Newcastle gay marriage vote a “stitch up”

Peter Stuart.jpg
Peter Stuart

Last week reported on the decision by the synod of Newcastle Diocese to approve 2 controversial bills. The first sought to change the Diocese’s disciplinary procedures so that being in a same-sex marriage was to not be considered an offence (including being considered as a breach of Faithfulness in Service). The second, which was not completed and sent to Diocesan Council (where it will almost certainly be approved), was a “Wangaratta” type bill to allow for a liturgy of blessing for those in a same-sex marriage.

Since that synod vote many members have contacted to voice their concern about how these votes came about. Those who got in touch used language such as “concerning”, “deeply upsetting”, “offensive to conservatives” and even “a stitch-up”.

The substance of the many complaints concerns the work, or more accurately the lack of work of the Diocesan “Faith and Order Commission” (“FAOC”).

The existence of a FAOC was first suggested as part of Bishop Peter Stuart’s 2017 Presidential Address where he said,

If we wish to, there is an opportunity for us in this Diocese to make a significant contribution in national Anglican discussions and in wider public discourse. Some years ago the Diocese of Sydney established a Doctrine Commission to assist in such work. A bishop can be greatly assisted in their commentary knowing that there has been careful consideration of matters in their Diocese. We have particular insights to offer because of our rich history as well as vast experience of ministry in an industrial city as well as in suburban and rural centres. I hope that the Diocese might establish a Faith and Order Commission to give careful consideration to matters of significance. I envisage a small group of say five people – two appointed by DC and two appointed by the Bishop, with the Bishop also appointing the Chair. Such a group could be augmented in its work by some consultants with particular expertise. I hope that such a Commission would publish essays and hold workshops enabling the Diocesan family and others to explore important matters at depth. My hope is that the clergy and people of the Diocese would happily be part of such theological conversations.

The FAOC was then established by Diocesan Council in 2018 with the Dean, Katherine Bowyer as it’s chair, as reported in the year book:

The 2018 Strategic Plan for the diocese contained a reference to the work of the FAOC:

In assisting the Diocese to engage in collaborative thinking and decision-making it will prepare a theological and biblical resource on a critical question to be considered across the Diocese in discussion groups and as part of a conference session at each Synod (FAOC001).

The Faith and Order Commission will help us in 2019 hear the experience of LGBTIQ+ people and develop a diocesan understanding of and response to what we hear (FAOC002).

Motion 20.4 passed by the 2018 synod included a clause which read as follows:

That this synod:

3. Supports and encourages the Faith and Order Commission to listen to the experience of LGBTIQ+ people and develop a diocesan understanding to what we hear (FAOC002).

The FAOC set about the task of considering the topic of human sexuality. A number of additional people were added to the core group and they were sent copious amounts of reading to begin their work. But the FAOC never met, let alone produced the promised “theological and biblical resource” on human sexuality. So it was a great surprise to many in synod that the two human sexuality bills arrived as private bills introduced by the chair of the FAOC when the FAOC had no report to deliver to inform those debates (as was its mandate) nor, it appeared, had even met once to consider the matter.

One member of synod reports what happened during the debate (the events of which have been corroborated by a number of sources also present):

On the floor of Synod the Dean had the question put to her. “Why did this bill not come to us via the Faith and Order Commission?” She paused, turned to Bishop Peter, and then replied haltingly (with some confusion in her voice), “I understand that the Faith and Order Commission has been disbanded.”

Surprise has been expressed to that even the chair of the FAOC didn’t know whether the body had been disbanded or not.

And so the synod considered the matter. More than one person that we have spoken to have expressed a similar opinion on the mind of synod; that they are deferential to the bishop and will consider something that he approves of as something that should be approved. So it was with these two bills. While proposed by the Dean, they were understood by many to have the Bishop’s clear backing. As one synod member put it to us, “the Dean is the Bishop’s agent for getting things done”. It may have been a private bill but the implication was that this was “official” and “from the leadership of the diocese”.

We approached the Dean for comment and asked her some specific questions, many of the same questions that we were hearing from members of synod themselves:

1. Were the FAOC provided with reading material prior to meeting together to discuss questions of human sexuality?

2. Did the FAOC meet to discuss this topic?

3. When and how was the FAOC disbanded?

4. Given that the communicated intent was that the FAOC report to synod to assist in the debate over human sexuality, what alternative means to equip synod for the debate were considered?

We received the following answer for publication:

The Synod of the Diocese resolved affirmatively around the questions brought to it. These matters are now with the Appellate tribunal, and the Diocese will participate in these processes.

Conservatives in the diocese are now very disappointed with the way that things have been handled. They were promised participation and collaboration but saw those much-publicised vehicles sidelined with no explanation. They have spoken to us of a breach of trust by the bishop himself and we understand that several who serve in diocesan posts are now seriously considering their positions.

One member of synod said to, “Conservatives and evangelicals have been treated with contempt” by “a group of leading individuals in the diocese”.

If the diocese has entered a crisis over the votes themselves, it has only been made worse by the manner in which those votes were reached.

update: 5pm 8 November 2019

The Bishop of Newcastle, Peter Stuart, has sent an email to the diocese including the following:

Faith and Order Commission

You will recall at the Synod that there was some mention of the work of the Diocesan Faith and Order Commission and the fact that it hadn’t met during 2019. I expressed sadness that it was one of my dreams that hadn’t come to fruition. I didn’t respond a comment about it being disbanded.

Since the Synod, I have received feedback to the effect that people would like to see the Commission continue to enable us to develop a Newcastle Anglican perspective on complex theological questions.

Dean Katherine has shared with me that in 2020 she will have responsibilities to the General Synod and for incorporating the congregation of St Peters Hamilton into the Cathedral Parish. With those additional roles she doesn’t feel able to continue as chair. When I think of the demands of being the sole priest at the Cathedral during 2019 on top of which was, and is, the impact by the Graeme Lawrence trial, I am conscious of the huge responsibilities Katherine shoulders. I have accepted her request to step away from that role.

Canon Andrew Eaton has accepted appointment as Chair. He will gather the group early in 2020 to establish their working practices. The agenda may include –

Further consideration of the insights from thus years Morpeth Lecture on Disability and Aging,
Such further consideration of matters related to the blessing of same-sex marriage as may be required.
The appropriateness of congregations meeting on Sunday to receive communion by extension in the absence of a priest.
With a view to the longer term – the possibility of the NSW Parliament considering voluntary assisted dying legislation and a possible Diocesan response.
If you would like to be part of the Commission, please let me know.

The new Chair of the FAOC is known as a very vocal supporter of same-sex marriage.