The doctrine of marriage in the Anglican Church of Australia – has it changed?

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As the dust begins to settle over last week’s announced formation of the Diocese of the Southern Cross attention has naturally turned by some to the question of whether such an action was actually necessary. Has the doctrine of marriage actually changed in the Anglican Church of Australia? If it hasn’t, then why such an allegedly unnecessary and radical course of action?

The Primate of Australia, Archbishop Geoff Smith of Adelaide, issued a statement [pdf] on Thursday 18 August, the day on which Bishop Glenn Davies was formally commissioned as the first bishop of the new diocese. Smith’s core complaint is clearly expressed:

The meeting of the General Synod held in May this year clearly affirmed the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and declined to affirm same sex marriage. It is perplexing therefore that the leaders of this breakaway movement cite the reason for this new denomination as the failure of General Synod to explicitly express an opinion against the blessing of same sex marriages.

A STATEMENT FROM THE PRIMATE OF THE ANGLICAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIA ON THE LAUNCH OF THE COMPANY, THE DIOCESE OF THE SOUTHERN CROSS

In order to properly assess this claim it is necessary to retrace the key events in the last few years that led us to this moment.

Liturgies for Same-Sex Marriage

The first obvious milestone is the passing in 2017 of an amendment to the Marriage Act in Australia which changed the definition of marriage to “the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. This led naturally to increased pressure on and from Anglican churches across Australia to provide some form of liturgical response, especially in those places where committed monogamous same-sex relationships were seen as valid and godly. This is not to say that some form of service was being provided on an ad-hoc basis in many places already. Some liturgies were already well-known (as documented in my piece on Wangaratta liturgy) and in other places ministers were providing their own variations. Stories of such services are legend, especially in the dioceses of Brisbane and Perth. I reported a number of years ago that then bishop-elect of Grafton Dr Sarah MacNeil had conducted such a service while Archdeacon in Canberra-Goulburn.

The first official liturgy was provided by a bill debated and passed at the synod of the diocese of Wangaratta in 2019, followed by similar in Newcastle. The proposed service does not bless the marriage, but the individuals in it. Nevertheless, the then-Primate, Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier referred the matter to the Appellate Tribunal, effectively a “High Court” for the Anglican Church of Australia, asking it to issue an opinion on whether the liturgy was consistent with the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia [pdf].

The Appellate Tribunal Opinion

The Tribunal’s majority opinion, finally issued almost a year later in November 2020, was that the services were not inconsistent with the Constitution. In reaching this conclusion they construed a narrow definition of the term “doctrine” in the Constitution as a “constitutional concept” (s.142) that is different to the broader understanding of the word. In the Constitution (s.74.1 of the Constitution) “doctrine” “means the teaching of this Church on any question of faith” and the Opinion went one to assert that this meant “matters necessary for salvation”. It then sought to argue that the church’s doctrine of marriage was not a “matter necessary for salvation” and therefore did not fall under the narrower definition of “doctrine” in the Constitution.

Yet, in coming to this conclusion about the Constitution the Tribunal quite obviously had to set aside another requirement of the Constitution.

Before determining any appeal or giving an opinion on any reference the Appellate Tribunal shall in any matter involving doctrine upon which the members are not unanimous upon the point of doctrine and may, if it thinks fit, in any other matter, obtain the opinion of the House of Bishops, and a board of assessors consisting of priests appointed by or under canon of General Synod.

S.58.(1) CONSTITUTION OF THE ANGLICAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIA

The answers of both the House of Bishops and the Board of Assessors (which are available to read) were quite clear. So, for example:

2. Section 74(1) of the Constitution defines “doctrine” to mean “the teaching of this Church on any question of faith.” The relationship between teaching and doctrine is best explained by the reference in the Fundamental Declarations, that the ACA “will ever obey the commands of Christ and teach His doctrine”. Thus, the subject matter of the teaching of the Church is directly related to its doctrine. In other words, the doctrine of the ACA is its teaching, because the ACA must teach its doctrine, as it must teach Christ’s doctrine.

4. … the Anglican Church teaches that persistent, unrepentant sin precludes a person from God’s kingdom.

7. Specific teaching related to sexual immorality and salvation is found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11Ephesians 5:3-51 Timothy 1:8-11Revelation 21:27; and 22:11.

8.Sexual immorality is as liable to the judgment of God as other sins (James 2:10). All sin requires repentance and forgiveness, with a view to following a life of obedience.

RESPONSE OF THE HOUSE OF BISHOPS TO FOUR QUESTIONS POSED BY THE APPELLATE TRIBUNAL

and

Article XXXV says the Homilies “contain godly and wholesome doctrine.” The Homily on Scripture (Homily #1) is directly about Article VI and widens the meaning of “all things necessary for salvation” in application of the Scriptures to include matters of behaviour and not merely belief.

In summary, when speaking of the Faith of the Anglican Church, we insist that this includes matters of obedience as well as doctrine. This has been demonstrated in writings of the patristic era, debates in the Reformation era expressed through the Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Homilies, twentieth century usages, all of which build on the Scriptural texts cited above.

