Brisbane Archbishop’s Comment on General Synod 2022

In a measured statement about the recent General Synod proceedings on Australia’s Gold Coast the local Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane explained to the diocese his own view of what happened when the majority of Australia’s Anglican bishops refused to go along with a Motion brought to the Synod by the diocese of Sydney.

In an effort to forestall the Synod’s expected legislation that would have allowed for a special rite of Blessing of a same-sex couple who had already contracted a legal marriage celebration conducted by the State; the numerically powerful Sydney diocese had hoped to quash this measure of inclusion by the sheer number of its conservative evangelical representation.

However, despite the fact that Sydney had managed to get the support of a majority of votes amongst the clergy and laity – for a measure that would have re-iterated a conservative doctrinal stand on marriage as a binary-only (heterosexual) ritual of the Church – the guardians of Church doctrine (the bishops) did not provide a majority that might have ensured the passage of what was seen by its opponents as a backwards step that would have precluded the acceptance by the Church of the reality of same-sex relationships – no longer based on institutional homophobia.

Predictably, this statement (appended below) by Brisbane’s archbishop is being challenged vigorously by Sydney’s Moore College, whose Head has already offered his refutation of the reaction of the majority of the house of Bishop’s, in an article on this thread which appeared yesterday, containing his opinion that ‘I contend that twelve bishops did defy the will of the General Synod over human sexuality‘.

In this quaint quasi-Elizabethan language, he expressed his profound disappointment that – despite Sydney’s desperate ploy to prevent the Blessing of S/S/ Unions within the Anglican Church in Australia – they were unable to convince the majority of the bishops to go along with their attempt to ambush the Synod’s constitutional power to open up the Church to new initiatives towards LGBT+ emancipation in the community.

That it was the House of Bishops who should have derailed the plan of the radical conservatives of the Sydney Diocese and its associated Moore Theological College should not be too surprising. Sydney has, of late, aligned itself with the more radical GAFCON Provinces, which recently facilitated the ordination of a bishop for one of their ‘Anglican Confessional’ group of dioceses that they have set up in direct opposition to the official Anglican Church of New Zealand ACANZP, and in other parts of the Anglican Church – including North America and the U.K.

For the Diocese of Sydney and the GAFCON Provinces – which have signified their displeasure with the rest of the A.C.C. by refusing to attend this year’s Lambeth Conference, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the U.K. – to embrace schismatic separation on account of its non-recognition of evidence of gender/sexuality differences among the human population (which civil society has now endorsed by the provision of legal marriage for same sex couples) is a matter of great concern for the wider Anglican Church – which offers ministry to all people, regardless of their social, racial, gender or sexual-orientation status.

Institutional homophobia, racism, sexism and misogyny no longer have a place in either the Church or society at large. The majority of the Bishops in the Australian Anglican Church have recognised this fact and are anxious to move forward with a reformation of outdated pastoral accommodation for a category of married couples that the civil sphere has now recognised in its provision of the legal marriage of same-sex couples whose authentic and faithful relationship with one another can no longer be denied – on the mistaken assumption that homosexuality is pathologically wrong, disordered, or objectively ‘sinful’.

“Come, Holy Spirit. Fill the Church with the power of your LOVE; through Christ, Our Lord. Amen”‘

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

_________________________________________________

Marriage and blessings of two people of the same sex

Many anticipated the General Synod with some fear and trembling because of heightened tensions over marriage between two people of the same sex in both Church and civil contexts in recent years.

In 2017 the Australian Marriage Act 1961 was amended to define “marriage” as “the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. Previously “marriage” was defined as “‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. This change made lawful in Australia the marriage of two persons of the same sex. It did not, however, mean such marriages could be solemnised in the Anglican Church because in our authorised marriage services marriage continues to be understood to be between one man and one woman.

Following the 2017 amendment to the Marriage Act, in 2019 the Synod of Wangaratta Diocese passed a regulation concerning liturgical blessing for two persons married in accordance with the Marriage Act 1961. The regulation provided that no minister could be compelled to conduct such a service if to do so would offend the minister’s conscience, but where a minister consented to do so the regulation required the use of a specified form of service and no other. Given the amended Marriage Act, this applied both to marriages of a man and a woman and also to marriages between two persons of the same sex.

In the wake of this action in Wangaratta the Primate referred two questions to the Appellate Tribunal asking, first, whether the regulation made by Wangaratta’s Synod was consistent with the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles in our Constitution and, secondly, whether the regulation was validly made under the Canon Concerning Services 1992.

In a closely argued and lengthy determination published in November 2020, by a majority of 5 to 1, the Appellate Tribunal ruled that “Wangaratta Diocese’s proposed service for the blessing of persons married in accordance with the Marriage Act does not entail the solemnisation of marriage, is authorised by the Canon Concerning Services 1992; and is not inconsistent with the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution of the Church.” In other words, it was lawful in the Anglican Church.

This determination evoked strong reactions in various parts of the Church – some very much in favour of proceeding with such blessings and some strenuously against. In the face of deep conflict, the Primate urged restraint in acting on the Tribunal’s decision until the Church had an opportunity to consider in General Synod questions raised by the Tribunal’s ruling. As we know the meeting of the General Synod was postponed twice, the delay adding to growing tensions and anxieties. The Primate’s request was, however, largely, if not entirely, respected.

