Melbourne Synod expresses ‘sorrow’ at Wangaratta’s decision to bless same-sex marriages


Melbourne Synod has expressed sorrow at the Wangaratta diocese’s decision to approve a form of blessing for married same-sex couples.

Synod also welcomed the formation of the Church of Confessing Anglicans Aotearoa/New Zealand for members of 12 congregations who left the Anglican Church of Aotearoa NZ and Polynesia, which is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Church of Australia, over its decision to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages and civil unions.

And it affirmed a resolution of the National Bishops Meeting in March last year affirming that the doctrine of the Church was that marriage was a lifelong union between a man and a woman. The bishops’ resolution followed changes to the Marriage Act by Federal Parliament in late 2017 to permit same-sex couples to marry in the wake of a national postal survey in which 62 per cent of Australians who participated expressed support for such a change.

The Synod votes on a matter described as “the issue of our times” by Archbishop Philip Freier in his Synod Charge on 16 October came late on Friday 18 October and as this year’s Synod meeting drew to a close on the morning of Saturday 19 October.

The Wangaratta and NZ resolutions withstood attempts to amend them and, in the case of the former, a motion that it not be considered by Synod.

Archbishop Freier announced that the Deputy Chancellor of the Melbourne diocese, Justice Clyde Croft, would absent himself from Synod during the debate on the Wangaratta motion – as Justice Croft did from Wangaratta synod, where he is Chancellor, when it considered the same-sex blessing issue in August – because he is a member of the Church’s highest court, the Appellate Tribunal, to which Dr Freier as Primate referred the Wangaratta resolution for its consideration.

The Revd Robert Miller of Merri Creek Anglican, who proposed the Wangaratta motion, said the developments there were “profoundly disappointing, upsetting and saddening to many people”.

“The most obvious and immediate cause of distress is the way we, and the rest of our Anglican Church of Australia, have been treated by these actions,” Mr Miller said. “The national church has put in place a process for addressing the issue of same-sex marriage and for thinking through our response to the recent change to the Marriage Act. There is a desire for a careful, deliberate process that enables us to move forward in a unified way, while welcoming all people into our Church.”

He said General Synod had commissioned Marriage, Same-sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission which had been published in late June this year to facilitate a respectful conversation in the Church.

“There has hardly been time to begin to digest the contents of that book, and obviously General Synod has not yet had the opportunity to discuss it. Yet now we have a diocese acting alone before this important work has been considered. We can only feel for the members of the Doctrine Commission who put a huge amount of effort in to producing the essays, only to have their efforts undermined before this respectful conversation has even commenced. And it’s reasonable to wonder how such a respectful conversation can now take place when it seems such disrespect has been shown.”

Mr Miller said concerns raised by other Anglicans around Australia had not been taken seriously by Wangaratta’s retiring Bishop John Parkes and his synod.

“I know that sorrow does not express what some members of this Synod have been feeling,” Mr Miller said. “I know that some are pleased and delighted by what has happened in Wangaratta.

“I also know that some feel deep sadness that this diocese is not moving in the same direction, and that there are some here who want just such a blessing for themselves or one of their friends or family members. I acknowledge that, and welcome those people to speak when the motion is debated.

“I’m also well aware that many of us have friends on both sides of this debate, and that means that this is a painful thing even for us to discuss.

“The wording of the motion is deliberately moderate in tone. I think this is a good way to honestly express our initial reaction and response, to let them know that we are dismayed, while also giving them the space to reconsider what they are doing, and so I commend the motion to you.”

The Revd Angela Cook, Priest-in-Charge of St Augustine’s Moreland, said the recent history of the Anglican Communion had shown that when there had been changes to the doctrine of marriage in dioceses or provinces, the result had been significant division and pain, broken fellowship, litigation and ongoing distraction from the mission of the Church.

“The Church in Australia is now experiencing the same painful disagreement around the doctrine of marriage and how are we to graciously welcome all people in to the life of the church?” Ms Cook asked.

She said the actions of the Wangaratta Synod lacked humility, asserting its autonomy over and against both the Scriptures and the national church.

“I’m also distressed at the way the use of such a liturgy would undermine those seeking to live the life of chaste singleness, which is commended to us by our Lord Jesus, by the apostle Paul and by faithful Christian men and women through the ages. Those who experience same-sex attraction, but desire to live in conformity to Christ, deserve our support and encouragement.”

The Revd Professor Mark Lindsay of Trinity College Theological School opposed the motion on two grounds, saying he was not sorry that the Synod of Wangaratta chose to bless and not to curse; and for reasons of process and mutual trust. Wangaratta Synod had sought the same guidance from the same God as Melbourne Synod had done.

“That Synod, having asked for God’s guidance just as we have done, decided not with a wafer-thin margin but with a decisive majority that blessings for all peoples in all legal marriages were gifts that the Church could and should offer,” he said.

