There is a debate raging within the Anglican Church of Australia at the moment around the issue of the blessing of Same Sex Marriages. At the end of last year the Appellate Tribunal of the church (essentially the equivalent of the High Court for Anglicans) delivered an opinion on a liturgy developed and authorised by the Diocese of Wangaratta which would allow for the blessing of same sex marriages performed outside the church.
The tribunal chose to apply a novel definition of 'doctrine', (which was contrary in the view of many to the plain meaning of the word as understood for essentially all of Christian history), in order to opine that the liturgy is not contrary to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. This was despite comprehensive submissions from the Board of Assessors and the House of Bishops, both of which supported the traditional orthodox view.
In response to this opinion being handed down by the Appellate Tribunal the bishops struck an agreement to wait until General Synod met and could address the opinion of the Tribunal. There has however been at least one use of the liturgy in the Diocese of Wangaratta and it is well known that in other parts of the church there have been 'unofficial' blessings taking place for years whilst diocesan leadership has turned a blind eye.
It is clear that revisionists intend to push ahead with authorising same sex marriage blessings. As mentioned there is a bishop's agreement in place which has so far held firm to hold off doing anything until General Synod meets. However There is a general understanding that no matter what General Synod says (it has re-affirmed the traditional understanding of marriage as recently as its last meeting in 2017) revisionists will push forward with the blessings.
With this in mind Gafcon Australia has announced that they are planning to create an extra provincial structure in order to provide alternate episcopal oversite of orthodox parishes who find themselves in Dioceses which have taken a heterodox position.
As a result of this the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, The Most Rev Geoffrey Smith wrote a letter to bishops condemning the actions of Gafcon while claiming that the revisionists had shown great restraint. Most concerning for me was the Archbishop's implication that those conservatives that support the actions of GAFCON are in danger of breaking their vows as Anglican clergy:
My expectation is that people who say they are committed to the Anglican church, and who have made oaths and promises upholding its constitution and canons and therefore its governance processes, would be committed to keeping it strong, united and effective. I have to say this is difficult to see in Gafcon’s statement and proposed actions.
What this fails to address is the fact that the only reason that orthodox Anglicans are making preparations is because revisionists are willing to break their vows of ordination which include:
Will you faithfully and humbly minister the doctrine, sacraments and discipline of Christ, as he has commanded and as this Church has received them?
(From 'The Ordinal', A Prayer Book for Australia - Again emphasis mine)
How anyone in the revisionist camp can claim that they can uphold the vow to minister doctrines as the church has received them, whilst simultaneously seeking to change that doctrine is beyond my understanding. Yet the primate elected not to address this clear breach and instead chose to target those who are simply putting in place contingencies. The idea that Gafcon Australia and its supporters are eager for a 'quick exit' simply shows that the Archbishop doesn't understand Gafcon.
Making preparations as a contingency is not the same as wanting to use that contingency. If we were to look at other parts of the world where Gafcon has done similar things we will find it is only AFTER the church/diocese elects to make a change in doctrine which is contrary to scripture - and is no longer the doctrine of the church as it has been received that Gafcon has acted. The same is true here - the great hope of all who uphold the orthodox position is that Gafcon's extra provincial structure will never have to be used. The great hope is that bishops will not walk down the path of heterodoxy and will uphold their promise to:
...correct and set aside teaching that is contrary to the mind of Christ, both privately and publicly urging all to live according to God’s word...
As noted above however, the sad fact is that there are bishops in the church who will push ahead with this change no matter what General Synod says when it can finally meet. Gafcon knows this, the revisionists know this and anyone suggesting otherwise is either very naïve or just isn't paying attention.
When that happens there will be whole churches and individual clergy who find themselves in a difficult position, where they may feel they are unable due to conscience, to stay under the leadership of their bishop. At that point they have tough choices to make:
1. Stay, with the intention of simply getting on with orthodox ministry despite being part of a heterodox diocese. This doesn't solve the issue of being under what they see as heterodox leadership, and being part of the diocese would require the parish to financially contribute to its upkeep and diocesan ministries which were against their own beliefs.
2.Walk away. This is an option for clergy and for individual lay people or whole congregations. They may choose to simply leave the church and take up membership and ministry in other churches. The cost of this is great - they will lose their Anglican identity, and historical and familial connections to buildings etc. Clergy may seek to move to orthodox dioceses rather than leave the church altogether at the cost of uprooting their lives and families.
3.Go with Gafcon. This may be an option for whole churches, where they could seek to move under the oversight of the bishop of the proposed extra provincial diocese. This will be painful also. For example it is unlikely that Diocesan bishops will be willing to let these churches continue to use their buildings. However, they will remain Anglican, under the leadership of an Anglican bishop. Where they go as a whole church they could maintain their current clergy and lay leadership.
The truth is these options are all horrible. The best outcome would be for the church, its bishops and clergy to hold firm by upholding and teaching the traditional orthodox doctrine of the church as it has been received and taught for 2000 years and which all the ordained have vowed to uphold.
The debate about legalising same sex marriage in Australia is still continuing and distracting from other major issues facing our nation. As a priest in the Church of God, I uphold the church's doctrine that marriage is something that can only take place between a man and a woman, however I believe that the time has come for this issue to be settled. We who hold to a traditional understanding of what marriage is have lost the debate in the public square - through the past hateful and hurtful actions of our own churches, through the inability to uphold the values which we advocate and through an inability to convey our message to the people.
