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.
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest 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.