In a surprise to insiders, the Presbyterian Church of Australia has overwhelmingly voted to continue offering legally recognised marriages.

Less than 20 members of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia voted for the motion to no longer perform legally recognised marriages, while over 100 members voted against the motion.

Should the legal definition of marriage change in the future to include same-sex marriage, Presbyterian ministers who object to any change would be free to hand in their license, meaning that they would no longer be able to perform marriages recognised under the Marriage Act.

As it currently stands, the Marriage Act allows celebrants (including ministers of religion) to refuse to conduct any wedding for any reason, so ministers who would not want to conduct a same-sex marriage for conscience reasons already possess the freedom to refuse to marry a couple.

Over the last two years, the national Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Australia has loudly argued that the Presbyterian Church ought to withdraw from being a recognised denomination under the Marriage Act if same-sex marriage becomes enshrined in law.

In making the case for withdrawing from the Act at the General Assembly on Wednesday night, Rev Darren Middleton of North Geelong Presbyterian Church told the Assembly, “we’re not leaving marriage, but a broken view of marriage.”

Admitting that the church might lose opportunities for sharing the good news of Jesus with their communities, Middleton didn’t seem worried, saying, “the church had plenty of gospel opportunities for 1600 years before its pastors became agents of the state.”

The main reason for this drastic action seems to be that society continues to shift, and the church must decide the point at which it is wise to withdraw from participating in civil marriage.

…the Bible gives no reason to withdraw, but there is a Biblical rationale for allowing freedom for ministers to act according to their own conscience and wisdom.

Those making the case to continue offering legally recognised marriage (including the entire Presbyterian Church of Queensland) argued that withdrawing from marriage would remove an opportunity for Presbyterian churches to share the good news about Jesus with couples intending to marry in the church, and further, that the Bible gives no reason to withdraw, but there is a Biblical rationale for allowing freedom for ministers to act according to their own conscience and wisdom. The Presbyterian Church of Australia strongly supports traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

The decision comes just days after the Anglican Primate of Australia, Philip Freier, encouraged all Anglican bishops to vote according to their conscience in the proposed plebiscite.

“We can still stand for and offer holy matrimony between a man and a woman as a sacred ordinance given by God, while accepting that the state has endorsed a wider view of marriage.” – Anglican Primate Philip Freier

Noting that Anglicans have adopted a variety of positions on the issue of same-sex marriage, Freier writes, “If the plebiscite does happen it will be important that Christians – and others – vote according to their conscience and their view of what is best for society, and that the government brings legislation to enact the will of the people.

“We can still stand for and offer holy matrimony between a man and a woman as a sacred ordinance given by God, while accepting that the state has endorsed a wider view of marriage,” writes Freier. “The doctrine of the Book of Common Prayer remains unchanged, that marriage is between a man and a woman, under God, forsaking all others until death parts them. I do not believe that the Anglican Church in Australia is likely to revise its doctrine of marriage.”

As churches try to come to terms with the possible implications of same-sex marriage, there have been internal scuffles in government over the funding, date, and wording of the planned plebiscite.

The Federal Cabinet approved February 11 as the date of the plebiscite, and also confirmed that the question will be: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

On Tuesday the Federal Cabinet approved February 11 as the date of the plebiscite, and also confirmed that the question will be: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

The ballot for the proposed plebiscite

The ballot for the proposed plebiscite Parliament of Australia

The Labor party (which opposed the plebiscite during the recent federal election) recently suggested it could support the plebiscite if certain conditions were met, including that the plebiscite be self-executing (meaning a yes vote would automatically become law) and that no public funds be given to either the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ campaigns.

But a Labor-backed plebiscite seems unlikely after Cabinet confirmed it has approved the provision of $7.5 million of public funds to promote both sides of the debate.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said today, “The fact the Liberals announced public funding to give a platform to bigotry shows no interest from the Government to work with Labor on this,” in a statement.

If Labor reverts to opposing the plebiscite (joining the Greens and Nick Xenophon team), then the Coalition won’t have the numbers to get the legislation for the plebiscite through the Senate. The Labor party is expected to announce its final decision on whether or not it will back the plebiscite in October after the next meeting of Labor MPs.

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Some prayer points to help

Pray that God would give Aussie churches wisdom as they think about how to engage with the LGBTI community during the planned plebiscite.

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