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Anglican leaders accept same-sex marriage result, but urge MPs to legislate with care

Church weddings to remain exclusively for unions of men and women, even after the Marriage Act is amended

Australia's Anglican Primate and Melbourne's Archbishop, Dr Philip Freier, said after the survey result was announced: "The Church accepts the result and it is now time for a political debate about the way forward."

By Mark Brolly

November 16 2017 

Australian Anglican leaders have accepted the decisive postal survey result in favour of same-sex marriage, while urging Federal Parliament to ensure the protection of religious freedoms and respect for the rights of those who oppose the change.

They also acknowledged that weddings conducted in the Anglican Church of Australia would remain exclusively for unions of men and women, even after the passage of legislation amending the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has pledged to have the legislation passed before Parliament rises for Christmas, with the first same-sex weddings expected to occur early in the New Year.

The Anglican Primate of Australia, Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, told The Age newspaper on 15 November, the day the result was announced: “The Church accepts the result and it is now time for a political debate about the way forward.”

Dr Freier told his diocesan synod last month that valuable time had been wasted in disputes about how the issue would be resolved – by parliamentary vote or plebiscite – that could have been spent on real community consultation about the form of the legislative changes to be debated.

“There are proper concerns to ensure that the balance of rights, which includes the right to religious freedom, is ensured in any bill for change that comes before the Parliament,” he said on 17 October.

More than 12.72 million participated in the voluntary survey – 79.5 per cent of the 16 million Australians eligible to do so (in a country with a tradition of almost 100 years of compulsory voting) – with 61.6 per cent in favour of same-sex couples being able to marry and 38.4 per cent against.

All six states and the two mainland territories recorded a majority “Yes” response, with only the most populous state, New South Wales, recording a “Yes” response of under 60 per cent (57.8 per cent). Of the 150 electorates in the House of Representatives, 133 had “Yes” majorities. Twelve of the 17 electorates that opposed the change were in western Sydney, which has high concentrations of people from ethnically and religiously diverse non-English-speaking backgrounds who have strong cultural and religious traditions surrounding marriage.

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, who announced last month that his diocese had donated $1 million to the “No” campaign, said the survey was a clear mandate for the “Yes” campaign “and as citizens in a democracy, we accept the decision of the Parliament on the basis of the vote of Australians”. 

“Although this won't prevent me from continuing to teach that marriage, in God's good design, is between a man and a woman - an exclusive and permanent union... the reality will be, in a very short period of time, that our Parliament will legislate for same-sex marriage,” Dr Davies said. 

“Yet, the Parliament needs to recognise that more than 1 in 3 Australians are opposed to this change. Therefore, protecting individual freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of faith - need to be balanced with the move to address same-sex marriage. I have heard the Prime Minister say that he believes more strongly in the freedom of religion that in same-sex marriage and I trust that will be demonstrated in the result of the Parliamentary vote on the legislation which will come before it no doubt before Christmas. 

“We as Christians will continue to be strong in our belief of what God has given to us in His word. Our schools, our churches, our organisations will continue to reflect God's love in a world of diverse opinions – holding firm to what God has taught us in His word but generously, compassionately and graciously engaging with Australia where matters are in dispute. Where people consider God's word is not the authority, we must continue to witness to that authority in the way in which Jesus would do so – with love and grace but firmness and boldness and confidence in God's word for Australia today.”

Archbishop Davies expressed concern in the longer term, telling the Sydney Anglicans website: "… What happens to people who want to hold to that truth? It is one thing to say, for example, we don't have laws against adultery in this country, but I still want to say adultery is wrong – it is immoral. I want to be able to uphold that teaching without the law saying to me – no, it is not illegal, so you can't say that. At the moment that's not the case, but the way in which we have seen in other Western Democracies, the coercive effect of changing the definition of marriage has been to restrict people's ability to hold a different point of view.”

Outspoken Archdeacon Rod Bower of Gosford, on the NSW Central Coast, wrote on his parish’s Facebook page: “We are hearing a lot today about safeguarding ‘religious freedom’ in the passage of the Marriage Act Bill. Sadly those raising these issues have no concept of what religious freedom truly means. They seem for the most part entirely imprisoned in their own fears and anxieties.”

