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Melbourne Anglican group warns Victorian bishop of 'breaking point' over same-sex blessing plan

Wangaratta's Bishop John Parkes says blessing people married under the law of the state is 'not an unreasonable thing to do'.

Melbourne's Archbishop Philip Freier, who is also Anglican Primate of Australia, has signalled his intention to refer the issue to the Church's Appellate Tribunal, saying: "This is a significant matter for the national Church and, on my present advice, would likely give rise to a question under the Constitution on which minds will differ ... I ask for your prayers in the conversations and deliberations around this sensitive pastoral and theological matter."

By Mark Brolly

August 16 2019 

An association of Melbourne Anglicans has called on Wangaratta's Bishop John Parkes not to proceed with plans for a service of blessing for married same-sex couples, warning that doing so “would strain the fellowship between us to breaking point”.

The New Cranmer Society, which describes itself as “a fellowship of Anglicans in the Diocese of Melbourne committed to encouraging orthodox, biblical and effective ministry in the diocese and the Anglican Church of Australia”, said Bishop Parkes would be acting contrary to biblical teaching and the doctrine of the Church, would be divisive and would pre-empt the process set in place by the national Church to deal with the issue if he approved any liturgy for blessing same-sex marriages adopted by his synod, which is to meet on 30-31 August.

Bishop Parkes, for whom the synod is one of his final duties before retirement, revealed in an interview with TMA this month that he would ask his synod to approve a service for the blessing of people married under Australian law, which since 2017 has included same-sex couples, and that he would be prepared to bless a couple using the service by the end of the year if synod endorsed his proposal.

“I have been quite clear with my episcopal colleagues of my intention to do that for the last couple of years,” he said. “I’ve taken extensive advice from my canon theologian, from my legal advisers, my ecclesiastical legal advisers, and I’m advised that to act in that way will not be in breach of my oath to uphold the Constitution and canons of this Church.

“I would never act if I were advised that I were in breach of that oath.”

Bishop Parkes replied to the New Cranmer Society on 15 August (see extracts below).

Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, as Anglican Primate of Australia, said on 29 July that if Wangaratta approved the proposal, he intended referring any question that arose to the highest court of the Church in Australia, the Appellate Tribunal, to provide clarification “and to put in place an orderly process by which the issue can be addressed”.

“This is a significant matter for the national Church and, on my present advice, would likely give rise to a question under the Constitution on which minds will differ,” Dr Freier said.

“I ask for your prayers in the conversations and deliberations around this sensitive pastoral and theological matter.”

The President of the New Cranmer Society, Mr Kimberly Smith, wrote an open letter to Bishop Parkes and the Wangaratta Synod on 10 August on behalf of the Society’s council, urging them not to proceed with approving the liturgy.

“We would like you to consider that approval of such a liturgy would:

  • Be contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures (and of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 19 in particular) and the doctrine of marriage contained in the Book of Common Prayer and A Prayer Book for Australia.
  • Be divisive to our national church, disregarding the clear decisions of the most recent General Synod and the bishops' statement of 2018 that ‘the doctrine of this Church is that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and woman’.
  • Pre-empt the process set in place for the national church to deal with this issue.

“In view of this, out of concern for the truth of Christ, and in order to preserve the unity of the church, we plead with you in the name of Jesus Christ not to take this course, which would strain the fellowship between us to breaking point,” Mr Smith, a General Synod representative from Melbourne, wrote.

Mr Smith said a courtesy copy of the letter would be sent to Archbishop Freier.

“We recognise that the topic of marriage is a difficult one for our national church but there has been agreement amongst us to come to a decision together,” he said.

“This move by Bishop Parkes flies in the face of not only the view of the national church expressed at our General Synod, but also an agreement by the Australian bishops themselves not to act in this way. Bishop Parkes’ actions threaten the hard-won unity of the Anglican Church of Australia and so we urge him and his synod to reconsider his intentions and not to break the unity of the church.”

Bishop Parkes replied to Mr Smith’s letter on 15 August, saying the letter “misquotes both what I said to The Melbourne Anglican and what was reported by it”.

