Same-sex marriage and the churches: two perspectives
By John Capper and Rhys Bezzant
March 7 2018Now that same-sex marriage is legal in Australia, how are churches likely to respond? In an article originally published on The Conversation, the Revd Dr John Capper outlines the positions of some of the denominations in Australia. The Revd Dr Rhys Bezzant responds.
Same-sex marriage is legal, so why have churches been so slow to embrace it?
Christians were on both sides of the debate leading to last year’s historic shift to marriage equality. To date, no major denomination has publicly shifted to allow same-sex marriage. Why?
Three factors affect whether Christians support or oppose marriage equality: how they read the Bible; how they understand church tradition; and how they see the relationship between the world around them and the life of the church.
Put differently, should Christians seek to impose a moral agenda, or simply set an example? In the former case, diversity is difficult to embrace, as is change.
Nevertheless, there are more Christians supportive of marriage equality than opposed. Why, then, is progress so slow?
The first factor is misinformation leading to fear. The fear is that churches will be coerced into marrying same-sex couples. This is one factor driving the current inquiry into religious freedoms. As Robyn Whitaker has noted, churches will not be forced by the state to offer same-sex marriages.
The second factor relates to the polity and practice of the particular denomination. To make sense of this, some background will help.
Ecclesiology (the study of the church) normally identifies three distinct church structures:
episcopal (governance by bishops or some kind of heirarchy)
presbyteral or presbyterian (governance by shared elders)
congregational (governance by members together).
Each of these structures makes decisions differently.
For instance, in most episcopal churches, bishops, often with the head of the church internationally (patriarch or pope), make decisions. These are promulgated through the bishops.
In most cases (think Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, such as the Greek, Russian, Coptic, Syrian and so forth), episcopal governance travels in close companionship with social and ecclesiastical conservatism. Change occurs very slowly. None of these churches have change in marriage practice on their agendas. An exception in this category is Anglicanism.
The PCA issued a statement in November last year, stating its support for “the biblical definition of marriage as between one man and one woman”. No change should be expected.
The UCA is generally much more progressive. As an example, it warmly embraces leadership by ordained and lay women. The PCA does not ordain women. Most who know it expect the UCA to be the first major denomination to offer marriages to same-sex couples. But the process will not be easy.
Since 1994, the UCA has operated on a “consensual model” of decision-making. This ensures all positions are listened to, as “the aim moves from winning an argument with a pre-conceived position to seeking together to discern God’s will for the church”.
The UCA Insights magazine notes:
Uniting Church Ministers are given legal permission to marry under the Rites of the Uniting Church in Australia, and these rites cannot be changed until the National Assembly Meeting in July 2018 at the earliest.
It is this question of “rites” that needs to be considered. Civil celebrants use a prescribed form of words in a marriage ceremony. Religious celebrants are also required to conduct the marriage according to agreed rites.
So, if UCA ministers are to marry same-sex couples, not only must there be agreement to change practice, there must be a change in the rites (the liturgy or order of service) for marriage. In most denominations, neither practice nor rites are easily changed.
The third form of governance, the congregational form, is the most simple at first appearance. Congregations (local churches) appoint ministers and set the parameters for their life under a local church constitution.
However, for a range of reasons – shared resources, co-operation in education, insurance, political lobbying, engagement with other denominations – even congregational churches form broader unions. This body can then be a “recognised denomination” under legislation, and then can nominate ministers as religious celebrants.
Baptists in Australia vary from conservative to progressive. That they, as a non-liturgical church, ever developed a shared rite might be considered remarkable. To a develop a same-sex marriage rite might require a miracle.
Most – but not all – pentecostal churches oppose same-sex marriage. The largest, Australian Christian Churches, opposes marriage equality.
We can now return to the Anglican Church. It is episcopal but with much lay involvement: decisions need to be made at national and local levels. Doctrine and liturgical commissions will each contribute to the process. The means the road to same-sex marriage within the church is likely to be a long one indeed.
