Two Australian churches face more tension over same-sex marriage

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“Don’t get upset about same-sex marriages” is the message leaders of two of Australia’s largest church networks are giving to orthodox Christians. The Uniting Church is playing out in Sunnybank in southern Brisbane and the Anglican church in a letter to bishops (regional leaders) from their titular head.

“There has not been a flood of same-sex blessings following the Appellate Tribunal opinion. Not a flood, not a trickle. Not a drip.” Archbishop Geoff Smith, Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, writes to his fellow Bishops.

He’s referring to the decision of the churches legal decision-making body, the Appellate Tribunal, that dioceses (regions) of the church can pass local rules to permit church blessings of civil marriages between same-sex persons.

Smith is criticising a move by the local branch of GAFCON, a worldwide network of conservative Anglicans, to prepare a structure to receive Anglicans who may want to leave dioceses that bless gay marriages. (Newcastle and Wangaratta are the regions that have set up rules for these blessings.)

As Eternity reported, “This announcement means that in certain ‘progressive’ regions of the Anglican Church of Australia, there will be a conservative Anglican Church, much like the Anglican Church of North America which operates in the United States and Canada.”

Archbishop Smith is of the view that this is an overreaction. “I am grateful that very significant restraint has been shown by people who might want to see movement toward the blessing of same-sex couples, and also by those who are still seeking clarity in their position,” he writes to his fellow bishops. “In my view, unfortunately, the Gafcon board has not shown similar restraint as we wait for that opportunity for discussion and decision making, with Monday’s announcement ramping up the tensions among us.”

However, conservatives likely do not see that “not a trickle, not a drop” is accurate. The Bishop who ignited the row over same-sex blessings, John Parkes of Wangaratta, who had the new rules set up just before his retirement, took further action after leaving office.

Ten days after the appellate tribunal decision came down, “Bishop John Parkes, the retired Bishop of Wangaratta, blessed the marriage of retired clergy the Revd Dr John Davis and the Revd Rob Whalley using the liturgy approved by Wangaratta Synod in August 2019,” Muriel Porter and Mark Brolly reported in The Melbourne Anglican.  The service, delayed from September last year to await the Tribunal’s decision, was held on 21 November in St Paul’s Church, Milawa, where Dr Davis is the locum.”

Unofficial “blessings” have occurred in the Perth diocese for some years.

Archbishop Smith argues, “We need to be clear that the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal has not changed the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia. The Appellate Tribunal can’t change the doctrine of anything.”
However, the tribunal’s ruling that dioceses can authorise same-sex blessings leads to the possibility that the national Anglican church may have one doctrine (for example, one-man-one-woman marriage as expressed in its prayerbook), and its regional expressions may adopt another. The Australian Anglicans are different from every other Anglican church in the world. Its dioceses have a lot of freedom to be different – the national church has little power. That’s why we have conservative Sydney and progressive Perth.

Archbishop Smith cites conservative writer John Stott on church unity in his letter. He wants to see if he can contain the dispute within the official church. He is writing to appeal to the conservatives.

In his own diocese, Adelaide, the Trinity network of churches, now over double figures in church plants, is effectively semi-detached from the diocese. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches birthed out of the Sydney diocese has a former Anglican bishop, Al Stewart as national director.

So perhaps on both sides, some horses have bolted.

Smith should not be regarded as being in the progressive camp. He refused a license called a Permission To Officiate (which Anglican Ministers require to lead a church) to transgender priest Sorel Coward. Coward instead has been welcomed to the small country diocese of Willochra (Northern SA), where Bishop John Stead has placed her in Gladstone.

It’s worth noting that Coward and many other people involved in this tussle have known each other for years. Archbishop Smith had preached at Coward’s ordination to the priesthood 25 years ago when she was living as a man (name deleted)  and married to the same wife.

Update: the name “Diocese of the Southern Cross” has been registered as a business name by a prominent Sydney Anglican, Laurie Scandrett. Registered last month, the name is currently held in Scandrett’s name as a sole trader, and likely intended to be transferred to the company being set up by GAFCON as a structure for the new diocese.

Not sunny at Sunnybank

A stand-off in the Uniting Church centres on the largely Pacific islander congregation at Sunnybank, which has Tongan and English speaking services.

In a sign of a new normal, social media is how this standoff is being communicated (or maybe the UCA is just more up-to-date than the Anglicans who issue letters).

Lulu-OHa’angana Senituli, the minister at Sunnybank, resigned after several complaints were raised against him after the congregation joined a conservative group within the UCA, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations. (An Eternity report is here.) Behind this conflict lies the question of the UCA’s adoption of a same-gender rite of marriage alongside the traditional man-woman marriage rite. (In the UCA, the term “same-gender” is preferred, while in Anglican “, same-sex” is still current).

Following Sentuli’s resignation as a UCA Minister, Sunnybank church announced Senituli’s appointment as “team leader’ under the title of ‘Director of Mission’ “. His role is to “provide strategic leadership to the vision and mission of our church”.

“The reality of my resignation was that I was forced to do so by the relentless pressure placed upon my congregation by the Presbytery… using the discipline process of the church to punish me for the decision of my congregation to become an ACC congregation immediately following the 2018 Assembly decision. ” Senituli tells Eternity.

The region’s UCA leaders have responded.

“Regrettably, ministry arrangements at Sunnybank Uniting Church, including a new leadership position, were announced last week in social media prior to Presbytery being consulted about, or authorising, those arrangements,” South Moreton Presbytery (district) posted on Facebook. “Presbytery has been seeking discussions with the Church Council to ensure [the] provision of appropriate ministry while the placement is vacant, and to work through our concerns about actual and potential breaches of Regulations in the ministry arrangements they have begun. Our strong desire is to see the Sunnybank Uniting Church flourish in its ministry and mission, within the polity, governance and respectful relationships of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Qld Synod.”

Senituli is worried about what happens next. “We are anticipating the very real possibility of the Presbytery locking our doors and evicting us from our church property – but we’re not going anywhere-we are all UCA church members, and the congregation is the beneficiary owners of the church property, and we have resolved that this is where we stand and we are prepared to Stand firm in our faith.”

For both the Uniting and Anglican churches, the basic issue is similar. Can one church structure contain progressives who support the marriage or blessings of LGBTIQA persons in church and those who take the historic Christian view that we should not.