consummation of the marriage impossible. They should not be relatives who are banned form marrying each other, and a killer is not to marry the victim’s spouse.
The Church does not allow the marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian.
The marriage rites are conducted at the hands of a qualified priest following an adequate period of engagement between the prospective bride and groom, and according to a marriage permit that confirms there are no impediments to the marriage. The priest should authenticate the marriage contract in the parish books and with the civil court, and should hand over the original contract to the husband and a copy to the wife. This contract is termed “marriage between persons of the same denomination and sect”.
A marriage is terminated by the actual or implied death of one of the partners, meaning if the partner is lost at sea or in an aeroplane crash or suchlike.
Annulment and re-marriage
A marriage is annulled if it was based on false grounds. If one of the partners tricks the other into believing he or she is qualified for marriage while this is not the case, the marriage is invalidated. The reasons include violations of the pre-conditions set by the Church, if the wife is not virgin while her husband was given to believe she was, if the husband is impotent, or if one partner is sick and the other was not informed of the sickness before marriage.
Once any of these violations are proved, the Clerical Council annuls the marriage. It is then the responsibility of the couple to obtain a civil divorce, after which the wronged partner is granted by the council a re-marriage permit which is renewed annually. The council only grants the partner who is the cause of the problem a re-marriage permit in the presence of the prospective new partner who is then informed of the reason for the annulment of the first marriage. If this new partner agrees to go on with the new marriage, the re-marriage permit is directly issued.
The idea is to ensure the new marriage is built on a basis of absolute honesty. Otherwise, the risk of another annulment—with all the pain this carries—is almost certain.
The Church only grants divorce in case of adultery, whether actual or implied. In which case the adulterer is not granted a re-marriage permit but his or her partner is granted one.
If an adulterer repents he or she is still not allowed to remarry since the repentance is concerned with his or her spiritual condition and eternal life, but the Church does not trust this person with forming a new, sound family.
In case one of the partners changes his or her religious sect and becomes a member of another sect, and in the absence of a unified law to govern personal status affairs between different Christian denominations, a couple wishing to terminate their marriage has to go to court. The judge then rules according to Islamic sharia, granting a man the right to divorce his wife or a wife the right to khula. In Islam, a man may unilaterally divorce his wife, but she may not divorce him; she can only separate from him through khula, relinquishing all her rights.
Finally, let every man say as Adam did: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” (Gen 2: 23) and let him “leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2: 24).
Only thus may a Christian family be built on solid foundation.
Father Yuhanna Fayez is priest at Abu-Seifein Church in Mohandiseen, Giza; chairman of the board of St Filopatir Coptic Orthodox Charity; and member of the committees of prison services and rehabilitation of addicts.
27 June 2010