Churches that support same-sex marriage and are not recognised denominations, such as the Metropolitan Community Church and Melbourne Inclusive Church, can marry people now, since their ministers are civil celebrants. Short paths come with simpler governance.
The Revd Dr John Capper is Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Divinity.
Too slow or too fast?
A recent article on The Conversation website asked us why the Anglican Church is so slow in its acceptance of same-sex marriage: “Why, then, is progress so slow?” The assumption was that most Christians agree with the revision of a traditional understanding of marriage: “Nevertheless, there are more Christians supportive of marriage equality than opposed.” The article went on to explain how the Anglican Church is an outlier in the Christian world as it is episcopal and hierarchical, yet a change in definition of marriage is on our agenda. In theory, institutions like ours should be less likely to provoke change of this magnitude because they have so much to lose, or because they have so many levels of decision-making through which to negotiate any revised outcomes in moral theology. Is the Anglican Church of Australia really such a pariah? There are a number of difficulties in the original post I would like to explore.
The article, it seems to me, contains some logical difficulties. It assumes that a hierarchical church will (unfortunately) be more conservative, however it was the Episcopal Church in the US and in Canada, both hierarchical institutions, which led the way (against the rest of the Communion) in promoting as leaders those in same-sex relationships, or in introducing rites to affirm same sex marriage. The US has a venerable tradition of pursuing independence, and in this issue The Episcopal Church has acted consistently! Conversely, of course, many independent congregations maintain a conservative witness to marriage, though it would be easy for them to decide for their own local congregation to adopt the revised view. The Uniting Church and the Presbyterian Church in Australia have come to differing opinions on sexual ethics, though they have similar structures. There are obviously other factors at play which account for the positions they have taken on same-sex marriage other than their polity. The theological views of the Anglican Church in Australia must be shaped through appeal to criteria other than its polity! There is no necessary or causal connection between polity and doctrine.
The title of the piece also assumes that progress should be made on this issue within our church, and that we should make that decision quickly. But of course, there is no reason why we must change our view. The church of Jesus Christ must remain distinct from the world around us, and Jesus actually encourages us to think this way. We are his body, and the world is not. Our witness is based not on our likeness to the community in which we live, but on offering a different view of human flourishing. It might be uncomfortable for us to maintain a minority view in our culture, but this would not be something historically new! The church throughout history has not only survived but thrived in contexts where it had nothing to lose socially.
We should also exercise some caution in relation to the survey which the statement was quoting, for it was the result of only one thousand people being polled. Those one thousand people comprised Christians from any denomination or none, and Anglicans represented less than half those surveyed. I would like to learn how those one thousand people were chosen in the first place, and what question(s) they were asked. We all recognise that sampling can be dramatically affected by the shape of the survey. Without the luxury of formal polling, it would be my confident guess that a significant majority of “bums on seats” in the Australian Anglican church would be opposed to any revision of the church’s views on marriage. I will leave it to other denominations to decide this issue for themselves, but as an Anglican leader, I choose slow rather than fast as my lane to drive in on this issue!
I understand that the title given to the article “Same-sex marriage is legal, so why have churches been so slow to embrace it?” first appeared on The Conversation website, so the words may not represent the author fairly. But I found the content of the article neither helpfully informative, nor overly useful in complex theological debates. At least the article recognised that one reason, perhaps the key one, for maintaining a traditional view of marriage is the Scriptural account of sexuality, which cuts across all different ecclesiastical polities and human cultures. It is right to acknowledge that fear is a factor too, but only if it is acknowledged that fear clings tenaciously to both sides of the debate. No one likes to be in a minority, whether that is social/cultural, or creedal/historical. Love can be expressed on both sides of the debate as well! Emotions run deep wherever we choose to hoist our flag.
As the Anglican Church in Australia comes to terms with a new social normal, let us not be afraid to confess Christ and take up his cross in discipleship. But it is going to hurt. And my personal motto in life is “Slow and steady wins the race.”
The Revd Dr Rhys Bezzant teaches Church History, and is Dean of Missional Leadership and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center—Australia at Ridley College, Melbourne.