Divorcing couples now have the opportunity to end their marriage where it began – in a church before a pastor.This content was published on April 23, 2008 - 17:03
With more than half of all Swiss marriages ending in divorce, Protestant religious services to mark this life event are gaining acceptance. The idea is not to promote divorce but to help couples through the painful experience.
Markus Sahli, spokesman for the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, told swissinfo that end-of-marriage ceremonies could play a helpful role for some couples.
"We believe marriage is not only a private arrangement, it affects many people – two extended families, children, friends, work colleagues," Sahli pointed out.
"A ritual can help break the taboo around the experience so that family and friends can talk about it," he added.
Religious services for divorce have been available to members of the Swiss Protestant community on an informal basis for several years. Now a Zurich-based pastor has put a proposal to his local church council to introduce an official liturgy for the event.
One divorced pastor, Frank Worbs, told the daily newspaper heute that a ritual or symbolic process could help divorced people to get over the separation and achieve definite closure.
"Sometimes there is no other solution but to separate. In such situations it is important to make the divorce as amicable as possible for the couple so that they can begin a new chapter in their lives," he said.
According to Sahli, the ritual also helps with transparency and openness. "The topic will become much more widely known and discussed if the Zurich church goes ahead and makes it an official ceremony."
The president of the Zurich Reformed Church, Ruedi Reich, told swissinfo that the divorce ceremony proposal had not yet been discussed at official level. "We are still at the stage of gathering experience and weighing up the question," he said.
"It [an end-of-marriage ceremony] is not explicitly offered but it is possible if the couple wants it. Going through a ceremony like this is a way of showing God that the marriage is over."
Reich said such a ritual could help people carry on as responsible parents. "That seems very important to me," he said.
As for the risk that providing divorce ceremonies could undermine the permanence of marriage, church leaders are not unduly worried.
Simon Weber of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches told swissinfo that the church had changed its attitude to divorce. "We are conscious now of how we can help people suffering because of divorce. It is a question of pastoral care."
Weber explained that the Protestant marriage ceremony was essentially based on the couple receiving a blessing from God for their union. "This is a gift that does not disappear, even if they separate," he said.
In his experience the spiritual difficulties around the experience of divorce are usually shared one-to-one with a pastor rather than in the form of a ritual.
"But I can imagine that it will become more common in the future," he said.
In 2007 there were 40,100 marriages in Switzerland, 300 more than in 2006. This figure has remained more or less stable for the past decade.
There were 19,700 divorces concluded in 2007 compared with 21,000 in 2006, a decrease of 6%. But 2006 was a divorce high point: 18% more than in 2005.
Under Swiss law a person wanting to file for divorce has to wait two years from the time of separation.
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