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Archbishop calls for diocesan talks on marriage divide, acknowledges pain of Anglicans in same-sex unions

Dr Freier says it will take time for the consequences of Australia's same-sex marriage debate to be worked through

Archbishop Freier told clergy: "I am very conscious of the pain that members of our church who are in same sex partnerships experience at this time when the society has changed in a way that the church hasn't. Beyond these members of our church there are the parents, grandparents and family friends who will be sharing the family table at Christmas and wondering about what the church says about the relationships of loved ones that are now equivalent at law to heterosexual relationships."

By Mark Brolly

January 3 2018Archbishop Philip Freier has acknowledged the pain of Anglicans in same-sex relationships over the Church’s stance on marriage remaining unchanged, even as wider Australian society’s position has altered, and has called for “intentional conversations” in the Melbourne diocese this year over how to exercise ministry in the tension between the changes to the Marriage Act and the Church's teaching on Holy Matrimony.

In an Ad Clerum (literally meaning “to the clergy”) issued on 22 December, Dr Freier wrote that at a time when the public standing of Christian churches had been under intense scrutiny, Christians “needed to engage with complex public issues where there are passionately held, but diametrically opposed, views in the community and within the church”. He referred to the recently completed Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the passage of legislation in the Federal and Victorian Parliaments for same-sex marriage and assisted dying respectively.

“It is no wonder that many of us may feel the weight of that tension pressing upon us as we approach Christmas,” he wrote.

Archbishop Freier wrote that the politics of the Federal Parliament meant that the same-sex marriage debate was pushed down into the community and the decision to launch a postal survey meant that community rather than political voices were the most vocal.

“This has all come at a cost to our community generally and in a unique way, to us as a church. It will take some time for the consequences of this process to be worked through.

“Responding well to the public debates and to the Royal Commission in a united manner has been enormously demanding. We achieved remarkable unity in respect of our response to the Royal Commission in the key areas of child protection, episcopal standards and redress at our General Synod. I am very pleased that this momentum has continued with subsequent Diocesan Synods signifying their consent to this legislation.”

Dr Freier wrote that the legislation that had enabled same-sex marriage and euthanasia were “unlikely to have reached the place of happy agreement for all of us”.

“I am aware that views I have expressed are not the views of all other Anglicans. At one level this is so obvious as to not need stating but at another level I am extremely grateful for the space that I have been able to speak into without my voice being contradicted by those who think differently. I think that this is a sign of the grace and goodwill that we share in our church and especially in the Diocese of Melbourne.

“I am very conscious of the pain that members of our church who are in same sex partnerships experience at this time when the society has changed in a way that the church hasn’t. Beyond these members of our church there are the parents, grandparents and family friends who will be sharing the family table at Christmas and wondering about what the church says about the relationships of loved ones that are now equivalent at law to heterosexual relationships.”

From the Prime Minister to ordinary people, there had been “an unmissable exuberance” when same-sex marriage became lawful.

Dr Freier wrote that he had been very moved to receive a copy of an email from a retired priest who reflected on his pain on account of the discipline of the church preventing him from sharing in the joy that he saw being expressed around him.

“I quote it here with his permission and without further comment:

‘It is indeed a day for great rejoicing – and pride in our country. I celebrate (alone tonight) with a deep sense of relief and thankfulness but as an authorised marriage celebrant myself, I will remain unable to perform any marriage ceremony between people of the same gender, even friends, should they honour me by asking. Why? Because my church will not allow me to do so. And is unlikely to allow me in my lifetime. In order to have that joy I would need to leave the church completely – the church of my forebears, the church of my lifetime nurture in the faith, the church I have loved and served all my life. How’s that for justice? The “secular nation” (which I also love as a proud and committed Australian), has moved on to new liberty. And I am left behind. Not only I, but hundreds of wonderful priests and lay people who long to join the festivities but cannot – except in wistful solidarity with our non-Anglican sisters and brothers.’

“It will take more of the grace that I have spoken about for us to have a respectful conversation about how the Church ministers in the tension between the changes to the Marriage Act and our teaching on Holy Matrimony,” Archbishop Freier wrote. “I propose that we have intentional conversations about this next year. It will be good to prepare for this well and I will be looking for the best way these conversations can take place safely, gracefully and productively. Please open up your own heart to the discernment of what contribution you can make.

“As the year draws to its close I pray that you will have opportunities for rest and, in its fullest sense, re-creation. There is much healing needed, in the world and in the church. I hope that you can personally enter into the grace of our beloved Saviour Jesus at this time when you are especially attending to the needs of others.

“It has been a very demanding year for us all and I have felt this personally. I remain extremely grateful for your prayers and fellowship and feel well sustained in what is a sometimes complex interaction of roles.”