“I did not say that I intended to promote a liturgy for the blessing of same sex marriages,” Bishop Parkes wrote. “What I did say was that I intended to promote before my Synod a form of service under the Canon Concerning Services of the General Synod for the blessing of persons who are married pursuant to the Marriage Act 1961. What we will put to the Wangaratta Synod has nothing to do with the doctrine of marriage. It concerns the blessing of persons who are in a civil marriage under Australian law.

“Indeed, I am conservative in terms of the position of our church in relation to marriage. The resolutions of the 2004 General Synod make it clear that marriage in the church – Christian marriage, if you will - is between a man and a woman, voluntarily entered into to the exclusion of all others for life. This is the doctrine of holy matrimony which I uphold. I accept that the marriage of two persons of the same sex cannot take place within the Anglican Church of Australia.”

He wrote that the teaching of the Scriptures, and in particular the teachings of Christ himself, on matters relating to same-sex attraction were the subject of considerable scholarly disagreement both within the Anglican Church and more broadly amongst Christians of all denominations. “That scholarly disagreement reflects the breadth of views honestly and sincerely held across our Church about the nature of marriage and the kinds of relationships which are pleasing to God.

“The State has extended the Marriage Act to include marriages between persons of the same sex. There are many same-sex attracted persons who are committed Anglicans and faithful members of the Church. Some will choose to make a lifelong commitment to their partner in a civil marriage service. In my view, persons of faith who are legally married under Australian law should be able to receive the prayers of the church for fidelity, strength and blessing in their lives. Blessing people who are married according to the law of the state seems not an unreasonable thing to do. Indeed, asking God to bless, sustain, and encourage them in their lives of faithfulness, of love, and of self-service, seems to me entirely consistent with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Bishop Parkes wrote that the New Cranmer Society’s press release on the issue spoke of the Church coming to a decision together “but the fact is that our Church has been paralysed on this issue for almost 20 years”.

“This paralysis was evidenced in the first set of essays published by The Doctrine Commission under the title Faithfulness in Fellowship in 2001. The recent set of essays on the same subject published by the Doctrine Commission indicate that we are no further forward. And meanwhile it is LGBTIQ+ people who bear the real cost of our inability to get our act together. The mental health outcomes especially for young people as identified by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists are truly shocking.

“I certainly agree that the unity of the national church is important. I am struck by the New Cranmer Society’s vocal appeal to that unity on the question of blessings for same-sex attracted persons when, as far as I can tell, it has been silent on such divisive issues as:

  • the failure of the Diocese of Sydney over many years to pay its special levy to the General Synod, thus setting itself over against the national church;
  • the practice of the Archbishop of Sydney in permitting Diaconal presidency at the Eucharist, a practice widely acknowledged as a significant and damaging innovation to universally accepted Anglican order;
  • the visit of a number of Australian bishops to America to participate in the consecration of a schismatic bishop in a church not in communion with this church, thus interfering in the proper affairs of another province; and
  • the stated intention of a number of Australian bishops to participate in the consecration of a schismatic bishop in a church not in communion with this church so as to interfere in the affairs of our sister church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. 

“Such examples as these reveal that I am not alone nor am I the first in putting the unity of our church in question. I have no desire to ‘strain the fellowship between us to breaking point’ but I simply do not accept that the kind of pastoral response I am proposing for persons who are in civil marriages can reasonably be seen as posing that sort of risk to our continued life as a Church.

“I love the Church, I study the Bible and I pray faithfully and regularly. I have arrived at the point of declaring that the proper treatment of LGBTIQ+ people by this church is a matter of biblical justice. What I propose is a small step but one which I consider cannot be delayed any longer. To quote another inconvenient cleric; Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

Bishop Parkes, 69, announced earlier this year that he would take accumulated leave after presiding at his final synod and return on 21 December to lay up his pastoral staff, marking the end of his 11 years as Bishop of Wangaratta.

In his interview with TMA to mark his impending retirement, Bishop Parkes said LGBTIQA people would never marry in the Church.

“The Church’s doctrine of marriage is clear and was stated most recently in the 2004 resolutions of General Synod.”

But he said if anyone wanted to take him to the Appellate Tribunal over his proposal to bless same-sex couples married under Australian law, “they’ve got time to do it” – though he hoped opponents would not do so.

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney and Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania are among Anglican leaders who have staunchly opposed same-sex marriage and argued that the Church’s traditional view, that marriage is between a man and a woman, must stand.

