Pleas for respect as Christians take sides in same-sex marriage 'survey'

Anglicans divided on marriage equality ahead of postal vote

By Mark Brolly

August 23 2017The Vicar of a leading Melbourne evangelical parish has acknowledged “significant pastoral tension” and differences of opinion among Christians over same-sex marriage as he said his church would uphold the traditional teaching on marriage.

Bishop Stephen Hale, the Lead Minister of the St Hilary’s Network at Kew, North Balwyn and Mont Albert North, said in a Pastoral Statement on the Federal Government’s postal survey on same-sex marriage that St Hilary’s would not exclude those who had a different view from that of his parish.

“We recognise that not all in our church community hold the same views on this matter and urge all of us to interact in a respectful and open manner,” the 16 August statement said. “While we as a church uphold a traditional belief in marriage we will not exclude those who may have arrived at a different view on this matter.

“As Christians living in a democracy we want to uphold our right, along with all citizens to express our point of view and we urge all members to participate in this postal survey.

“We encourage members to engage with friends, colleagues and family, respectfully and with grace modelling Christian engagement in the process.”

Bishop Hale’s 14-point statement was posted on the St Hilary’s website on the same day as Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney wrote a Pastoral Letter defending the traditional stance on marriage and expressing concern about religious freedom if the definition of marriage were changed.

Sydney’s Anglican diocese is one of the four leading partners in the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), urging a “No” vote, which was launched on 14 August. It comprises more than 80 groups across Australia and claims to represent more than three million people. The other leading partners are the Australian Christian Lobby, Marriage Alliance and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

But a Melbourne Anglican priest and scholar has appealed for same-sex couples to be able to marry, saying the choice facing Australians is “between an inclusive, affirming and enabling society, or a puritanical, judgemental, excluding society”.

The Revd Gary D. Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and Associate Priest at St John's East Malvern, wrote on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 16 August: My direct experience with same-sex couples leads me to the conclusion that the relationships they have formed have all the dimensions of marital relationships - commitment, durability, mutual support, respect and care. Society should recognise and value these committed, healthy, personally and socially enriching relationships - relationships that are undermined by denying them marriage, precisely because it denies their reality and goodness.”

Bishop Hale said in his statement that “Biblical faithfulness for us in our cultural setting is complex, costly and challenging”.

“Most contemporary media is actively pro same sex marriage and deeply disparaging of any who hold a contrary view.”

He said St Hilary’s upheld the formularies of the Anglican Church of Australia, which were based on the Bible’s teaching on marriage as being between a man and a woman, quoting Genesis chapter two verse 24, the introduction to the Anglican Marriage Service and Faithfulness in Service, the guiding document of the Anglican Church of Australia in matters of life and conduct, which stated the formal position of the Anglican Church as “faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness”.

“In upholding biblical teaching on marriage we acknowledge that it involves a costly call for those who are same sex attracted,” Bishop Hale wrote. “We offer our assurance for all who are same sex attracted that they are loved, valued and fully welcome in our church.

“We acknowledge that in our attempts to uphold the Bible’s teaching on marriage we have sometimes given the impression that same sex attracted people were themselves the problem. This is not the case and we apologise if we have given this impression.

“We also acknowledge that homophobia has been a sin in our church and repent of it.

“We acknowledge that this is an issue of significant pastoral tension for many in our community as they respond to members of their own families, work colleagues and friends.”

Bishop Hale said St Hilary’s commended all efforts to give active reflection to holistic pastoral responses that were compassionate and positive in supporting same-sex attracted people.

“We want to increasingly be a community that offers loving friendships for all people. We encourage all marriages and families to both welcome and include single people as part of their ongoing life.”

Bishop Hale urged the Federal Government to release any proposed legislation as soon as possible so that citizens could be as informed as possible before participating in the survey.

“We urge any future legislation to uphold religious freedom and to enshrine appropriate protections for religious practitioners.”

Archbishop Davies’ letter said the voluntary postal vote was “a monumental decision for the Australian public”. He said marriage had been defined as the exclusive and life-long union of a man and a woman since the beginning of Creation and that it was God’s plan for humanity, not just the people of God.

He said this understanding of marriage was reinforced by Jesus in Matthew chapter 19, where Jesus told His disciples that marriage was God’s idea, and was uniquely expressed in the union of a man and a woman.

“Our opposition to including same-sex couples in the marriage bond is not a homophobic reaction,” Dr Davies wrote. “Rather it is our contention that retaining the definition of marriage is best for our society, and especially for the socialisation of children. At the moment, same-sex couples have access to all the benefits that a married couple enjoys, except for the descriptor of ‘being married’. There is good reason for this distinction, as same-sex couples cannot by virtue of their biological sameness conceive children. The bearing of children is intricately connected to the sexual union of a man and a woman.

“While the proponents of change use the mantra of ‘marriage equality’, the use of this phrase is deceptive. We recognise that all people are equal in God’s sight, regardless of their sexual identity. No one denies that loving relationships can exist between two persons of the same sex. However, men and women are not the same. It is the very differences between the sexes that enhance the marriage union and create the opportunity of the bearing of children.”

Archbishop Davies said there were “distinct and serious consequences in changing the definition of marriage” based on recent experiences in the UK and North America.

