Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Divorce Party Pooper
The “Style Section” of The New York Times, arbiter of social patterns of the wealthy and those who yearn to be like them, reported recently on a new trend in party planning – divorce parties or, as one reveler put it, an “unbridled shower.” (Judith Newman, “The Unbridled Shower: Celebrating Divorce, TNYT, September 16, 2012). “There are specialists in divorce-party planning, and there is also a Web site, divorcepartysupply.com, where you can ‘celebrate your new freedom’ with light-up devil-horn tiaras, black long-stem roses and, for those trying to work off a little anger, penis piñatas.” In England there is even a fireworks company that will put on a display for your party that explodes the words “free at last” in a grand finale.
I understand that one might want to gather with a few close friends when a divorce is finalized. After an often grueling legal process and in the midst of grieving and other emotional challenges that usually aren’t resolved for some considerable time, endings of this significance do need to be acknowledged among the community of those who have and will accompany a newly single person in the next part of his or her life journey. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the sense of relief or release they may feel. But a party? Party planners?
The party planners quoted in the article justify their profession – without any apparent awareness of the self-serving nature of their rationales – by suggesting that it is therapeutic, that this is just one more manifestation of peoples’ need to ritualize important life events. Nothing wrong with that. But what are we ritualizing? Parties are celebrations. Regardless of the circumstances, are divorces events we want to celebrate? Even when they are doorways marking a transition from a painful and alienated past toward the gift of a new life and perhaps even a welcomed new relationship, divorces are weighted with the heaviness of failure, of hopes unrealized, of wounds inflicted and received, of secondary relationships strained or severed, of children bewildered and sad. Few escape the experience without wrestling with guilt, perhaps even shame. Even when innocence is presumed, rightly or wrongly, by one party, grief or rage hardly seems the occasion for a blow-out party.
Twenty-five years ago the United Church of Christ published a liturgy in its Book of Worship called “Order for Recognition of the End of a Marriage.” It became the source of broad criticism, even ridicule, both in the church and beyond, especially by those who hadn’t seen it, as a sign of the church’s surrender to the culture. What critics missed for the most part was the penitential nature of the liturgy and the fact that it was included in a section of the Book of Worship for services of reconciliation and healing. Prayers for forgiveness are accompanied by acknowledgements of pain and anger as well as vows committing the divorcing spouses to an attitude of respect, good will, and care for one another.
No one has surveyed the denomination to determine how often this liturgy is used. It is rare, I suspect, though I have used it in counseling with divorcing persons – individually – as a way to talk about how sin might be acknowledged appropriately in a divorce, and forgiveness accepted. The liturgy’s presence in Book of Worship is, obviously, countercultural, a far cry from the portrayals of divorce on TV sitcoms or the “unbridled showers” described in the Times’ article. Its inclusion is perhaps more aspirational than practical, for in most cases damage has been too recent and emotions too raw to allow for divorcing couples to welcome or brave such an intimate moment together. But it is a witness to a holy presence that transcends transgressions and disappointments of all sorts, of a community that is called to compassion rather than judgment.
Maybe people assume that all the church has to offer is shaming or the byzantine logic of annulment. Sadly that often is the case. It’s no wonder then, that divorcing people, left to their own devises, easily succumb to the commercial seductions of the party planning industry, particularly when the events are sold as therapy. But most people I know who are in the midst of a divorce really only want compassion and companionship, friends prepared to hear that this is the last thing they ever imagined would engulf them. They don’t want false cheer and the veneer of boisterous bravado. Pretending that all is well when it patently isn’t is not friendship or fun; it’s probably the alcohol talking. No one wants divorced people walking around looking and feeling morose. But the journey toward healing and happiness passes through honesty and grace, not smashing a paper mache penis or signing up on a divorce registry.
Maybe what is needed is not a liturgy for a couple that mostly sits on the shelf. Maybe the church needs to craft liturgies for one divorcing spouse to share with his or her closest circle of family and friends, a time to acknowledge to God what is and was and what might have been. Then by all means go to dinner, laugh and cry and raise a glass to what remains and to what yet might be. But skip the fireworks. There probably have been enough of them already.
John H. Thomas