The Anglican Church's semi-detached future

Recently I moved house, into a semi. Semi is short for “semi-detached” which means one of a pair of houses joined together by a side wall. Our side wall is thick, and we don’t know our neighbours are there. It’s literally one building, under one roof, but very seperate houses.

Seems as if my church network, the Anglican Church of Australia, might be moving into a semi too.

With the recent decision of the top Anglican legal body, the Appellate Tribunal (AT), that blessings of civil same-sex marriages CAN be authorised by the dioceses (regions) of the Anglican Church of Australia (ACA), everyone agrees there is a real disagreement. This will come to be expressed structurally, in some way.

The “semi” situation comes about because the question of blessings was raised by the Wangaratta Anglican Diocese. Their synod – parliament – authorised a new service to bless persons who are married in a civil service, including same-sex couples. Newcastle Diocese followed Wangaratta’s lead and passed similar legislation – but allowed it to lapse.

This means that parts of the Anglican Church in Australia will bless same-sex marriage (and other dioceses are likely to follow Wangaratta and Newcastle sooner or later) – and other parts will not, such as the Sydney Dioceses.

We might already have moved into that semi. The AT ruling is about ceremonies of blessing of a couple who are married civilly, that is in a non-church setting.

However, one bishop says that he believes same-sex weddings are now legal in his diocese already, perhaps reading more into the AT ruling than others will. This is revealed in a letter the Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, wrote to his ministers, in the course of making a clear though unsurprising statement that there will be no same-sex blessings in the evangelical diocese of Sydney.

So far, Eternity has not been able to penetrate the cloak of anonymity for that bishop keen on same-sex marriage – of which more later.

Attention will now be focussed on the General Synod (national parliament) of the ACA which meets on the Sunshine Coast in May and June 2021. The General Synod has repeatedly passed conservative motions against same-sex marriage, and it has a conservative majority. If anything, it is arguable that the church has become more conservative over time.

But the ACA is an oddity in the worldwide Anglican Communion (which links most Anglican Churches). It has a weak national framework, which means that canons (church laws) passed nationally only apply within the dioceses (regions) if the local synods (parliaments) choose to adopt them.

So it may be that the AT decision has created a loophole for same-sex blessings that the conservatives on General Synod may be unable to close.

At which point, we are definitely in semi-detached territory.

Only semi-detached? Why not seperate houses?

Evangelicals in the church point to the fact that it was the introduction of same-sex blessings that led to a full-scale church split in Canada and, more recently, New Zealand.

A Sydney-sider transplanted to Vancouver, David Short, led his own church and ten others out of the local diocese. The late J.I. Packer, a prominent evangelical theologian, was a member of Short’s congregation who left with him.

Last year, a new breakaway Anglican Church was formed in New Zealand with several Christchurch parishes forming the core. Several Australian bishops flew across the ditch to install their new Bishop, Jay Behan. They included Glenn Davies, Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania, Bishop Gary Nelson of North Western Australia, Bishop Rick Lewers of Armidale, and most of the Sydney regional bishops.

Moving a motion for the Sydney Diocese Standing Committee to reject the AT decision, Principal of Moore Theological College Mark Thompson said: “And we want to be able to look David [Short] in the eye and say ‘we are with you, we stand with you.’”

“Jay Behan, David Clancey and hundreds of others in Christchurch New Zealand, were compelled to leave their church buildings behind and eventually to form a new diocese because they could not turn a blind eye to their General Synod’s decision to bless same-sex unions.”

So it is clear that conservative voices in the church are ‘deeply saddened’ (as the Sydney motion puts it) at the AT decision.

The progressive faction would like things to settle down as much as possible.

One possible path forward would be a “GAFCON” solution. GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Convention) is a network of conservative Anglican provinces (national churches) formed to resist the progressive movement within the Anglican Communion. It represents some 75 per cent of Anglicans worldwide with large African churches as key members. It owes much to the organising ability of the Sydney Diocese, and the strategic vision of Peter Jensen, the former Archbishop of Sydney,  and founding General Secretary of  GAFCON.

Rather than flounce out of the worldwide Anglican communion, GAFCON was set up to allow conservative Anglicans to stay while building a network of their own with the conviction that the relatively weak Anglican Communion network would decay. One key move has been to boycott the Lambeth Conference (a meeting of Bishops once a decade) and simply spend little energy on official communion bodies.

In the same way, the conservatives may officially stay in the Anglican Church of Australia, but pay it less attention. Just as GAFCON has sponsored new churches to form in North America, Brazil, New Zealand and less successfully in England, new churches will be planted in the more progressive parts of the ACA.

GAFCON has already issued a call for any conservative Anglicans in Wangaratta who need support to contact them.

There are already churches very similar to Sydney Anglican churches in a fast growing network called the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, which began with a church plant out of Sydney into the Newcastle Diocese. The FIEC sends many of its future ministers to Moore College, and supports the Anglican anchored Church Missionary Society.

In Adelaide, the Trinity network might be considered semi-detached already, with the majority of its congregations set up in non-Anglican meeting spaces.

