31 May 2023

Is the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia flexible enough to meet future challenges?

Justice Debra Mullins says need for significant amendments to constitution will inevitably arise

By Muriel Porter

9 April 2021

Is the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia flexible enough to meet future challenges? This was the question posed by Justice Debra Mullins in the fourth annual Robin Sharwood Lecture in Church Law at Trinity College Theological School last month.

Surveying the recent Appellate Tribunal decision concerning same-sex marriage blessing, Justice Mullins, a Queensland Supreme Court judge and Chancellor of the Diocese of Brisbane, said it was clear that that decision would not settle the debate.

“Those who identify with the minority opinion will not be persuaded by the arguments that prevailed with the majority opinion and vice versa”, she said. “That was anticipated by the opposing views reflected in the Doctrine Commission’s publication Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia.”

There would be challenges for the church from same-sex blessing and other issues that might arise from the 2017 change to the Marriage Act 1961.

Justice Mullins, who is also Chair of the General Synod Church Law Commission, repeated the Sharwood Lecture last month at St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney, in a growing collaboration between Trinity College Theological School and the Sydney parish.

In the lecture, Justice Mullins identified challenges as well to the existing Australian diocesan structure, as foreshadowed in the Viability & Structures Task Force report presented to the 2014 General Synod. And an issue that concerns her as a lawyer, she said, was possible reform of the Tribunal disciplinary system, to provide a national review system by the Appellate Tribunal or other tribunal to ensure consistency of decisions made under Professional Standards legislation. Clergy deprived of their Orders under the Tribunal system have a right of appeal up to the Appellate Tribunal, but this is not possible if they have been deprived under Professional Standards laws.

A new national church constitution to deal with these and future challenges was unlikely, she said, but the need for “substantial amendments” to the constitution would inevitably arise in the future.

She noted that the church does have the capacity to work harmoniously despite differing opinions. Different views among the dioceses on issues concerning episcopal standards “were subservient to the Church’s need to respond to the scrutiny of the Royal Commission”, she said, reflecting on the 2017 General Synod’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Australia-wide legislation was the response, with new legislation passed with overwhelming support. The General Synod “exemplified that goodwill can be found in a conciliatory way to maintain unity and the respect and support of the Australian community”.

The Royal Commission had shown that “when the Church is under scrutiny, the strength of the response from the Church is more effective from a united Church than a fractured Church”, she said. The Australian public expected the church to address issues affecting the safety of persons in a cohesive and consistent way, and because the church functions within, and as part of, Australian society, it must be open to being judged by that society, she said.

Justice Mullins concluded that “what is required for the effective carrying out of the mission of the Church in an Australian society that is not itself static will influence ultimately whether there is an appetite among Australian Anglicans for constitutional change to meet the ongoing challenges”.

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