“We are free, of course, to disagree with their conclusions. But for us to express our sorrow, and therefore implicitly our disapproval of their decision, would be to claim that we have heard God better and more clearly than they did. It would be to claim that their prayers and their hearing were, through either ignorance or wilfulness, wrong-headed or misplaced. And I for one, trusting that they prayed to, listened to and sought God with as much sincerity and fidelity as I trust that we have also done, cannot accept that premise. And so I cannot support this motion.”

The Revd John Baldock, Vicar of St John’s Camberwell, proposed that the question not be put – in effect, moving that Synod not consider the motion at all.

“As those who have been here for a while would know, I enjoy Synod. I never enjoy these moments, however, when Synod is so clearly divided on an issue of controversy,” Mr Baldock said. “I’ve never liked it whether I’ve been on the winning side of the debate or the losing side of the debate.

“I don’t believe that our synods are places where we should create winners and losers on issues of like these. I think these issues are too close to the heart of too many people for us to force a decision on others on a matter like this and I would like to move that this motion not be put.”

Mr Baldock’s motion was lost 201 votes to 226.

Bishop Genieve Blackwell of Marmingatha Episcopate, who facilitated the working group that led to the resolution adopted by the March 2018 National Bishops Meeting, said it was important for Synod to know that all bishops felt able to sign the resolution.

“We may disagree, or not, by action taken by one of those bishops but it was in good faith a resolution of all bishops,” Bishop Blackwell said.

Synod adopted the original motion on a show of voting cards.

The successful motion on the Church of Confessing Anglicans in NZ was moved by the Revd Tim Anderson, Vicar of Holy Trinity Hastings, who said some Anglicans in NZ were “in a very real sense refugees” who felt unable to continue to be part of their national church because of changes it had made.

“What this motion asks you to do is to welcome them, just as we welcome other refugees,” Mr Anderson said. “We don’t welcome the situation that caused them to become refugees … They have stayed true to the faith that has been handed down to them. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we welcome them.

“These Kiwi refugees have lost church properties, lost vicarages and been made unwelcome in an organisation that they were part of for generations.”

Mr Anderson said the motion also assured the Church of Confessing Anglicans and its Bishop-elect, the Revd Jay Behan, of Synod’s love and prayers.

Mr Behan was consecrated on 19 October in Christchurch at a service attended by some members of Melbourne Synod as well as Sydney’s Archbishop Glenn Davies and Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania and bishops from around the world associated with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON).

“The third clause of this motion asks us to pray for all Anglicans in New Zealand as they seek to proclaim Christ faithfully to their nation,” Mr Anderson said.

“We don’t of course want to forget the existing Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Much good gospel ministry has been done within its structures and will continue to be done. Rather, we recognise that like in Australia, the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. So we ask for God’s blessing on all Anglicans in New Zealand as they seek to proclaim Christ faithfully to their nation.

“There’s something else that’s not in the text of this motion before you and it’s a call to reflect on our own situation … Do we want that situation to occur here? Do we want to take the kinds of decisions in Australia that have caused churches elsewhere to become refugees from their national church?

“As we welcome these brothers and sisters, let’s consider carefully the direction we take ourselves.”

The Revd Sophie Watkins, Vicar of St Silas’ in Albert Park, opposed the motion, saying she was troubled by the name of the church as it suggested that those in the Anglican Communion were not confessing Christ, to which she took offence.

“I have no trouble in understanding how painful it is to be in a church that proclaims words with which I disagree and acts in ways which sometimes make me shudder,” Ms Watkins said. “I choose to stay in the Anglican Communion because it is my home and I am committed to the Anglican way.

“We have been asked to welcome the formation of and pray for this Church of Confessing Anglicans. I will pray for anyone who asks me. I will pray for their wellbeing, I will pray for their growth in faith, I will pray for their future. But I cannot pray for the formation of a church that calls itself Anglican without remaining within our Communion.”

The Revd Dr Craig D’Alton of Christ Church South Yarra unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that, in part, noted rather than welcomed the formation of the NZ confessing church.

Dr D’Alton said the presenting issue had not been mentioned by the mover – that of welcoming another group that had been victimised by the Church, gay people.

“It is exhausting to stand here again, facing three more motions in a row designed to exclude me and my partner and those who support us from fellowship in the Anglican Church.

“However, I am not prepared to take the Archbishop of Sydney’s advice and ‘Please, just leave’. It is my Church as much as it is his and it is God’s Church first. And God made me as well as He made all of those who hold views contrary to me in the Church.

“… I propose these amendments because it seems to me to be self-defeating for this Synod to welcome schism.”

The Revd Canon Matt Williams of St James’ Old Cathedral in West Melbourne supported the unamended motion, saying he had links to both groups of NZ Anglicans.

“I do not celebrate the rift in the Anglican Church there,” he said. “I do understand it in part, though I wish it had worked out differently.

“I want to remain friends with them both. I want to listen to them both. I want to tell each that I am remaining friends with the other.

