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.
During the debate about same sex marriage much was made of the threat to religious freedom. Those on the no side of the debate argued vigorously that the freedoms of individuals to freely practice their faith and to live their lives in accordance with their faith and conscience would be curtailed should the Yes campaign succeed. The Yes side of the debate argued consistently that the debate had nothing at all to do with religious freedom - that this was only about who was allowed to be married and nothing else would change.
Though I had realised the inevitability of same sex marriage being legalised in Australia I had argued strongly that significant protections would be needed for people to be able to exercise their religious freedom in a previous post on this blog. I did believe however that parliament should just get on and pass the Dean Smith Bill, and then deal with religious freedom as a separate issue.
I don't do this very often - and in writing too! ... I was wrong. Since the announcement of the result the same sex marriage survey the lobbying of LGBTI groups to remove religious protections currently in place has already begun.
In Western Australia the government has already launched an investigation into removing the right of religious schools to hire and fire people in accordance with their faith - all started because a baptist school decided it would no longer use the services of a casual teacher after he told them that he was gay and living in direct contravention to the faith and values statement he agreed to when he was offered employment. The response has been a demand from LGBTI lobbyists that the right of religious institutions to fire people who don't support their beliefs be removed. You can read about it here.
In WA Today former Democrat senator Brian Greig argues that the right of religious organisations to hire people who agree to their beliefs is a 'legal loophole' that must be closed. What does he primarily base his argument on? Well he makes all the usual baseless references to 'human rights' whilst seemingly oblivious to the fact that while same sex marriage has been repeatedly determined to NOT be a human right, religious freedom is universally recognised as such. However then the true colours begin to emerge when he says:
'Now that Australia is on the cusp of embracing marriage equality, we will be in the extraordinary position where LGBTI people in the private school system can legally get married under federal law, and then legally sacked the next day under state law.'
But of course this cannot possibly be right can it - that a prominent LGBTI lobbyist is now calling on government to remove religious freedom protections on the basis that same sex marriage has been legalised? This is surely a mistake - after all we were assured repeatedly over and over again that religious freedoms were a non issue in the debate over SSM. The No Campaign were merely bringing up red herrings we were told - religious freedom protections would not change... and yet here we have it, within weeks of the Yes vote governments are investigating removing religious freedom protections and LGBTI advocates are demanding they do so.
Also troubling and noted over at David Ould's blog is the fact that during the debate about the legislation, when members were arguing for or against amendments, Andrew Hastie sought leave to table a number of letters from major religious leaders around Australia. The letters were calling for strong protections and expressing concern the bill didn't offer enough of them. Leave to table the letters was not granted. Let that sink in for a moment, The tabling of letters from religious leaders which dealt specifically with the issue being debated in our parliament were deemed not worthy of even being tabled. As David notes in his piece, this is a clear attempt to silence those who have faith - to remove those of faith from public discourse. It has been noted by some that Scott Morrison managed to table these letters later - that does not change the fact that the natural instinct of those who supported SSM was to instantly say 'no' when the voices of religious leaders were seeking to be heard - not to impose anything, but simply to be heard.
Then of course we have the fact the Greens, in a spate of utter hypocrisy after declaring no amendments should be considered to the Smith bill, did in fact move a number of amendments in the house of representatives which sought to remove or water down the very limited protections that were included in the bill.
So I was wrong - I was naive - to believe that the best course of action was to simply pass the Smith bill and work out further religious protections over time. I thought in holding that view that the attack on religious freedoms would not happen immediately - I thought the LGBTI lobby would be happy with their victory and simply rejoice for a while in the fact that same sex couples could now legally marry. It seems though the removal of these religious freedom protections is the very next thing on the agenda and that there will be no respite. All opposition to the new orthodoxy it seems must be utterly and completely destroyed, and if that involves the removal of others human rights then so be it...
All we can hope now is that the current review of religious freedom headed by Philip Ruddock will make solid recommendations, (and that the parliament will heed them) which will lead to genuine religious protections being put in place in Australia - at a national level, which cannot be arbitrarily watered down by state and territory governments.
If this nation allows the erosion of religious freedom - the right of religious organisations and individuals to freely exercise and live out their faith - we will be walking a very dangerous path. Why? Because if you are prepared to remove one human right for one element of society, it won't be long before others fall as well... I leave you with Martin Niemöller's poem... purely as food for thought...
First They Came...
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Today the ABS announced the results of the Australian Marriage Survey. The result is clear 61.7% of respondents said yes to changing the law to allow same sex couples to marry. With a turn out of just under 80% this result is clear and incontestable.
So what happens now? How should those of us who hold a conservative traditional view of marriage respond? How should we as Christians respond?
We should respond with grace.
We have lost the debate, the Australian people have spoken and we need to honour their will. We should not stand in the way of legislating this change. I noted several months ago - before the survey was announced - that as a pluralist I though that Same Sex Marriage was supported by the majority and as a result should be legislated.
In that previous post I also noted that religious, speech and conscience protections will need to be implemented to protect the freedoms of those who object to the change. However I want to be clear that I agree with Fr Frank Brennan that the most appropriate way forward from this point is to pass the bill (download) that has been proposed by Dean Smith which includes basic protections for churches and religious celebrants. This would allow the will of the Australian people to be respected quickly and allow the law change to be implemented by the end of the year.
Following the passage of that bill, I would argue then would be the time to look at strengthening the protections of religious freedom, conscience and speech - and I would argue the most appropriate way to do that would be through passing a formal bill of rights at the Commonwealth level.
