Unity at stake in marriage row

In advance of a critical meeting of the Anglican Church’s peak council, the General Synod, leading evangelicals have issued a book-length defence of the traditional, orthodox position on marriage.

The Line in the Sand: The Appellate Tribunal Opinion and the Future of the Anglican Church in Australia is published by the Australian Church Record and the Anglican Church league, key Sydney Anglican organisations. Contributors include high-profile authors such as Kanishka Raffel, the Archbishop of Sydney, and Mark Thompson, the principal of Moore Theological College.

Many of these writers would point to a theme verse when studying a book in the Bible. In the case of A Line in the Sand, a key passage might be the following quote from the introduction.

Opening excerpt from Line in the Sand

“If same-sex liturgical blessings become part of the life of a diocese, the unity of the Anglican Church of Australia, as expressed in the opening sections of the Constitution, will be meaningless. Instead of the hard-won doctrinal unity of the church, after a long and tortured gestation, it would devolve into a mere organisational unity devoid of theological content.

“True ecclesiastical unity is founded on theological unity. The [Anglican Church of Australia’s] Constitution itself bears witness to this in [sections] 1-3, which is headed ‘Fundamental Declarations’ and [section] 4 headed ‘Ruling Principles’.

“Indeed, these principles have been embedded in orthodox Anglicanism since its inception. One example from the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer will suffice to illustrate this point:

Question: What is required of persons to be baptised?

Answer: Repentance, whereby they forsake sin; and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.”

Appellate Tribunal’s authority questioned

A Line in the Sand‘s introduction goes on to point out that a decision of the Anglican Church’s top legal body, known as the Appellate Tribunal, has narrowed the meaning of faith “by ignoring what the Bible describes as sinful behaviour.”

This Appellate Tribunal decision supported progressive dioceses (regions) in the Anglican Church that wanted to proceed with blessing civil same-sex marriages.

A Line in the Sand calls on the General Synod to effectively reverse the Appellate Tribunal decision. Or, in its words, it asks the “General Synod to state unequivocally the orthodox doctrine of the Church and stand against the illegitimate usurping of the General Synod’s authority by the Appellate Tribunal.”

The Tribunal argued that in the Church’s Constitution, “Doctrine must … be understood in the Constitution as the Church’s teaching on the faith which is necessary to salvation”. This quote picks up a ruling in a case about women’s ordination, which the Tribunal legalised last century.

Mark Thompson responds that human sexuality is indeed a question of salvation, citing 1 Corinthians 6:9. Writing of the Tribunal’s treatment of critical verses like these, he comments, “It is hard to see this as anything other than an exercise in obfuscation.”

Kanishka Raffel describes a pastoral approach within the Line in the Sand framework.: “Homophobia, including name-calling, hurtful ‘joking’, stereotyping, bullying or intimidation of any kind is utterly incompatible with a Christ-like life and cannot comprise any part of the Church’s engagement with gay or same-sex attracted people.”

Writing that our identity should be in Christ, he identifies an unbalanced view of marriage in contemporary culture.

“The contemporary Western Church has often bought into this unbiblical way of thinking by making marriage, rather than holiness, the natural end of discipleship.” Kanishka Raffel

“In our highly sexualised and individualistic culture, it is almost impossible to imagine intimate relationships that are not sexual. This is one reason why many regard lifelong celibacy as a practical impossibility if not a potential threat to wellbeing.

“But such a claim is an expression of cultural forces at a particular moment in Western culture rather than something inevitable or self-evident. Indeed, the contemporary Western Church has often bought into this unbiblical way of thinking by making marriage, rather than holiness, the natural end of discipleship.”

If the conservative movement in the Anglican Church is represented by A Line in the Sand, what of the progressives?

An alternative view

Eternity asked Bishop Stephen Pickard, Adjunct Professor at Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, for his reflections.

“It seems to me that we break fellowship repeatedly in the name of truth, but we seldom do it with tears and this gives the lie to the whole thing,” Pickard tells Eternity.

“I think over the past century examples of lines in the sand have been remarriage of divorced persons, ordination of women as priests, now same-sex matters, [with] trans issues emerging.

“The Church has to learn again and again the reality of the fundamental instability of its life as the body of Christ.” – Bishop Stephen Pickard

“It is quite remarkable if you go back in time to observe the rhetoric about first-order issues and second-order issues and how first order then becomes second order when new first-order issues arise. It’s so fluid and context-driven.”

Pickard’s vision of the Church is different from the “purity” of the Sydney vision.

“The Church has to learn again and again the reality of the fundamental instability of its life as the body of Christ,” he says in an essay, Disagreement and Christian Unity. He draws this language from Ephraim Radner, an evangelical who teaches at Wycliffe College, Toronto, an evangelical college in the primarily liberal Anglican Church of Canada.

Many evangelicals have stayed in liberal churches, even when an evangelical breakaway has occurred. Pickard points to Radner as an example. And it is true that in the two overseas examples given in A Line in the Sand – in New Zealand and the UK – there are still more evangelicals in the original Anglican church than in the evangelical breakaway.

But in examples from the US and Canada, where the split is older, the evangelicals who left show more energy than the stayers. After two decades, the breakaway churches may have more evangelicals than the mother church. (There’s a local example of this which we reference later).

“The Appellate Tribunal can’t change the doctrine of anything.” – Archbishop Geoffrey Smith

Another view is expressed by Geoffrey Smith, Archbishop of Adelaide, who is Primate (lead Bishop).

“We need to be clear that the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal has not changed the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia,” he wrote to fellow bishops in July 2021.

“The Appellate Tribunal can’t change the doctrine of anything. All the Appellate Tribunal can do in these matters is respond to questions concerning the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia and the Canons adopted by the General Synod.”

The 2022 General Synod could be a decisive moment and point the way forward for the Anglican Church in Australia. A bill (motion) sponsored by Sydney will seek to tie any authorised church service to the doctrines outlined in the Constitution, including the Book of Common Prayer, which contains a traditional doctrine of marriage.

A defining moment for an Anglican view of human sexuality?

This bill will restate a traditional view of human sexuality – or marriage – as the official doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia. Contrary to the Primate’s letter, the movers believe there is a need to strengthen the Canon (rules) about what church services can be authorised.

It most likely will not restrain progressive dioceses (regions), as the Anglican Church Constitution requires canons to be adopted by local synods (church parliaments) before they come into force locally.

However, if the conservatives’ motion is passed, any dioceses that proceed to bless same-sex marriages will be put into the role of dissenters from the canons.

The conservative GAFCON movement has registered the name “Diocese of the Southern Cross” to provide a structure for conservative Anglicans in any progressive dioceses. In addition, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, which began with the EV church plant supported by a Sydney Anglican Church in the Newcastle diocese, now has more than 50 churches. Many of these have grown into large churches meeting on their own properties.

Adelaide’s Trinity network is an example of evangelical Anglicans operating with a high degree of independence while part of an official diocese.

Both examples are likely to continue their growth through church planting.