“To my mind, this is actually what Melbourne Diocese does best. We constantly feel the tension of it, especially at synod, but actually, we do this unusually well in the Anglican Communion. This is like a microcosm of the national and international Church and somehow we manage to simultaneously hold hands with people who would refuse to hold hands with each other.

“It is the thing I love the most about this diocese and I think it is our gift to the Church and is our distinctive charism.

“So I am voting for this motion and against the amendment. Let’s reach out to Confessing Anglicans in New Zealand. This is not a time to be stingy with love and prayers. Let’s assure them of our love and prayers, not instead of the others, but as well. As part (c) of the motion says, ‘We pray for God’s blessing on ALL Anglicans in New Zealand’. And I take it that part of God’s blessing is reunification.

“In a church that sorely needs unity, perhaps we can be that unity. We can hold both of their hands and watch and pray and wait. But we can’t do that by standing back.”

The amendment was lost 235 votes to 195 and the original motion was carried 235-193.

Archbishop Freier invited the Revd Dr Turi Hollis, the Vicar of Christ Church St Kilda who seconded Dr D’Alton’s proposed amendment, to offer a prayer in Maori after the vote.

The successful motion affirming the 2018 resolution of the National Bishops Meeting was moved by the Revd John Forsyth, Vicar of St Jude’s Carlton, who said that the bishops’ resolution on marriage recognised the seriousness of the issue at hand, offered “a way forward together in unity”, and also recognised the deep pastoral issues involved.

“This issue is deeply pastoral as it affects real people in our churches,” he said. “Sadly, our church has not always displayed the love of God to LGTBI people and we must repent of such ungodly behaviour. Additionally, we should not reduce our care and love of LGTBI Christians simply to this issue alone. We must be a church where grace and compassion abound and where the love of God is expressed to all people, including those who identify as LGTBI.”

He said, “There are strongly held views on both sides of the debate. There are many us – myself included – who believe that the proposed changes to the doctrine of marriage are contrary to the teaching of Scripture and bring the gospel into disrepute.

“At the same time, there are others who believe that to withhold the opportunity to offer blessing or solemnisation of same sex couples denies of the love and inclusion that the gospel calls us to.”

In conclusion, he said: “Friends, we face a challenge that has the potential to continue to divide our church. As a church that is episcopally led and synodically governed, I commend the Bishops’ agreement as a way of committing to working together to manifest and maintain unity as we together discern the truth.”

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee of Trinity College Theological School spoke against affirming the resolution, saying that the Doctrine Commission of General Synod had since published its book of essays on marriage and same-sex marriage and that it would be premature to affirm a position that might change.

“What gets to the core of the issue is that word doctrine,” she said. “To my mind as a theologian, doctrine refers to our love of Scripture, our commitment to Scripture and to the ecumenical creeds of the church, not to what the church might teach on marriage, or any other secondary issue.

“It disturbs me greatly that we are losing unity when we all have in common a love of Scripture, a commitment to Scripture, a love of Christ, a belief in the most Holy Trinity, and yet we are dividing ourselves … surely we can disagree on these matters, surely the bishops themselves can disagree on these matters, and yet hold our unity in Christ.”

Following the debate on the bishops’ resolution, Melbourne assistant bishops Kate Prowd and Paul Barker led synod members in a time of reflection and prayer. Bishop Prowd said, “In light of the debates that have occurred during this synod about motions that have aroused a range of emotions, that have challenged our thoughts, that have stimulated our theological perspectives, we, the members of the episcopate, want to encourage and urge you all to commit to our common call to love God and one another, in, and with, difference.

“We recognise that approximately 600 people come here to synod each year from different perspectives, places and life experiences. And we come here, often, as part of our preparation, having engaged in rigorous discussion about what matters to us as Christians.

“Our common life as a synod is a rich one and let’s give thanks to God for this! Our common life also, as we know, can expose our vulnerabilities, and we can say and do those things which perhaps do not show us in our greatest glory.”

Bishop Barker offered a prayer which included the words:

May your Spirit deepen our love for each other, especially when we disagree;

help us welcome and love those who struggle with the issues we have been discussing, especially those who feel unloved and alienated

May all find their safety and refuge under your outstretched wings.

Help us to listen with grace,

to speak with care,

and may we model to a fractious world Christlike love and mercy.

* Bishop Brad Billings gave a presentation on the diocesan Visions and Directions and the implementation of the strategy on 18 October, followed by a presentation on the Melbourne Anglican Diocesan Corporation by its CEO, Mr Ken Spackman.

* Synod also passed resolutions urging its members to encourage their parish leadership to complete the child safe assessment tool, to be distributed by Diocesan Project Officer Ms Amanda Lincke, by the end of November; urging big companies, banks and governments to set aside a percentage of positions to employ members of emerging communities “so they have a sense of belonging and connection to the large community of Australia”; and asking the Finance Committee to conduct a global review of the financing of the mission and ministry of the diocese, including the parish assessment process and the use of money from the sale of properties, and to report to the next meeting of Synod in 2020.