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Same-sex marriage the 'issue of our times' but many others face Church: Dr Freier

The Melbourne Anglican 2019 synod opened last night at St Paul's Cathedral.

Archbishop Freier: Christians are "negotiating new territory where the relationship between church and society continues to change".

PHOTO: Janine Eastgate

By Mark Brolly

October 17 2019Same-sex marriage and the blessing of same-sex civil marriages is “the issue of our times” for the Anglican Church, Melbourne's Archbishop Philip Freier has told the opening session of his annual diocesan synod, and seems to be the one that most polarises Christian denominations despite the many other challenges that properly concern Christians.

Archbishop Freier, delivering his Synod Charge (address) to clergy and lay people from Melbourne and Geelong in St Paul's Cathedral on 16 October, said debates about human sexuality struggled to be carried out in moderation.

“It is easy for such discussion to leave some feeling unsafe, others unheard and others left wondering why amongst the many things that urgently press upon us, this debate seems to have claimed such an urgency,” he said. “In any case there will be opportunity, when motions that relate to same-sex marriage and same-sex blessing are discussed later on in our order of business, to shape the culture that we share by the way we speak and the way we listen.

“Same-sex marriage and the blessing of same-sex civil marriages is the singular social issue, amongst those I have listed that has been internalised, as the issue of our times for most churches and certainly within the Anglican Church … Despite the many other challenges that properly concern Christians, this one issue seems to be the one that most polarises Christian denominations.  

“Matters of sexual identity are obviously very personal to who we are and how we interact in society. The Anglican Communion has made it clear over the past two decades that while it affirms marriage as between a woman and a man it also affirms the place of LGBTQI people within the life of the Church. For some this is a big stretch. We know that there are passionately held views around how this is or even can be done. Equally, I suspect that when we are in relationship with people in our families or congregations we manage different opinions and identities very differently from when it is a debate amongst people we don’t know personally.”

Last month, Dr Freier, who is also Anglican Primate of Australia, referred a decision of the synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta providing for the blessing of same-sex civil marriages to the Australian Church's highest court, the Appellate Tribunal.

Archbishop Freier said Christians were “negotiating new territory where the relationship between church and society continues to change”.

“It does not get mentioned often but I suspect that a longer view of history will show that the last example of church authority exercising decisive influence on national social policy was a little over a decade ago when the proposal for a Charter of Human Rights was withdrawn and not legislated for in the Federal Parliament after resistance from senior church leaders amongst others.

“I am very aware that the momentum of decisions in the public sphere made in recent years, whether concerning refugee policies, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or abortion has been made different from the position I have taken. Undoubtedly, the failures to protect children in churches and other institutions has damaged the public standing of churches generally. Unlike other institutions where that failure has occurred Churches still seek to speak with authority on moral issues into the society. As I noted earlier the wider society does not seem receptive as once it might have been to that input.

“All this is to say that we can no longer rely on the culture around us to be a mere projection of our church culture or even to have extensive areas of overlap at the places that may matter to us. That is not to say that we live in some Christian bubble that is distinct from the society that we otherwise inhabit. I believe that Christ is always the judge and transformer of culture as the coming reign of Christ is anticipated by the people of God. This raises the question of the kind of culture we have in the Church. At the meeting of the Australian bishops earlier in the year I spoke about this. I believe that we are more likely to reach good outcomes if we face challenging times with the confidence that we are resilient and can mutually rely on each other.”

Archbishop Freier devoted much of his address to the question of “culture”. He said in many conversations with clergy and lay members of the diocese about ministering in a time of change, he had been keen to understand what kind of a culture the Church in Melbourne and Geelong had “and what kind of culture we need in order to be fit for ministry in our time”.

“Culture is not necessarily bad on its own or defective,” he said. “It just may be that it doesn’t align with where the ministry of any faith community needs to be at that particular time. A parochial culture where a geographically defined faith community tends towards high autonomy, high self-sufficiency along with local distinctiveness makes sense in certain situations and times. The other side of autonomy and self-sufficiency often reveals itself in a reluctance to collaborate or engage with influences outside of the parish.

“Irrespective of how it might seem to appear from the vantage point of a parochial culture I described earlier, it is neither me, nor the bishops, nor the people who work in the Diocesan Office who constitute ‘the diocese’. Surprising as it might be, you the members of the Synod as you gather probably come closest to constituting the body which is most representative of the diocese. You after all are the electors of the Archbishop and the electors of the members of Archbishop in Council, you set the legislative parameters that guide the operation of the Church in this Diocese. I look to you to carry the story of what you have done here in Synod as your telling of the story of what the Diocese does to your parishes and faith communities.”

Archbishop Freier commended the integration of practice, evidence and innovation in Parish Mission Resourcing, saying there was a need for “real-time” data collection so that trends in congregational attendance, age profile and financial commitment can be available to archdeacons and bishops as well as parish wardens, clergy and the parish council to reveal trends.

“... Suffice it to say here that we must not fail to examine a culture where difficult things are hidden or only revealed at the conclusion of an incumbency (when a vicar leaves the parish) when other processes are activated,” he said.

Dr Freier said government legislation had required significant attention to regulatory compliance to ensure that churches were safe places, placing additional demands on parish administrations and on the diocesan office to ensure the Church's operations were meeting expected legislative standards.

“This is again where culture is so important. We need to have equal concern, across all the activities we do, to be safe for children and vulnerable people. That means it is everyone’s business and everyone’s responsibility to make this happen. We are currently initiating a self-review using material from the Commissioner for Children and Young People and other sources to better understand how we are meeting the Victorian and National Child Safe Standards. This will involve each Parish and Authorised Anglican Congregation completing a self-assessment tool. Our project officer, Amanda Lincke, will be distributing this self-assessment tool to you next week. It is essential that this is completed by the end of November. I realise that this will be time consuming and ask you to approach this task with urgency in the confidence that your contribution will materially add to our diocese truly being a child-safe organisation. I also stress that this is an educative and formative process – it needs to be completed with frankness about the current practice in your parish or AAC and is intended to shape how we resource and monitor our future activities in this area.”

Dr Freier mentioned two programs, Diocesan and Parish Partnerships and Prevention of Violence Against Women, as “outward-looking initiatives that rely on co-operation and partnership”.

“We need to be clear that our core business is mission and growing and enabling disciples in Christ,” he said. “Recognising our cultural diversity, using property effectively, efficiently using resources, building unity, open to new expressions, striving for relevance to our community and learning from each other, these are fundamental to our shared future together - renewing our vocation through the ancient truths of our calling.”

Archbishop Freier, who has spent much of his 35 years in ordained ministry and in a teaching career preceding his ordination working alongside Indigenous Australians, welcomed the publication of a new curriculum resource for school children written by Professor Marcia Langton, Welcome to Country: An introduction to our First Peoples for Young Australians.

“The publication of this work along with extensive Teachers’ Notes offers for the first time a comprehensive curriculum resource for Australia’s school students to learn about the first peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, in a way that is not shackled to the ignorance and racism that has been characteristic of most treatments of these Australians in school curricula,” he said. “There has been good collaboration with Melbourne Grammar School in this development and Professor Langton continues as a Fellow of Trinity College (at the University of Melbourne). It is well worth your effort to find the Teachers’ resource, it is available for free download and has so many links to other web based resources that you don’t need to be a child to enjoy the benefit of this work. It is important that all Australians learn about and respect the culture of the First Australians.”

Archbishop Freier's address was preceded by the Opening Eucharist of the Synod, at which he presided.

Bishop Matt Brain of Bendigo was the preacher, basing his sermon on the reading from the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 11 verses 42-46, in which Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and the lawyers for failing the people.

Dr Brain said some people welcomed confrontation while others were less comfortable with it.

“So, as we return to Synod, do you like a stoush? Or do you want to run and find a cup of tea as soon as the voices raise? Do you look forward to synod each year and the robust exchange of ideas, or are you here on suffrage as a duty done because no one else stepped forward?” he asked the congregation, suggesting three practices “that can help your pursuit of God and God’s way” -- an instinct to pray, a commitment to praise and a desire to care.

“One aspect of justice that we often overlook is located in the manner with which we speak and behave towards those we encounter,” he said. “It is usually easy to speak kindly to those who think like us, speak like us and act like us. It is much harder to do so with those who think, speak and act differently ... It may mean we need to slow down at times, it may mean that we need to hear things that are difficult, it may even mean that we bear with confrontation, but it does mean that we can claim with some authenticity to have acted justly with each other.

“And friends, as we act to pursue God for who God is, we will have the privilege of demonstrating, bearing witness, to a God who is sufficient for our needs, and the needs of a world which hurts.”

The Synod is due to consider legislation on regulating its elections, professional standards and parish governance; to consider a wide-ranging review of its processes for electing an Archbishop; and motions covering preparing Artificial Intelligence and robotisation, a plea to the Federal Government to increase the Newstart allowance, celebrating the success of the Millennium Development Goals and revising the diocesan environment policy and to help parishes and church agencies reduce their environmental footprint.

Synod is to meet on the nights of 17 and 18 October and during the day of Saturday 19 October.

Read Archbishop Philip Freier's full address to the synod here.