We received a comment on our post Can a Divorced Man Become an Orthodox Monk? from N. F. Perry. Ordinarily we anonymize the identity of inquirers but Mr Perry has used his own personal identity in the comment posing his question and we cannot anonymize it. Moreover Mr Perry is something of a public figure. Mr Perry’s comment is this:
Seems good and clear advice. My own question is: if my marriage (recognized under civil law of UK) in church has not been registered with any diocese, can I become a monk without obtaining a civil divorce but with the consent of my wife? Would appreciate very much your observation on this situation from the point of view of Orthodox canon law.
This is a somewhat perplexing question. Mr Perry is originally from the UK. That suggests to us that his marriage was originally in the Anglican Church. However, he seems to be saying, his marriage, although recognized under the civil laws of the UK—so that under UK law Mr Perry and his wife are married—has not been registered with any (Anglican?) diocese despite the fact of having taken place in a church (presumably Anglican). Under these circumstances, Mr Perry wishes to know, can he become a monk without getting a divorce, merely with the consent of his wife?
First of all we, Orthodox Monk, are not Orthodox canon lawyers or in any way experts in Orthodox canon law. Moreover we are not a secular lawyer anywhere. We can only speculate.
Next, we assume that Mr Perry wishes to become a monk in the Orthodox Church. His biography says that he lived for a time in a monastery in Crete; such a monastery would ordinarily be Orthodox, Crete being an island that is part of Greece, where Orthodoxy is the state religion. Mr Perry has also published a novel about Mt Athos but we have no idea how much time Mr Perry spent on Mt Athos and the state of his relations with the monks of Mt Athos.
Mr Perry lives, or has been living, on a property in Chile. We have no idea if the Orthodox Church is represented in Chile. Chile is a country where the dominant religion would be Roman Catholicism, although we imagine that there is a certain amount of religious pluralism and even outright atheism. Moreover we have absolutely no idea of Chilean law. So the issue arises of the disposal of the property in Chile—and any other property in any other country—in the context of Mr Perry’s entry into a monastery.
We assume that Mr Perry is still a citizen of the UK. We have no idea of Mr Perry’s status in Chile. Has he become a citizen? Is he a legal resident of Chile? How does the Chilean state view his status under Chilean law and especially the status of the property he is living on in Chile? How will Chilean law view a legal separation between Mr Perry and his wife executed in the UK (see below)? We don’t know.
Let’s make some basic observations. You can’t become a monk in the Orthodox Church unless you are Orthodox. Somewhere along the line Mr Perry has converted to the Orthodox Church or will convert to the Orthodox Church. If Mr Perry has not converted and does not intend to convert to the Orthodox Church we can say nothing since only a member of the Orthodox Church can become an Orthodox monk. If as a non-member of the Orthodox Church he wished to take up his abode in an Orthodox monastery that would depend on the discretion of the Abbot and the local bishop; however the situation would be unusual because a non-member of the Orthodox Church could not receive the sacraments of the Orthodox Church, including monastic tonsure.
Next, the question arises of the status of Mr Perry’s marriage in the Anglican Church. Is it recognized as a marriage by the Anglican Church? Mr Perry says that he was married in church but the marriage was not registered with any diocese. Mr Perry would have to ask an Anglican canon lawyer or bishop whether he is married in the eyes of the Anglican Church. We have no idea. This is outside the realm of our expertise.
Next, let’s suppose that Mr Perry has converted or is going to convert to the Orthodox Church. The place where he converts would have an approach to his Anglican marriage, whether the Orthodox Church recognized that marriage or not. On this question Mr Perry would have to ask the people who were receiving him formally into the Orthodox Church, or if he has been Orthodox for some time, the monastery where he wished to become a monk. This is a matter that has to be analyzed concretely in the context of specific places and specific people where Mr Perry is going to become a member of the Orthodox Church and/or an Orthodox monk.
In the Orthodox Church you have to become a monk somewhere. There must be a specific monastery that you become a monk in. That means that there are specific people—the Abbot, the Council of Elders, the local Orthodox Bishop—who must be persuaded that they want to make you a monk in their monastery. Now it is possible that Mr Perry could become a monk in a monastery in Crete and be sent back to his property in Chile to live while still depending ecclesiastically on the monastery where he became a monk, but that is something the monastic authorities enumerated above would have to agree to.
While we understand that Orthodox canon law views monastic tonsure as dissolving the marriage and while we think that in Greece in the Church of Greece or even in a monastery on Mt Athos a signed consent of the wife to the husband becoming a monk would be sufficient for the ecclesiastical authorities if the parties to the marriage were both Greek and Orthodox, we think that the ecclesiastical authorities would still want some formal disposition of the property involved in the marriage. However, the situation is far more complicated in the case of Mr Perry as we have discussed above.
With the above caveats, therefore, we think that the approach would or should be this. Mr Perry has to go with his wife to a lawyer in the UK to arrange a legally binding agreement with his wife that they will be permanently separated until death. This agreement will stipulate that Mr Perry intends to become a monk in an Orthodox monastery and that Mr Perry’s wife agrees with that decision. We are taking the view that a mere written consent of the wife to Mr Perry becoming an Orthodox monk would be too weak given all the complications enumerated above. The concrete Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities with whom Mr Perry was working might disagree and accept a simple written consent of the wife. We would stand corrected. The UK legal agreement would stipulate the terms of the permanent separation with regard to any legal issue that might exist especially concerning the disposition of any property belonging to one or the other party to the marriage and any property held in common.
The UK lawyer would have to establish that the agreement would be recognized to the extent necessary under Chilean law. If for some reason the Chilean state did not recognize the UK separation agreement, then something would have to be worked out under Chilean law for the disposition of property in Chile—and we suppose for the separation itself. Conceivably the property in Chile would have to be sold and Mr Perry might have to leave Chile because of legal issues, we don’t know.
At the same time that Mr Perry and his wife are working on a legal separation in the UK, Mr Perry would be discussing with the concrete Orthodox authorities in the place where he intends to become a member of the Orthodox Church and/or an Orthodox monk how those Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities will view his UK separation agreement with his wife. We would think that if the Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities were confident that the UK separation agreement was valid in law both in the UK and in their own legal jurisdiction then they would be satisfied that Mr Perry could become a monk in the Orthodox Church, assuming that all other issues had been taken care of.