Australia is a pluralist nation (not a secular one) which should be seeking to honour the outcome of this democratic process, while also seeking to ensure ALL Australians have their fundamental freedoms are protected. For me, though, this does not include the right of private businesses like a bakery, with no affiliation with a faith group, to deny service. However it would include the right of the proverbial 'baker' or other individuals to publicly express their religious views without fear for their job, and without fear of being dragged before the courts. It would also include the right of parents to withdraw their children from education programs that are contrary to their religious convictions, and for religious schools, charities etc to continue to promote their religious view on marriage without fear of losing funding or accreditation.
I want to finish by taking this opportunity to .ask those who like me voted no, to show grace in defeat. Today I have already seen comments from people trying to skew the results to say it wasn't a real majority because over 20% didn't cast a vote. This is not the way forward, and all it does is damage the credibility, not of the vote, but of those who put forward such an 'argument'. We lost it is now time to accept it and move on.
As a priest in the church of God, I will continue to teach that marriage, according to the Word of God, is something that can only happen between a man and a woman. I understand that this view will now be different to the legal understanding of marriage in Australia, and I accept that. The only thing I ask is that my right to continue to teach and uphold the traditional view be honoured, just as I will honour the newly established right of same sex couples to be married under law.
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.
Some of you may have seen over the past week the controversy surrounding Coopers Brewery and the Bible Society about a short video where two politicians discussed the idea of same sex marriage.
The video was part of the Bible Society’s 200th birthday celebrations. It was designed to encourage people to engage in discussion on significant issues in a civil and respectful manner. Coopers had agreed to make a specially labelled light beer to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society and the video featured the participants “keeping it light” while they discussed the issue with great respect and care while enjoying a beer.
Now all of that seems fairly reasonable doesn’t it? The Bible society as part of its birthday celebrations released a video encouraging people to engage in respectful and caring conversation on major issues… However the response to the video was anything but reasonable.
Almost immediately same sex marriage advocates called for a boycotting of Coopers products. They demanded that pubs and clubs stop stocking Coopers beers—and many agreed. Why were they so outraged? Both men in the video were given equal air time to put forward their case—and even had to say what part of the others view they found most compelling. The Video did not present one view as superior to the other… The outrage came because they dared to even put it forward as something to be debated.
That isn’t a typo—the same sex marriage lobby has decided that not only should those who oppose same sex marriage be bullied into silence, but that even those who think it is an important matter for public discussion and civil and respectful debate should be bullied into submission—dissent will not be tolerated in any form. Anyone who they perceive as even suggesting that there is a discussion to be had must be punished—and so Coopers was punished—dragged through days of hostile media scrutiny and sadly they eventually caved in to the bullying—no doubt fearing for their livelihoods—and in some cases their safety as threats were made. Coopers withdrew its plan to release the commemorative cases of light beer—they disatanced themselves from the Bible Society and they announced they were going to join the group Australian Marriage Equality. The bullies won.
This has been an incredibly sad week in our nation for freedom of thought, speech and expression. It has been a week in which the same sex marriage lobby have shown their true colours as bullies, hypocrites and bigots who demand tolerance and respect on one hand and then bully and coerce those who have not accepted their views on the other.
Please pray for our nation, that we will be able to hold onto the values we value so dearly. Values of freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of thought, expression and freedom of speech. Pray that we don’t become a nation that does not tolerate dissent, and punishes those who don’t agree with the prevailing view of the elites. Pray that we can be a nation that debates important issues with civility, love and compassion—the very things the video promoted.
I also invite you to pray for the victims in all of this—the staff of both Coopers Brewery, and the Bible Society.
This week I wrote to my congregation explaining to them that I uphold the doctrine of the church and believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. I also explained that holding this view does not mean that I hate homosexual couples, it does not mean that I am opposed to them having equal rights under civil law - it simply means that I and those who share my view believe that the term marriage can only ever apply to the lifelong union of a man and a woman.
Some I know will label me a 'homophobe' for expressing this view. Some will say I am being hateful. The truth is though, that I do not hate anyone - not even those who have done me direct emotional and physical harm - so why would I hate homosexuals?
The idea that to disagree with someone over marriage is hateful, is being used as a weapon in the debate by those who support changing the definition to include same sex couples. The argument goes that if you oppose same sex marriage then you are clearly against equal rights for gay people - which means you clearly are a bigot that hates gay people...
Of course saying that we believe that marriage should stay between a man and a woman actually in no way restricts the rights of homosexual couples to enter into lifelong committed and monogamous relationships if they wish to do so. It in no way restricts the ability of government to ensure that gay couples are treated equally under the law - in fact the previous Labor Government already passed legislation at the Commonwealth level to ensure this! That there are still some inequalities being experienced at the State/Territory Level simply means that those jurisdictions should be called upon to enact similar legislation. If this was done then gay couples would be treated 100% equally under the law at all levels of government in Australia - and all without ever changing the fundamental meaning of society's most important institution.
What saying that we believe marriage is between a man and a woman means, is that we understand marriage to be more than simply something people do if they love each other—we understand it to be a special union, between a man and woman, especially given and sanctified by God for the forming of a new family unit and the raising of children. There is no hate here—there is no homophobia, and no-one is saying that homosexual couples should be discriminated against—by all means give a same sex couples equal standing under secular law— even through recognising the relationships as civil partnerships or similar. It is also not a statement about the nature or value of their relationships—Homosexual couples do love each other, they care for each other, and they value their relationships just as highly as heterosexual couples do. They must be shown our love and care and be treated with the dignity deserved by people made in the image of God.
The simple truth however is this; in Traditional Christian understanding Marriage is something that can only take place between a man and a woman, any other relationship, no matter how loving, no matter how caring and valued that relationship is, simply is not and cannot be a marriage. Whilst the secular legal definition may change (and likely will) The Christian understanding revealed through God’s word will not.
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.