On 7 May, Bishop Condie, who is also Chairman of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) Australia, warned a gathering at St Alfred's North Blackburn for GAFCON's international Chairman, Archbishop Foley Beach of the US, and its General Secretary, Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Nigeria, of conflict in Australian dioceses with a mix of conservative and progressive Anglicans if any attempt were made to bless same-sex unions in those dioceses.

Bishop Condie said when a branch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, which became GAFCON Australia, was formed four years ago, he had said that it was a “Break glass in case of emergency” organisation that was ready to go when the need arose.

“We're very close to breaking the glass in Australia,” he said.

Bishop Condie said the meeting of Australian bishops earlier this year considered a draft of essays on marriage prepared by the Doctrine Commission for consideration at the 2020 General Synod. While the Constitution of the Australian Church was strong on what was at the centre of Anglicans' faith, at least one bishop had declared their intention to move forward on blessing same-sex marriages, regardless of what any General Synod might do.

“Now, as you know, the dioceses in Australia, there are some that are almost exclusively conservative, some that are almost exclusively liberal and then many mixed. Where that happens in an almost exclusively liberal diocese where all the clergy and the bishops are the rule, it will probably happen that we will co-exist. It won't happen in the conservative dioceses but in the mixed dioceses, that's where we're going to have conflict and we're in for a very unhappy time as we face that.

“GAFCON Australia, our pledge is that we're thinking of this, thinking about the strategies and the ways to support faithful Anglicans in Australia. GAFCON has always had two aims: to promote the orthodox faith and to provide support for those who are marginalised over the actions of others who put them in a difficult situation.”

In his TMA interview this month, Bishop Parkes said he had not consulted his Diocesan Chancellor, Justice Clyde Croft of the Supreme Court of Victoria, as Justice Croft is a member of the Appellate Tribunal and may have to sit in judgement of his (the bishop’s) actions.

Bishop Parkes said he took the unity of the Church seriously – as he did the 17th chapter of St John’s Gospel, in which Jesus prays “that all of them may be one” (verse 21) – “but the reality is that we are not a unified Anglican Communion”.

“Whilst we have separate Communion gatherings, whilst we have consecrations of bishops in churches not in communion with this Church to interfere in the proper ecclesiastical polity of provinces, then we are not a unified church. Sometimes the call of the Gospel and justice compels us to go places which aren’t necessarily comfortable.

“What will happen? Well, there are people who will say I’m not biblical. I find that deeply offensive. I love the Bible, I read the Bible, I study the Bible. There (is) more than one way to read the handful of disputed texts and contemporary scholarship suggests to me that the Bible is silent on what we understand as long-term, monogamous, committed, faithful same-sex relationships. And if there is a weight of modern scholarship that would suggest that is so, I think the Church needs to be in the space of affirming love, of affirming fidelity, of affirming relationship.”

Bishop Parkes said he accepted that he might be regarded as “a naughty bishop” as then Archbishop of Perth Peter Carnley was in ordaining Australia’s first female priests in 1992.

“I take the view that we have been talking about this now for 20 years or more and the people who really suffer out of this are the LGBTIQA community and I think enough is enough,” he said.

In preparing for a speech to General Synod in 2017 proposing a national Church apology to LGBTIQA people, Bishop Parkes said he had read research by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists on the “horrible” mental health outcomes for young LGBTIQA people.

“My Vicar-General (Archdeacon Clarence Bester) made, I think, a superb speech to Synod last year as a coloured South African man talking of the prejudice that he had received in his life for that which was no choice or fault of his,” Bishop Parkes said.

“I do not believe, and I think the science is in and closed, that people choose sinfully their sexual identity. I believe the science is clear that sexual identity is on a spectrum and I refuse to condemn people for being who they are and wanting to live as I believe God made them to be. And if that puts me out of sorts with some part of the Anglican Communion, so be it.”

  • Wangaratta’s historic Holy Trinity Cathedral organ, from the famed English organ-building firm Willis, has had rats in its bellows and been left with a repair bill of more than $100,000. Three outstanding organists, including Wangaratta Cathedral’s Hugh Fullarton, will feature in a fund-raising recital at St Peter’s Eastern Hill at 5pm on Sunday 15 September. Bookings can be made at https://www.trybooking.com/BEPHF. Contact: Helen Morris on 0412 210 761 or at helen@helenmorris.net