Archdeacon Bower’s church billboards on a range of social and political issues have attracted much attention on social media. On the day the survey result was announced, the board simply said, “True religious freedom does not discriminate” and later the word “Yes” repeated 10 times.

“Existing laws already restrict our ability to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality, however the church has some limited dispensation for anti-discrimination laws,” he wrote in his post. “Therefore it will remain legal for the church to teach that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman, but not legal to vilify LGBIT people in order to promulgate that teaching. Likewise faith-based schools have responsibilities, especially if they receive public funding, to adhere to a curriculum. For example, in a civics class, a responsible educator should be required to inform students that the Marriage Act allows for same sex unions. While in the same school, in a class on religion, it would be perfectly acceptable to teach that their particular religion held that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“The kind of so called freedoms that some Christian leaders are now demanding is indicative of not only their own spiritual poverty and immaturity but their total lack of awareness that they are imprisoned in their own human brokenness.

“It is important for us humans to remember that perfect freedom is found in the ability to serve others, especially in the provision of a just and compassionate society for all, regardless of age, race, religion, gender or sexuality. The Christian bias must always be toward those who are vulnerable to discrimination rather than in favor of those who have the power to discriminate.”

Responding to a post from Emma Boylan (“Any same sex weddings booked in yet Fr Rod? I’m sure you will be in great demand once the legislation passes. No better person to celebrate such a great occasion for all couples.”), Archdeacon Bower wrote: “No Emma I am unable to marry same sex couples because my marriage licence, (although issued by the Attorney General) is also constrained by the laws of the Anglican Church of Australia. Sadly I do not see church law changing in my working life.”

The vicar of a leading evangelical parish network in Melbourne issued a pastoral statement on 15 November, saying: “Whatever you think about the idea of the postal survey the level of participation has been quite remarkable.”

Bishop Stephen Hale, Lead Minister of the St Hilary’s Network in Kew, North Balwyn and Mont Albert North, wrote that his community should acknowledge that they lived in a democracy and had had the opportunity to express their view “in a discrete and private way”. They now had to accept the outcome as decisive.

“We know that religious celebrants will be protected and that as a church we will not be obliged to conduct a ceremony, which would go against the formularies of the Anglican Church. It will be important that we are free to still teach according to Scripture in relation to marriage.

“We need to respect the reality that members of our own faith community ticked different boxes and continue to be gracious with each other.

“We want to continue to be an open and accessible church to all. Clearly there are tensions in seeking to live this out but that is our desire.”

Bishop Hale said the broad majority of marriages “will continue to fit the pattern of the centuries”.

He also cautioned his congregations to exercise discernment. “We should not assume that if some individual clergy/church leaders express a particular view on this matter (because they will) that the Anglican Church has suddenly shifted ground in this area.”

Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania welcomed the publication of the survey results, saying it had been a difficult period for many Australians and he was glad that the public had now had its say.

“While I remain of the view that the traditional definition of marriage is the best building block for our society and for human flourishing, I acknowledge that the majority of Australian people have voted to allow same-sex couples to marry,” Dr Condie said.

“My hope is that the Government will consider carefully any proposed new laws, respecting the views of the third of Australians who voted No while protecting against wider discrimination.”

He paid tribute to a veteran activist for LGBTQI causes, Mr Rodney Croome of Tasmanians for Marriage Equality, saying his conversations with him had been “a great and rare privilege of being able to express contrary views in a generous and respectful manner”.

“The Anglican Church of Australia recently reaffirmed its position to uphold the teaching of Jesus that marriage is the commitment of one man to one woman being entered into voluntarily for life,” Bishop Condie said.

“The Anglican Church in Tasmania will continue celebrating marriage according to the teaching of our Church.”

Bishop Stuart Robinson of Canberra and Goulburn thanked Anglicans in his diocese for their careful and prayerful participation in the survey “and I would now ask that we uphold before the Lord, legislators and their advisors who will seek to draft and bring in the attendant legislation”.

The Australian Capital Territory had the highest “Yes” response of any state or territory – 74 per cent, more than nine percentage points higher than the next highest, Victoria (64.9) – and the highest participation rate (82.4 per cent).

The Coalition for Marriage, of which the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in Sydney were leading partners in promoting the “No” case, vowed to continue defending parents’ rights, and fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of belief following the postal survey result.