I have personally never supported discrimination against gay couples, and have long supported changes to legislation that would have allowed for civil unions or other legal recognition that was equal under law to marriage.
It is my view however, that the vast majority of the population now does support changing the legal definition of marriage to include adults of the same sex, and as somewhat of a libertarian I believe that in a modern pluralist democratic society legislation should reflect the will of the people. For this reason I don't believe that we should be focusing on opposing legislation that would see the Marriage Act changed to allow same sex marriage, however I don't think we should endorse it either. The truth is though it is coming - and we need to learn how to deal with that.
To be clear I believe that for Same Sex marriage to occur there needs to be very strong safeguards put in place - and we should absolutely be arguing for those - religious freedom is where our argument now needs to stand. This includes the right of people to decline to take part in the celebration of a same sex marriage because of religious conviction. I believe there also needs to be safeguards in place to protect the right of organisations which are owned or run by religious organisations to likewise decline to participate. Finally the right of Religious leaders and others to publicly state their traditional view of marriage in opposition to the newly changed legal definition without fear of being dragged through the courts for discrimination, or losing their jobs if they are employed outside of a religious context, must be protected.
My view is also that the only way that this change can be made before the next federal election is to have the plebiscite. The arguments which have been levelled against holding a national poll include that it is non-binding, that it is against the tradition of parliamentary democracy, and finally that it would be too harmful for LGBTI individuals to have a public debate in the lead up to the plebiscite due to the risk of extremist and bigoted views being put forward by the 'no' side.
Firstly, the argument that the plebiscite should be abandoned on the basis that it is not binding is flawed at its core. Whether the plebiscite is binding is irrelevent, because following the plebiscite members will be given a free vote in the parliament in response. Anyone who would reject the will of the people and vote no in such a vote is going to vote no in any vote whether there is a plebiscite or not - and here is the kicker - not only will their revolt against the will of the Australian people be rather risky for them politically, it simply will not change the outcome.
The second argument around Australia being a parliamentary democracy and plebiscites not being a part of that system is again flawed. Throughout the history of parliamentary democracy their have been many plebiscites - they are used generally when their is a contentious issue to be decided, and the parliament wants to properly gauge the will of the people they represent. I agree that having plebiscites on every major issue is a bad idea, however when we are talking about an issue as fundamental as what comprises the most important component of our society - the family unit - I think it was reasonable for the Government to propose the plebiscite as a way forward.
The final, very serious and heart breaking reason often put forward is the danger to LGBTI youth especially if the debate leading to a plebiscite leads to bigoted and hurtful comments and campaigns against the proposed change. Research shows that LGBTI individuals are already at a higher risk of mental illness and suicide, and it is argued this could be the thing that tips many over the edge. This is a major concern, and I share it to an extent. However the idea that we should not have a public debate about issues of major significance is fundamentally flawed.
I wonder for example if those who reject the plebiscite on same sex marriage due to possible harm, also reject having a referendum on recognition of Australia's first peoples in the constitution? There is no group in Australian society with higher suicide rates than our Indigenous population. Given that 11% of the population say that they support One Nation, and also given the racist remarks directed at me and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders pretty well daily on Social Media, and in the real world, it is beyond doubt there will be high levels of racist ranting against any form of recognition when the campaign starts. Given the high levels of mental health issues and the skyrocketing suicide rates in the community, if we follow the logic of same sex marriage advocates to abandon the plebiscite, then we should also abandon any attempt at a referendum on recognition.
However as an Aboriginal man, the grandson of a woman stolen from her parents, I say the referendum needs to happen (following the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart). I know that it will see an increase in hateful rhetoric, but I also know that those who speak in such a hateful way are a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of Australians can talk about it using common sense and decency - I believe the same of the debate about Same Sex Marriage.
I suspect however that one of two things is going to happen. Either the legalisation of same sex marriage will happen before the next election through a private members bill in which Liberal Party MP's and Senators cross the floor - first to have it debated, and then to have it passed. Or it will languish as an issue constantly moving on and off the political agenda and become a political football at the next election where there is the same likelihood of hurtful, misinformed and bigoted comments being made as in any plebiscite.
As I said it is my view that the plebiscite goes ahead, because it is a major issue of significance and because the Government was elected on the understanding that any change to the definition of marriage could only take place after such a vote. However, in the event that it is legalised without the plebiscite, either through members crossing the floor before the election or in a free vote after the election, I believe that it is a change that is coming and which I after much consideration and prayer, I do not oppose (to be clear not opposing something is not the same as endorsing it).
Provided there are real protections for individuals to exercise their religious freedom, speech and expression, I believe that this change will only serve to better reflect the plurality that exists in our nation - and that is one of the blessings of living in a liberal democracy such as ours.
As for Christians who hold to a traditional view of marriage, I would argue that the best way forward for us from here is to actually bear witness to the biblical ideals of marriage, and of the Gospel message of love, forgiveness, redemption and hope in our own lives and relationships - especially in our relationships with LGBTI members of the community.
Daryl is a priest and chaplain living in regional New South Wales Australia. Learn more on the About page.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my church or any other organisation I am affiliated with.