Primate refers Wangaratta's same-sex blessing decision to tribunal

Wangaratta Synod, which met in August, overwhelmingly endorsed blessing same-sex marriages.

By Mark Brolly and Muriel Porter

October 11 2019Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, as Anglican Primate of Australia, has referred the question of blessing same-sex marriages to the Church’s highest court, the Appellate Tribunal, after Wangaratta’s Synod overwhelmingly endorsed blessing such marriages in late August.

Dr Freier wrote to all Australian diocesan bishops informing them that he had sought clarification from the Tribunal – as he had foreshadowed – and that he had asked Wangaratta diocese not to use its service of blessing. Wangaratta’s Bishop John Parkes, for whom the synod was one of his final official acts before laying up his pastoral staff in December to mark the end of his 11 years as leader of Anglicans in Victoria’s North-East, acceded to the Primate’s request.

Wangaratta synod passed a regulation on 31 August to enable the blessing of same-sex marriages by a 78 per cent majority. The vote, by secret ballot, was 67-18, with one abstention. Wangaratta is the first Australian diocese to have taken this step. 

Retired Diocesan Archdeacon Emeritus John Davis, a former Vicar of St Peter’s Eastern Hill, and his partner of 20 years, the Revd Rob Whalley, were married in a civil ceremony early last month but their plans to have Bishop Parkes bless their marriage under the new provision on 14 September at St Paul’s Milawa, near Wangaratta, were put on hold by the referral to the Tribunal, though a service of Morning Prayer went ahead.

Bishop Parkes told The Border Mail newspaper on 10 September that he was not surprised by the developments, but said it was just “a delay, rather than an abandonment”.

“We will give the Appellate Tribunal a chance to meet and consider and we will be actively involved in presenting our views before the tribunal,” he said.

“I can't for the life of me believe that we won't be able to bless people, but if not, some of us will have to consider our position very carefully.”

But conservative Sydney priest David Ould wrote on his website that “senior conservative bishops” were now “almost certain to proceed with disciplinary measures” against Bishop Parkes.

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney said on 2 September that it was “highly regrettable that clergy and lay people in the Diocese of Wangaratta have chosen to follow their Bishop rather than the clear words of Scripture concerning God’s design for human sexuality”, citing the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 19, verses 4-12. 

“The doctrine of our Church is not determined by 67 members of a regional synod in Victoria nor is it changed by what they may purport to authorise,” Dr Davies said.

“Time and time again, the General Synod has affirmed the biblical view of marriage as the doctrine of our Church. To bless that which is contrary to Scripture cannot, therefore, be permissible under our church law.

“The circumstances of this event are reminiscent of the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada in 2003. It is now universally acknowledged that those events were the beginning of the ‘tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion’.

“Moreover, to claim the authority of our Church to carry out a service of blessing contrary to the biblical view of marriage and the doctrine of our Church will certainly fracture the Anglican Church of Australia.”
The Wangaratta regulation does not specifically refer to same-sex marriages. Instead, it provides for “persons married according to the Marriage Act 1961”, the Commonwealth Marriage Act amended in 2017 to allow same-sex marriages after nearly 62 per cent of eligible Australians who participated in a national postal ballot earlier that year supported the law being changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. The regulation includes a prescribed liturgy for the blessing service.

Ministers would not be compelled to conduct a marriage blessing “if to do so would offend their conscience”. If they refused, they would not be compelled to refer couples to another minister.

In his letter to the bishops, Archbishop Freier wrote that the Synod’s resolution was significant for the whole national Church, and that the Church’s General Synod Office would invite submissions for the Tribunal to consider.

On 29 July, Dr Freier had said he had become aware of Wangaratta’s plans and that if they should be approved, he would refer the question to the Appellate Tribunal to “assist the Anglican Church of Australia in the clarification of this issue and put in place an orderly process by which the issue can be addressed”.

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

In a moving speech to Wangaratta Synod, Archdeacon Emeritus Davis spoke of his own situation and said that the diocese was “offering an example, a model, even a hope, in the face of so much ongoing dismissive criticism from some within the Church”.

“We do so confident that this action speaks to the fundamental values of love, compassion and care that are at the heart of the Christian gospel,” he said. “If we choose not stand up, then we, too, are complicit in the injustice and terrible damage, even to the point of suicide, being done to so many young people, to many in the wider community, for the sake of our own quiet comfort.

“After the searing experience of the national postal survey and now the replay of so many of those arguments in the current struggles over so-called ‘religious freedom’, we in this Anglican Synod in regional Australia are in the process of offering a small alternative voice to the angry condemnation so loudly repeated. So now as well, two people of faith stand to offer to this process our voice, our example, our hope, our love and life together. We do this in the context of Church and community: where we are, how we are, who we are. And we are thankful.”