“Their experience shows us that if the law is changed, it will have direct impact on people of faith and faith-based institutions.

“Despite the claims of some, that religious freedom will be protected, all proposed legislation to date has been totally inadequate to safeguard people who work for church-run institutions such as schools, hospitals and universities. It is also unclear whether church-based organisations will be free to employ staff who share their church’s teachings and ethos. In some countries where marriage has been redefined, schools are prevented from teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, even in faith-based schools.”

He said the most urgent task was to ensure that everyone who supported marriage between a man and a woman was enrolled to vote by 24 August.

The Archbishop referred readers to a booklet the diocese published in February entitled What has God Joined Together?

“The voluntary postal vote has been called a referendum on religious freedom and freedom of speech, and it’s very important we all make our voices heard,” he wrote. “As Australians, we are not imposing our views on others, rather we are expressing our views as citizens of the country, which we believe is for the good of all Australians.

Professor Bouma wrote in his ABC article that same-sex marriage was a logical extension of the acceptance of homosexuality, while the denial of marriage rites was an indication of failure to accept homosexuality.

He quoted St Paul’s Letters to the Galatians (3:28) and Colossians (3:11) describing the Kingdom of God as a society of the forgiven – a society in which race, status and gender did not make a difference to the level of acceptance of the person or relationship.

“Jesus, to the consternation of the people and leaders of his time, reached across all social divisions to include all in his kingdom - tax collectors, women, Samaritans, criminals, Romans, and St Paul extended this radical inclusion to Gentiles,” Professor Bouma wrote. “Jesus says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden...’ (Matthew 11:28).

“Following my call to Christian ministry, I have worked all my life for greater respectful inclusion of races, religions, genders and now sexualities. The hard scriptural and theological work enabling such inclusion has been done on homosexuality, as it had before on the integration of races and the equality of women.

“There are many forms of family and marriage in the Bible. Some are ideal, others far from ideal and many would be illegal in Australia today. God seems to be able to work with them all.

“Anglicans were directed by an earlier Lambeth Conference of Bishops to engage with LGBTIQ people, including people of faith in their congregations, to hear their stories and come to a humanised understanding of them. I already had many LGBTIQ friends and colleagues so this was well under way. I did get to know better two men in one of my congregations who have been living together for 54 years and hope to marry before one of them dies.”

Professor Bouma wrote that according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were three God-given reasons for ordaining marriage: bearing and rearing of children, the regulation of sex within a committed relationship: and the “mutual society, help and comfort” of the couple.

“Most of the weddings I have performed have only met two of these, many couples being infertile. On the other hand, some same-sex couples have and raise children, children whose family environment would be strengthened by the bonds of marriage and the implied legal recognition and social acceptance of their parents' relationship.”

He wrote that support for same-sex marriage was a logical extension of his advocacy for recognition and inclusion of excluded groups for well over 50 years, including the Black Civil Rights movement in the US, the movement for equal rights for women and inclusion of women in all levels of society, including their ordination.

“Throughout my life I have worked to promote the recognition and inclusion of religious diversity in society,” he wrote. “This was in the face of Evangelical Christians who cite the Bible in support of excluding groups they deemed to be in error. We did the biblical and theological work needed to support the full inclusion of others of faith and none in society.

“And now, that struggle for recognition and inclusion continues for the sake of the diverse genders and sexualities in society. This too has been done in the face of Evangelical Christians who cited the Bible in condemnation of male homosexuality (again, the Bible does not mention lesbians). Again, we have done the biblical and theological work needed to support the full inclusion of LGBTIQ people in society. The issues are the same, the work is the same - working to extend God's grace to all through the inclusion of those deemed to be in some way ‘other’.

“As it did for demeaned and abused Blacks and women, so too my heart aches for those who are told their committed relationships are not worthy of marriage, that their loving is inferior, and that their being is evil. My compassion for those excluded moves me to vote ‘yes’.”

Another scholar issued a warning to the churches, even if the “No” vote prevailed.

Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, John Warhurst, wrote on the Jesuit-operated Eureka Street website on 15 August that the leading role that many church leaders would play in the “No” campaign would add greatly to the intensity of the opposition.

“There is no doubt that if the NO campaign ultimately succeeds because of a large church influence many church-going orthodox Christians will be delighted,” Professor Warhurst, a leading Roman Catholic layman in Canberra, wrote. “At a time of apparent church weakness, a surprising success will be perceived as showing how church political muscle should never be under-rated. It may also strengthen inter-faith bridges with the leaders of some other faith communities.

“However, a full-blown church NO campaign will have other consequences, because it will further complicate the already weak church relations with younger Australians, whom surveys demonstrate are undoubtedly pro-same sex marriage.

“If the churches are on the losing side, they will carry the added burden of seeming to be stuck in the past. Win or lose, church leaders will have cemented their reputation for social conservatism.”

In September 2016, as the Federal Parliament debated holding a plebiscite on same sex marriage, Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Dr Philip Freier, wrote a letter to Australia's Anglican Bishops on the issue. While the plebiscite eventually failed to pass the senate, the Primate's plea to "guard the tenor of the debate, and keep it positive" is just as important today. You can read his full letter here.