The City on a Hill network of churches, at least in Melbourne, are semi-detached in a special sense, living in both an Anglican and Acts29 (a church planting body) environment.

It is likely that many (not all) of these bodies will be part of the conservative Anglican future in Australia, whatever precise shape that takes.

It is not possible to ignore the possibility of a formal split. Some influential conservatives believe that it is possible for dioceses to leave the ACA and retain their property. That is one for the lawyers.

So what about same-sex marriage?

Theologically, we are already there in the progressive parts of Anglicanism.

Peter Carrell, Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, might happen to live far away enough to have a clear reading of the Australian Appellate Tribunal decision – or, at least, some of its implications.

Of the two views that the members of the Appellate Tribunal gave, he writes: “The doctrinal difference between the majority and minority views (it seems to me) effectively pares down to whether Scripture directly teaches against the possibility of formal acceptance via blessing of a civil marriage contracted between two people otherwise unable to enter into a marriage that Scripture does say something about (marriage between a man and a woman), or Scripture indirectly teaches against such a possibility because when it does speak about sex between people of the same sex it speaks with negativity/prohibition.”

“The majority position is that Scripture does not discuss the possibility of same-sex marriage; the minority position is that Scripture has ruled out the possibility of same-sex marriage.”

Bishop Carrell is painfully aware of the consequences of this debate. As already noted, several parishes (local churches) left the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) when it decided to bless same-sex marriages and civil unions.

But legally will be a different question.

Many Anglicans will caution against saying that the introduction of a service of same-sex marriage is possible or likely in the ACA. They point out that the Anglicans have a definite, and traditional doctrine of marriage contained in the Book of Common Prayer – and that the AT majority was careful to limit their decision to the questions they were asked, which were about ceremonies of blessings (and not conducting same-sex marriage services).

They say in their ruling “it may be taken that the canon law of the ACA presently restricts solemnisation of matrimony to the wedding of one man and one woman.” And that the parliament of the ACA, the General Synod, has repeatedly supported traditional marriage. All true.

Anglican Provinces that have accepted same-sex marriage have done so by … narrowing the definition of doctrine.

The AT majority said they were simply ruling on the legal basis of what is possible under the ACA constitution. But in a key move, the AT majority narrowed the constitutional meaning of “doctrine” to “matters necessary for salvation” in their ruling. They rejected two reports from the bishops of the ACA and another body called the Board of Assessors which upheld traditional doctrine of marriage.

Glenn Davies describes the AT reasoning: “Since marriage is not necessary to salvation, the majority of the Tribunal opined, then blessing a lawful marriage under the Marriage Act 1961, would not be a breach of doctrine.”

Observers of other Anglican Provinces (national churches) will see those that have accepted same-sex marriage have done so by similarly narrowing the definition of doctrine. For example, the Anglican Church of Canada adopted the idea of “core doctrine” of which marriage was not part, en route to same-sex marriage. Similar arguments about “matters essential to salvation” were used in the United States.

The AT majority found that blessing civil same-sex marriage was not in breach of a church law called the Canon Concerning Services 1992 which sets out what services a bishop (and in some cases ,a minister) can provide. It gives a great deal of flexibility to bishops to vary services (a service means what happens at formal church gatherings or worship). For example, one clause states that “subject to any regulation made from time to time by the Synod of a diocese, a minister of that diocese may on occasions for which no provision is made use forms of service considered suitable by the minister for those occasions.”

It is likely this church law led the anonymous bishop that Davies referred to above to state same-sex weddings are legal in his diocese.

It might be that a future AT – or a bishop – might see same-sex marriage as an “occasion for which no provision is made.”

The Canon Concerning Services 1992 also states that a variation in a service should not be “a departure from the doctrine of this Church.” The AT has applied its very narrow “essential to salvation” definition of “doctrine” to this, in their majority opinion.

A long section in the AT majority opinion attempts to establish that due to changes in marriage (including the vows of marriage and the re-marriage of divorced persons) since the Book of Common Prayer was written in 1662, the ACA has no settled doctrine of marriage.

The tribunal majority says a same-sex marriage meets the “desiderata” (something needed or wanted) of a Prayer Book marriage – of bringing up children, a chaste and holy life, and mutual companionship.

To this reader, that is an indication of how they might rule on the constitutionality of a diocese bringing forward a well-drafted same-sex marriage proposal.

One of these things look very like the other

To the public there may be little difference between having same-sex marriage in churches, or blessing those marriages in church after a civil ceremony possibly just before. After all, that is how weddings are conducted in countries like France.

A blessing or a marriage service both say that the relationship is one that God will bless. Or as a prayer in the Wangaratta service puts it: “Loving and gracious God, who made us in your image and sent your son Jesus Christ to welcome us home; protect us in love and empower us for service. Through the power of the Holy Spirit may [Name] and [Name] become living signs of God’s love and may we uphold them in the promises that each affirms this day, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

To the passerby, semi-detached houses often look very similar to each other.

The conservatives in the ACA will have to work out whether they can make their semi look different enough to the one on the other side of the wall, or whether they need to have two separate houses somehow.

The next meeting of ACA General Synod is planned for May 30 to June 4 2021, at the Novotel Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore.