Thomas Cranmer on divorce for abuse
Several theologians in the 16th & 17th centuries said abuse is grounds for divorce. It is a tragedy that their arguments have been passed over and ignored by so many today.
The Roman church only countenanced “separation from bed and board” in cases of abuse or other marital mistreatment. When the protestant reformation began, quite a few protestant leaders argued that abuse is grounds for divorce. For example, this was spelled out in the Hungarian Confession of Faith 1562.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Many evangelicals today lack awareness of history, and they’re repeating the spiritual abuse of Rome by reluctantly tolerating separation for abuse while condemning those who divorce for abuse.
This post focuses on Thomas Cranmer. It is the first of a 3-Part series. Parts 1 & 2 are about men from the reformation and puritan eras who believed that abuse is grounds for divorce. Part 3 is about a much more recent theologian (Professor David Clyde Jones, Presbyterian Church in America) who said that abuse is grounds for divorce.
Who was Thomas Cranmer?
Thomas Cranmer was one of the men who awakened King Henry VIII to the need for English scriptures. Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury. When the Matthew Bible arrived in England in 1537, Archbishop Cranmer was one of the men who influenced King Henry to grant his license so that it might go forth. We have a lot to thank him for!
Cranmer was born of modest parents in 1489. He studied at Cambridge, where he was among the students who met at the White Horse Inn to discuss the “new learning.” He initially came to King Henry’s attention as someone who might assist with the difficult questions around his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and whether that marriage could or should be annulled. Against his will, Cranmer became involved. In the end, in 1533, the marriage was annulled, Henry tied the knot with Anne Boleyn, and – again against his will, and initially even without his knowledge, Cranmer was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Reluctantly, he assumed the ecclesiastical post that Henry had thrust on him.
– The Story of the Matthew Bible, Ruth Magnusson Davis, 193-4
As you can see, one of the precipitants for the English Reformation was a dispute over canon law. The question was: Did the Rome’s canon law allow Henry VIII to annul his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon?
After King Henry broke with Rome and the Pope, the English reformers wanted to clear out bad laws which centuries of being under Rome’s canon law had bequeathed to England. They wanted to bring in laws that were more consistent with biblical principles.
Archbishop Cranmer drafted reformed ecclesiastical laws for the new English Protestant church. His Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum was designed to provide a system of order and discipline for the Church of England in place of the medieval canon law which the papacy had enforced for centuries. The Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum was presented to the English Parliament in March 1553, but the death of Edward VI prevented further progress (link). Although Cranmer’s proposed reforms never became law, they were highly esteemed by later canon lawyers and enjoyed an unofficial authority in ecclesiastical courts. ¹
Cranmer proposed church laws on adultery and divorce in chapter 10 of the Reformio Legum Ecclesiaticarum. You can find chapter 10 on pp 264-279 of this Googlebooks link.
Here are some points Cranmer made about divorce for abuse
Deadly hostility is a ground for divorce
If deadly hostility should arise between husband and wife, and become so inflamed that one attacks the other, either by treacherous means or by poison, and wants to take the other’s life in some way, either by open violence or by hidden malice, it is our will that as soon as so horrible a crime is proved in court, such persons shall be separated by divorce. For a person who attacks health and life does greater injury to his marriage partner than one who separates himself from the other’s company, or commits adultery with someone else. For there cannot be any sort of fellowship between those who have begun to plot or to fear mortal harm. Therefore, since they can[not] live together, it is right for [the marriage] to be dissolved, according to the teaching of Paul.
The crime of ill-treatment is also a ground for divorce
If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and deed towards her, as long as there is any hope of improvement, the ecclesiastical judge is to reason with him, rebuking his excessive violence, and if he cannot prevail by admonitions and exhortations, he is to compel him not to inflict any violent injury on his wife, and to treat her as the intimate union of marriage requires, by making him pledge bail, or by taking guarantees. But if the husband cannot be coerced either by bail or by guarantees, and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty by these means, then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life. Therefore in her peril recourse must be made to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked. But on the other side, the power given by the law to coerce wives, by whatever ways are necessary, if they are rebellious, obstinate, petulant, scolds and of evil behaviour, is not abrogated, as long as the husband does not exceed the limits of moderation and fairness. Both in this and in the above-mentioned offences, it is our will that parties set free in this way may contract a new marriage (if they wish), while those convicted of the said crimes shall be punished either by perpetual exile or by imprisonment for life.
Minor disagreements, unless they be permanent, are no ground for divorce.
If minor disagreements or grounds for offence creep into a marriage, the words of Paul should act as a check upon them (1 Cor 7:11) namely, that either the wife should be reconciled to her husband, a result which ought to be sought after by all ordinary and extraordinary methods of penalties and exhortations, or she is to remain single, a penalty which we decree shall be equally binding on the man.
Incurable disease does not annul a marriage
If by chance either of the parties has contracted an incurable disease for which no remedy can be found, the marriage will nevertheless continue in spite of all difficulties of this kind. For this ought to be the one principal and distinguishing advantage of matrimony, that [mutual many’ troubles may be soothed and alleviated by the mutual support of the spouses.
How the accused party is to be maintained during the lawsuit
Since cases involving charges of adultery, poisoning, mortal treachery and ill-treatment frequently entail serious controversy and are of very great length, a man is to maintain his wife for the duration on an honourable and sufficient allowance, account being taken of her rank and social standing.
¹ Some of my phrases have been taken from the back cover of Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformio Legum Ecclesiaticarum.
Part 2 of this series will feature three more men from the 16th & 17th centuries who believed that abuse is grounds for divorce. Their names are Theodore Beza, William Perkins and William Ames. It will reproduce Appendix 2 of my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion.