Australian General Synod to consider legal opinions on same-sex blessings

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Next year’s General Synod will consider a ruling from an Anglican tribunal saying services of blessing for same-sex marriage are constitutional, under a narrow opinion of what constitutes doctrine of the Anglican Church.

The Appellate Tribunal expressed its opinion, by a 5 to 1 majority, that the blessing of same-sex marriages was not inconsistent with the doctrine of the Church, as expressed in the Fundamental Declarations of the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia.

The Appellate Tribunal, consisting of three diocesan bishops and four lay people, considers matters referred to it but has no power to enforce its opinions.

Archbishop Glenn Davies has written to clergy, saying he finds the opinion ‘hard to fathom, as it is contrary to the teaching of the Bible’.

Dr Davies says the effect of the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion is that “it has declared that a service purporting to bless a same-sex marriage, as the Diocese of Wangaratta had developed, is consistent with the doctrine of our Church, because they narrowly define doctrine as that teaching which is necessary for salvation. 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 – that is, with respect to what is necessary for salvation.”

In my opinion the effect of the majority opinion’s legal interpretation undermines the clear teaching of Scripture and thereby dishonours God.

The majority opinion is contrary to the unanimous reports from both the Australian House of Bishops and a General Synod committee known as the Board of Assessors who, Dr Davies said, made it abundantly clear that the teaching of the Bible, and therefore of the Anglican Church, was that the sexual union of two persons of the same gender was sin. 

“That is why clergy are forbidden to solemnise same-sex marriages, for to bless such a union would amount to the blessing of sin,” Dr Davies said. Both bodies also considered there is no constraint upon the use of the word “doctrine”, as the Tribunal claimed, in either in The Thirty–Nine Articles or the Bible. 

“In my opinion the effect of the majority opinion’s legal interpretation undermines the clear teaching of Scripture and thereby dishonours God,” Dr Davies wrote. “The Anglican Church in the Diocese of Sydney welcomes all people, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, or even their past behaviour and beliefs, since the message of the gospel is that those who belong to Christ are equal members of the Body of Christ. However, Christ has set us free to serve him in holiness and righteousness of life, which entails changed behaviour (Ephesians 4:20-24).”

One tribunal member, Sydney lawyer Gillian Davidson, dissented from the opinion.

The NSW Provincial Synod has agreed to wait and not to act upon these matters until they are debated at the next General Synod, which is due to meet in 2021.

“These are difficult days for our Church,” Dr Davies said. “Next year the General Synod will have opportunity to reflect upon both the Majority and the Minority Reports of the Tribunal’s Opinion as to [which opinion] truly reflects the Constitution’s declaration that ‘the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary to salvation.’

“This is a crisis for our National Church and should lead us to prayer as we reflect upon both the teaching of Scripture and the demands of discipleship,” he added. “I recognise that some will find this confronting and for differing reasons. When your congregations hear of this, they may be disturbed as to how a judicial panel could arrive at such conclusions, yet the teaching of Scripture has not changed. So, we should continue to pray, to trust God and to love our neighbour as ourselves as we navigate this territory over the next eight months until the meeting of General Synod.”

GAFCON says the opinion ‘undermines the basis of national unity’

Earlier, a statement from the Board of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) Australia expressed its deep regret that the tribunal decision “relies upon a disputed definition of the meaning of ‘doctrine’ rather than on a whole-hearted and glad embrace of the life-giving Word of God. In doing so, they have seriously undermined the basis of national unity in our church”. 

“We urge you to join us in prayer for ourselves and our Anglican Church; to continue to repent of the ways in which we fall short of God’s standards, and to humbly and boldly stand upon the sufficiency, authority, truth and beauty of God’s Word,” the GAFCON statement continued. 

“We urge you to make the most of opportunities to engage in diocesan synods and other processes to express commitment to the authority of Scripture and the biblical pattern of discipleship, and to ‘exhort and rebuke with all authority’ those who oppose sound teaching (Titus 2:15).”

Read the Archbishop’s letter here and an explanation of the legal opinion by Bishop Stead here.