Anglican tribunal decides they can bless same sex marriages

The Anglican Church of Australia’s top legal body has ruled blessing of civil same sex marriages can go ahead.

“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” the Appellate Tribunal has ruled.

“Civil same sex marriages” means marriages performed outside of a church by people who are not clergy. “Blessings” means a subsequent ceremony. Marriage in the Anglican Church of Australia remains restricted to man-woman marriages.

The Anglican Church’s General Synod (church parliament) has voted repeatedly to have a traditional view of marriage. But last year the Wangaratta diocese (region) voted to bless civil same-sex marriage in churches, a move strongly supported by its then  Bishop (leader) John Parkes.

Newcastle diocese has also voted to bless civil same sex marriages. The Appellate tribunal was also asked by Newcastle  to rule whether a diocese (region) can authorise the blessing of same sex marriages and protect their clergy from any discipline for performing them.

The Appellate tribunal has ruled that Newcastle can protect its clergy from being disciplined.

The Tribunal has ruled “The Synod of the Diocese of Newcastle has authority to amend its own diocesan clergy discipline regime in relation to clergy who bless or are party to a same-sex marriage. But this is would not affect the constitutional jurisdiction of diocesan tribunals to determine charges for offences created by the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia or by any Canon of the General Synod that is in force in the Diocese.”

The Tribunal – made up of a mixture of senior lawyers and clergy – voted to allow Newcastle and Wangaratta to proceed with blessings of same sex marriages, and for Newcastle to amend its disciplinary code by a majority verdict.

Keith Mason AC QC, The Tribunal President, Richard Refshauge, Deputy President, Phillip Aspinall (Archishop of Brisbane), Professor Clyde Croft AM SC, and Garry Weatherill (Bishop of Ballarat) voted to allow the blessings. Gillian Davidson dissented.

The majority framed the issues this way: “The legal issues presented to this Tribunal concern the location of authority within the Church to initiate this liturgy. Does it reside within the Diocese or only with the General Synod? Or is it beyond the constitutional competence of the Church as a whole?”

They point out the high degree of freedom the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia allows dioceses – owing to the difficulty in getting them to join together in 1961.”In consequence, and subject to the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles, the ACA is a much more devolved federation than its secular counterpart in this country. The Constitution respects diocesan autonomy in many ways.”

And add: “It is not the Appellate Tribunal’s role to attempt the often impossible task of settling doctrinal let alone factional disputes within the ACA. It’only decides theological issues for the purpose of or in the course of determining legal questions arising under the Constitution. It is not, and cannot as constituted, be a ‘final’ court of appeal for the Australian Church on theological issues.’” The quote is from the decision of the tribunal that allowed the appointment of women bishops – another question on which the Church is divided.

The Tribunal acknowledges the strength of views and the division with in the Anglican Church. “The submissions reveal deep anguish and strong conviction on both ‘sides’. All have urged their respective positions on Biblical as well as more directly canonical considerations. These factors reinforce the duty of the Tribunal to confine itself to constitutional issues.”

A long section in the Tribunal majority verdict addresses the history of marriage, and the majority then argue that marriage has shifted sufficiently since the foundational documents referred to in the Constitution –marriage of divorced persons, or the removal of “obey’ from marriage promises – so that there is not a clear doctrine of marriage enshrined in them. In this view “doctrine” is restricted to ” the Church’s teaching on the faith which is necessary to salvation,” and the creeds. The Tribunal Majority preferred Wangaratta’s submission on these issues rather than Sydney’s which argued that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer does define a doctrine of marriage and that this does form part of the church’s standards.

The Primate (leader amongst the Bishops) of the Anglican Church of Australia, Geoffrey Smith archbishop of Adelaide, has responded, pointing to likely next steps. His statement describes “the decision of the Tribunal was an important contribution to the ongoing conversation within the Church about how to respond to issues of human sexuality while reflecting God’s love for all people.”

Archbishop Smith says ““The people of the Church hold a wide variety of opinions on these issues, considering historical teaching of the church and changes in society, and some will welcome the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion, while it will cause significant concern to others,” Archbishop Smith said.

The statement points out that “The Anglican Church’s General Synod – effectively its parliament – in 2017 passed a motion recognising that the doctrine of our church ‘is that marriage is an exclusive and lifelong union of a man and a woman’ and the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal does not authorise Anglican clergy to officiate at weddings other than those between a man and a woman.

The Anglican Church of Australia’s General Synod (church parliament) has voted repeatedly to have a traditional view of marriage. This has included criticism of other churches that have adopted same sex marriage. This tribunal decision will be addressed firstly at meetings of the bishops and the General Synod standing committee in the next few days.

Wangaratta diocese will need to decide whether to go ahead with blessings – or wait for father discussion. Newcastle is on pause. The General Synod is due to meet next year. There may be legislation passed there that regulates blessings in some way.  Both the left and right of the Anglicans will have to decide how to live with – or live without – the decisions that General Synod will make.

UPDATE: Moore College Principal Mark Thompson highlights the discrepancy between the Appellate tribunal’s ruling and advice from other church bodies : “Setting aside the unanimous advice of the House of Bishops and the unanimous advice of the Board of Assessors, the majority of the Tribunal has decided that there is no impediment to such services of blessing going ahead.

“This opinion, if acted upon, may indeed have devastating consequences for the Anglican Church of Australia, as similar decisions have done elsewhere in the world, but it cannot change the revealed will of God. The opinion is deeply wrong because it opens the door for the blessing of behaviour which the Bible clearly says will exclude people from inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). As the Board of Assessors and the House of Bishops made clear, the prohibition of this behaviour is not limited to an isolated passage in the New Testament but is consistent through the entire Bible. God does not change his mind. He does not need to. He has always known the end from the beginning.”