Coalition spokesman Mr Lyle Shelton, who is Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, said: “While we are naturally disappointed in today’s result, we accept and respect the decision of the Australian people.

“We will now do what we can to guard against restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of religion, to defend parents’ rights, and to protect Australian kids from being exposed to radical LGBTIQ sex and gender education in the classrooms.

“In their push for same-sex marriage, the ‘yes’ campaign assured Australians that a change in the law would have no consequences for them; it is now time for them to make good on that promise and ensure that proper protections for parental rights, freedom of speech and belief are in place.

“We will work with our coalition partners, with state and federal parliaments and others of good will to minimise the impact on all Australians.

“We are very grateful for the contribution of the millions of Australians who supported our campaign. In the short space of three months, we had thousands of volunteers join us, many of them first time campaigners; we had tens of thousands of Australians donate to our campaign because they believed in what we were doing; and we had many, many more sign up to support us in other ways.

“Their efforts have not been wasted. Thanks to them, millions of Australians spoke up to defend freedoms and will not allow them to be taken away. Those who seek to deceive parents or deny them information about what their kids learn in school will find themselves called to account by millions of Australian mums and dads who now know what is at stake. Those who seek to place restrictions on freedom of speech or freedom of belief will face tough opposition from millions of Australians who understand how a change in law is used to silence those who disagree. Those who seek to push these ideologies through our schools and institutions will not get away with it so easily.

“This new level of awareness could not have been achieved without our supporters, our staff and our volunteers. They have achieved much in this campaign, even in the face of intimidation, threats and abuse, and we are grateful to them.”

But Mr Tiernan Brady, Executive Director of the Equality Campaign that drove the “Yes” campaign, said: “Australia didn’t say yes, Australia roared yes.”

Mr Brady, who had been political director with the Irish Yes Equality campaign in that country’s 2015 constitutional referendum on same-sex marriage, told The Irish Times on 16 November that the Australian result was “every bit as magical” as Ireland’s.

“I have been here 20 months now, and when I arrived there was no official organisation,” he said. “There were some very good voluntary groups, but they knew they were facing a public vote in a country with 25 million people bigger than Europe. We had to build the campaign from scratch, bring in the best people from all perspectives of life who would engage with the different faith communities, different ethnic communities, and to get past the challenge of the sheer scale of Australia.

“I was confident that yes would prevail. The biggest perk of my job was getting to travel around Australia, and the more I travelled the more I realised how Irish it is. This is a country with the same values, a country that believes in fairness and equality. The Australian people like to say this is the ‘land of the fair go’, but the more I travelled the more I realised that wasn’t just lip service. That value is deeply entrenched.

“As long as we ran a campaign that stayed positive, that focused on human stories, people were going to vote for us. You can never be 100 per cent sure, but I was as confident as I could be that the Australian people got what this was about, and would vote yes.

“I am confident the legislation will pass in December. If the government was going to spend $150 million on a public vote that wasn’t legally required, there is no way they can ignore the result. As we saw in Ireland, the momentum that comes from a public vote of endorsement will sweep all before it. I expect this bill will be introduced in the senate in Canberra on Thursday morning, and there is no reason it won’t be passed before Christmas.

“We have a huge mobilisation job to do over the next three weeks. We have to make sure the message is clear: the people have spoken, and now it is time for the politicians in Canberra to do their job.”

Prominent Sydney clergyman, the Revd Dr Michael Jensen, Rector of St Mark’s Darling Point, wrote on the ABC website that the survey was “an unprecedented phase in Australian social and political history”.

“It's been an arduous campaign, and we've delivered wounds to one another that will take some healing,” Dr Jensen wrote.

“There are two ways to read the Yes victory. One is to see it as a victory for a new vision of society, one which sees the destabilising of traditional social institutions as its aim.

“The other way to see it is that, actually, Australians care deeply about marriage, and can see that it is a really valued institution that represents some ideals that most people really want.

“In this, there is a profound agreement between Yes and No.

“I still don't agree with same-sex marriage. But I don't think at this point, as a Christian, I can take my bat and ball and go home.

“The vision of a society in which children are nurtured in homes with parents who are committed to each other and to them for the long haul, and in which adult life is enriched by the life-long quest to serve another person, is too beautiful for that.”