In his Synod charge, Bishop Parkes said his advice was that there was “no legal or theological reason for our not proceeding”. He had been advised that the Synod was not in breach of the Constitution or Canons of Church, and that he would not be in breach of his solemn oath to uphold them.

Outlining his theological approach to the issue, he concluded that “the Bible, properly and critically read”, together with other “formative factors in theology … leads inextricably to the conclusion that loving monogamous faithful Christian persons ought to receive the blessing of God in their church to strengthen them for their lives as disciples”.

The Diocese’s Canon Theologian, the Revd Professor Dorothy Lee of Trinity College Theological School in Melbourne, told the Synod that while currently same-sex couples could not marry in the Anglican Church, blessing their civil unions needed to be taken seriously in the church’s pastoral ministry. They were, she said, “like divorced couples before 1985 [when the General Synod approved remarriage after divorce] in need of the church’s blessing”.

Professor Lee continued: “We are speaking here of faithful Christians who love Christ and who love their church, and who desire that the relationship that means most to them, in human terms, can receive God’s blessing. God’s favour and provision for them should be assured. It is not our place to withhold blessing from those whom God has already blessed with the gift of committed, faithful love.”

She said that there were no theological grounds for refusing to bless civil unions. “On the contrary, faithful and loving Christian couples, whatever their sexual orientation, gender, race or class, should be able to ask for and receive the church’s blessing. They belong within the covenant of God’s people and therefore stand firmly under the protection and provision of God. They, too, are called, not only to receive blessing, but also to be a blessing to others.”

Equal Voices, a network of LGBTIQA+ Christians and their allies advocating for equality within Australia’s churches, applauded the Wangaratta Synod decision as “a small but significant step on the way to a true equality of acceptance and respect for LGBTIQA+ people”.

The co-Chair of Equal Voices, the Revd Stuart Asquith, said some parts of the Anglican Communion believed that accepting and celebrating LGBTIQA+ Christian relationships would cause the break-up of the Anglican Church of Australia.

“We don’t believe that needs to happen,” Mr Asquith said. “This could, in fact, lead to a stronger and healthier church where differences are not only acknowledged, but accepted as evidence that fellow Christians are ever seeking, in good conscience, to be true to Christ and the gospel. We don’t need to all believe the same to be one in Christ.”

He said many of Australia’s churches were not presently safe for LGBTIQA+ people, who were discriminated against and made to feel that their relationships were inferior and even immoral.

“I am continuously shocked at the trauma being experienced because of the active silencing and oppression LGBTIQA+ Christians,” Mr Asquith said. “The passing of the regulations to bless the civil marriage of all couples - including same-sex couples - in the Diocese of Wangaratta is a small but powerful first step towards making amends for this terrible mistreatment.”

In the 3 September statement issued by Equal Voices, Bishop Parkes said: “Our church in Australia and the world has been paralysed for 30 years and the people who really suffer when we have these nasty debates are gay and lesbian people. We need to be conscious as we run through the consequences of this that words not carefully chosen can do immeasurable damage. Nobody is excluded from God’s love. God embraces all.”

Archdeacon Emeritus Davis was also quoted: “For over 40 years of ordained ministry I have given the Church my dedicated and committed service, both in Melbourne and in North East and Border region. There have been many differences of opinion and approach over those years. Now another issue is sharply in focus: finding room for LGBTIQA+ people in the Church – named, acknowledged, respected. Our proposal on Saturday was a tiny part of that.”

In the same statement, Fr Whalley said he was a Christian who believed in a sacramental universe “embedded with outward and visible signs of the indwelling invisible presence of God”.

“I am privileged to minister in a diocese as a member of a church that prayerfully celebrates sacramental rites and joyful gatherings for baptised babies, confirmed children, sick and recovering people, heterosexual marriage, pets and buildings,” he said. “And that’s fine. I see God’s compassion there, too. But I am saddened that this faithful gathering, where we come to be the Body of Christ, resists sharing the gift of blessing, of sharing God’s presence and love’s continual grace, in the occasions and opportunities of my own most intimate relationship, as well as for so many of my sisters and brothers in the church and the world.”

The statement concluded: “Equal Voices fully supports the actions of the Diocese of Wangaratta, and stands in solidarity with Fr Whalley and Ven Dr Davis, and with all who will benefit from this courageous decision. It does not believe that schism if now inevitable within the Anglican Church of Australia, and instead proposes a peaceful co-existence within which each member of the church and each Diocese respects the religious freedom of every other member and of every other Diocese to practice their faith according to their conscience. We believe we can have unity, despite, and even because of, a diversity of theological opinions and interpretations.”