Same-sex marriage blessing approved by synod in country Victoria

Wangaratta the first Australian diocese to endorse the move, with retired clergy couple expected to use service within weeks.

Wangaratta's legislation is expected to be referred to the Church's highest court, the Appellate Tribunal, and its retiring Bishop John Parkes may face disciplinary action initiated by conservatives.

By Muriel Porter

September 2 2019 

An updated version of this article is available here.

By a 78 per cent majority, the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta has passed a regulation to enable the blessing of same-sex marriages. The vote, by secret ballot, was 67 for, 18 against, with one abstention. Wangaratta is the first Australian diocese to take this step.

The regulation, which has already come into force, 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. The Wangaratta regulation includes a prescribed liturgy for the blessing service.

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

The first same-sex service is likely to occur in two weeks’ time. The retired Diocesan Archdeacon, the Revd Dr John Davis, and his partner of 20 years, the Revd Robert Whalley, are planning a civil marriage, to be blessed in a service in the small church at Milawa on 14 September.

The legislation is, however, expected to be referred to the Appellate Tribunal by the Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier. When the Wangaratta move was signalled in late July, he said that, if it was approved, he would, after “appropriate advice”, refer it to the 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”.

As well, conservative Sydney priest David Ould has claimed on his website that “senior conservative bishops” were now “almost certain to proceed with disciplinary measures” against the Bishop of Wangaratta, Bishop John Parkes.

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, 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”.

In a moving speech to the Synod, Dr 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. 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.”