When the General Synod finally met earlier this month, the Synod was asked to endorse two statements prepared by the Standing Committee of Sydney Diocese.

Statement 1 was titled “Marriage as the union of a man and a woman”. After a lengthy, passionate and respectful debate, a call for a vote by Houses saw the statement agreed to by a substantial majority in the House of Laity (63-47) and the House of Clergy (70-39) and narrowly defeated in the House of Bishops (10-12). Requiring a majority in favour in all three Houses to pass, the statement was defeated.

Some expressed deep consternation, even incredulity and alarm, over this outcome. When the statement was lost, immediately the mover, the Archbishop of Sydney, sought leave to make a “personal statement” to the General Synod. He described the situation of the Anglican Church of Australia as “perilous”. The Synod agreed to adjourn forthwith for an extended lunchbreak. Feelings were running high.

Some members of the General Synod inferred, wrongly in my view, that the majority of the House of Bishops who voted against making the statement did so because they were unwilling to uphold the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and even that they had abandoned this teaching. In my view such an inference is incorrect and unsustainable, though it has been repeatedly asserted in media reports and other communications since the Synod.

There could be many reasons why a majority of members of the House of Bishops voted against the statement. I think it likely that some Bishops objected to the final clause in the proposed statement that, “Any rite that purports to bless a same sex marriage is not in accordance with the teaching of Christ and the faith, ritual, ceremonial and/or discipline of this Church.” That assertion appears to be tantamount to contradicting the authoritative determination of the Appellate Tribunal, and even attempting to overturn it. It is likely, in my view, that a significant number of Bishops would have been deeply troubled by the prospect of perceptions of disrespecting the Constitutional authority of the Appellate Tribunal in this way.

Wider concerns were likely to have been in play, too. I expect that some Bishops were dissatisfied, even resentful, at the process by which the proposed statement came to the General Synod. As I understand it, the Sydney Standing Committee itself drafted the proposed statement and presented it to the General Synod, more or less as a fait accompli, take it or leave it. I’m sure some Bishops felt alienated by and even angry about this process. It’s not the way the national Church has been accustomed to working, in my experience.

Thirdly, Bishops might have declined to make the statement because a number of reasonable, fact-based amendments moved in attempts to provide a fuller, more nuanced account of marriage as it currently stands in the Church were rejected by proponents of the statement. This also could have led some Bishops to reject the statement overall.

Finally, there were concerns that making such a statement at this time would be singularly unhelpful to the Church’s mission and pastoral endeavours in Australian society.

The General Synod later considered a motion from the opposite perspective, which, among other things, proposed firm support for civil same sex marriage sought to declare it to be a moral good, an enrichment of the Christian understanding of marriage, and consistent with the scriptures, the creeds and Anglican tradition.

This was quite remarkable and an initiative that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. The proponents set out comprehensively what they saw as the biblical, theological and spiritual grounds for such an endorsement. Again, the debate was respectful and thoughtful. The motion was defeated 95 to 145. However, the fact that 40 per cent of the General Synod voted in favour shows how much and how quickly the ground has shifted, both in wider society and in the Church

At Diocesan Synod in late June, I plan to share at greater length the broader context in Australian society and its implications for our mission and pastoral ministry.

Unfortunately, to my mind, the idea of “comprehensive” Anglicanism that we have embraced and are seeking to foster in this diocese failed to prevail at the recent General Synod. Several indicators suggest to me that nurturing our vision of comprehensive Anglicanism has never been more important nor more at risk.

Clearly the recent General Synod did not resolve for us once and for all contentious issues around sexuality and marriage. Notwithstanding that many hoped it would, this was an unrealistic expectation.

One thing is certain. The Australian landscape has changed. marriage between two people of the same sex is a reality in our society, provided for by Australian law. So the Church has no choice but to consider how it will respond to this altered context. Again I will explore this further at our coming Diocesan Synod on 24-26 June.

The resolutions and decisions of General Synod may be read online.

This comes with my thanks for your prayers and the assurance of mine for you,

Yours in Christ,

The Most Reverend Dr Phillip Aspinall AC
Archbishop of Brisbane

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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2 Responses to Brisbane Archbishop’s Comment on General Synod 2022

  1. Kieran Crichton says:

    I think you might be leaving out one or two details that are important to your main points, Fr.

    No General Synod legislation is needed for enabling the blessing of any marriage. The Appellate Tribunal determined that the Wangaratta regulation was constitutional and properly done, and each diocese is now free to adopt it without further recourse to General Synod. Everyone was asked to wait for the meeting to occur before taking action.

    You might not be aware that a motion commending marriage equality as a moral and social good attracted a 40% affirmative vote across the whole Synod. This points to the principle that the Church lags 10-20 years behind society when these sorts of reforms occur. Sydney’s capture of the central committees may not be the unreserved victory they were hoping to achieve. Change will happen in spite of them.

    • kiwianglo says:

      Thank you, Kieron, for your ‘on-the-spot’ information here. I had realised that individual diocese in Australia have to right to enact their own rules and regulation, but wasn’t sure whether this applied to the Blessing of S/S marriages. At least, the denial of the Sydney Motion has not overruled the rights of individual diocese on this important matter.

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