Archbishop Freier wrote that he and his assistant bishops offered their personal appreciation to all clergy.

“Together, we assure you of our prayers and our appreciation of your faithfulness in these complex times for our Church and our Nation. Let us make it our particular intention in prayer at Christmas that the guidance and influence of the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.”

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove assented to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 at Yarralumla on 8 December, in the presence of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then Attorney-General and Senator George Brandis, a day after the legislation was adopted by Federal Parliament to exuberant scenes of joy on the floor of the House of Representatives and in the public galleries.

The legislation, which provides that ministers of religion should be exempt from conducting same-sex marriages, was carried overwhelmingly, with only four MPs voting against it, though others abstained. No count was taken because fewer than five MPs opposed the Bill, which originated in the Upper House through West Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith.

In the days leading up to the vote, seven Anglican bishops, led by Wangaratta's Bishop John Parkes, urged MPs to resist the conservative push to insert stronger religious protections in legislation.

The bishops – also comprising Garry Weatherill of Ballarat, Andrew Curnow (then of Bendigo), Kay Goldsworthy (then of Gippsland), Sarah Macneil (Grafton), Bill Ray (North Queensland) and John Stead (Willochra) – wrote on 1 December that Senator Smith's bill should be approved as it stood.

“It preserves the fabric of our anti-discrimination laws, which have been developed over half a century,” the bishops wrote. “These give expression to democratic values of equality and fairness. It also accords fulsome recognition of the religious rights and freedoms that underpin a democratic, plural and multicultural society.”

The bishops wrote that they recognised the important debate concerning legal rights afforded to Anglicans and to those of all faiths relating to religious belief and practice.

“Religious freedom matters deeply. Equally, we affirm the necessity of laws against discrimination. Where tensions between these arise, the Parliament has the task of drafting a balance in law.”

They commended the Bill for several reasons: it had been available for many months, providing opportunity for scrutiny by all those concerned; it responded directly to a detailed cross-party Senate report from February 2017; the Senate committee had received submissions from all stakeholders; the Bill had strong cross-party support, “vitally important after a testing public debate”; and the Bill had been passed by the Senate with an overwhelming majority.

“Finally, we wish to be clear that it is deeply unfortunate that the terms of this debate often suggest a contradiction between religious commitments and non-discrimination,” the bishops wrote. “We affirm that the two should be, and overwhelmingly are, compatible. ‘Freedom’ to denigrate, harm or disadvantage other citizens is not freedom in the Christian sense (Galatians 5:13-14). Laws designed to represent the rights of religious people should be drafted with this in mind.”

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney said on 8 December that, as he acknowledged after the result of the national postal survey was announced on 15 November, he recognised the mandate of Parliament to legislate for same-sex marriage.

“However, we are disappointed the votes against reasonable amendments did not reflect the concerns of significant sections of the community,” Dr Davies said. 

“We appreciate the Prime Minister’s pledge to consider seriously the issues of freedom of speech, conscience and belief and await a timeline and terms of reference for the upcoming Ruddock review.   

“These issues are of vital concern to Australians of various faiths and of none, including the more than 1 in 3 Australians who voted No in the postal survey.”

Archbishop Freier had expressed caution about Mr Turnbull’s announcement on 22 November of a review into whether Australian law adequately protected religious freedom, to be led by former Coalition minister Mr Philip Ruddock, in the wake of the same-sex marriage debate.

Mr Ruddock, who is to report his findings to the Government by 31 March, will be assisted by the new President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher, former Federal Court judge the Honourable Annabelle Bennett and Jesuit priest, lawyer and human rights advocate Fr Frank Brennan.

“I’ll be surprised if something as important as this can be turned around easily and I think it would need very careful community consultation,” Dr Freier told ABC Radio’s The World Today program on 22 November. “And I would be very surprised if this committee can do much that is substantial before the end of March next year.”

Asked if there was a threat to religious freedom in Australia, Archbishop Freier said: “I think that we’ve existed in a great deal of harmony over a long time about religious views. At times when there’s been a polarisation about religion in the world, I think those things haven’t entered into our Australian society. So I think we have a very good model of tolerance and people being able to exercise the freedom of religion. But it’s an important topic and this group, I hope they can do some justice to the bigger examination of matters.”

Mr Turnbull said any reforms to protect religious freedom at large should be undertaken carefully.

“There is a high risk of unintended consequences when Parliament attempts to legislate protections for basic rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion,” he said. “The Government is particularly concerned to prevent uncertainties caused by generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations.

“This will be a timely expert stocktake to inform consideration of any necessary legislative reforms.”