1.K& 1.M FINAL REPORT OF THE BOARD OF ASSESSORS

Thus the two bodies that the Appellate Tribunal was required by the Constitution to refer to both provided an unequivocal answer: matters of sexual immorality are part of the “doctrine” of the Anglican Church of Australia in the sense that the term “doctrine” is used in the Constitution. Nevertheless, the majority on the Appellate Tribunal pushed on, effectively rejected the clear answer they were given, and issued their opinion. In doing so they argued for uncertainty in the doctrinal question of the sinfulness of same-sex sexual activity. Yet this is precisely the area where both the House of Bishops and the Board of Assessors had provided them certainty!

No wonder some described the opinion as “erroneous and unconvincing“.

The General Synod Statements

In issuing its opinion, the Appellate Tribunal also affirmed the right of the church (by implication at its General Synod) “to make statements as to the faith ritual ceremonial or discipline of this Church” (s.103) and so opponents of the Wangaratta and Newcastle innovation presented 2 “statements” at the General Synod that met in May 2022. It is these two statements (and a further failed motion commending same-sex marriage) that surely form, the basis of the Primate’s claim that “General Synod held in May this year clearly affirmed the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and declined to affirm same sex marriage”. But is that actually what happened and is that how those who are supporting the innovation have understood the votes?

It will be helpful to consider the 2 Statements in turn. Both Statements were supported by large majorities in both the houses of clergy and laity. Statement 1 famously failed by 10-12 in the House of Bishops, with Statement 2 passing narrowly by a similar margin.

First, Statement 2 which was narrowly passed by the House of Bishops

STATEMENT 2 Definition of Unchastity

Pursuant to the authority recognised in s.4 and s.26 of the Constitution, to “make statements as to the… discipline of this Church”, and in accordance with the procedures set out in Rule V, the General Synod states that it continues to hold the historic view that unchastity means sexual activity outside a marriage relationship, defined in the Book of Common Prayer as the union of one man and one woman, in accordance with Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matt 19:4-5.

Here we see what appears to be acceptance of the “historic view” of marriage. It is interesting to note in passing that the definition of chastity accepted here is at odds with that adopted by several diocese in their revision of Faithfulness in Service. If those dioceses, which tend to also support a revisionist approach to same-sex marriage, really want to argue their case in favour of same-sex marriage based on the acceptance or rejection of the Statements then surely the passing of Statement 2 undermines their revision of Faithfulness in Service?

Nevertheless, this is the closest that General Synod got to a clear authoritative backing of the “historic view” of marriage. Yet, the House of Bishops also found it impossible to back the first Statement:

STATEMENT 1
Marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Pursuant to the authority recognised in s.4 and s.26 of the Constitution to make statements as to the faith, ritual, ceremonial or discipline of this Church, and in accordance with the procedures set out in Rule V, the General Synod hereby states:

1. The faith, ritual, ceremonial and discipline of this Church reflect and uphold marriage as it was ordained from the beginning, being the exclusive union of one man and one woman arising from mutual promises of lifelong faithfulness, which is in accordance with the teaching of Christ that, “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female”, and in marriage, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt 19:4-5).

2. The solemnisation of a marriage between a same-sex couple is contrary to the teaching of Christ and the faith, ritual, ceremonial and/or discipline of this Church.

3. Any rite or ceremony that purports to bless a same-sex marriage is not in accordance with the teaching of Christ and the faith, ritual, ceremonial and/or discipline of this Church.

How could this be rejected if Statement 2 was accepted? The “historic view” that was (according to the Primate) supported in Statement 2 is also in view here. The difference, therefore, is clauses 2 & 3 with their proscription on same-sex marriage. Thus one can reasonably conclude that the majority of bishops, while happy to subscribe to the “historic view” of marriage, were not happy to proscribe same-sex marriage.

Of course, at this point we ought to note that the unwillingness to proscribe something is not the same as its endorsement. But it might be.

And according to some revisionists it is.

In his Presidential Address to synod just over a month later, the Bishop of Gippsland, Dr Richard Treloar, argued that the rejection of Statement 1 now gave permission to proceed with same-sex blessings. As I reported then:

Bishop Treloar summarises the position as now commonly understood; the Appellate Tribunal has issued an opinion that such services are not contrary to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia (albeit noting that they do so by adopting a narrow definition of the term “doctrine”) and also that recent General Synod did not uphold the first Statement it considered (which both confirmed the definition of marriage and proscribes same-sex marriage).

Having summarised the position, Bishop Treloar then makes his announcement, presenting this as a fait accompli that he has no power as bishop to resist:

An essentially identical argument was made by the Dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, as he announced that same-sex blessings would be allowed at St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane.

No Change to the Doctrine of Marriage?

The two examples shown above (and there will almost certainly be a growing number over the coming months) more than demonstrate that revisionists in the Anglican Church of Australia perceive that the effect of the various 2022 General Synod debates and votes around the topic of marriage is that same-sex marriage blessings are now more than permissible; according to the Bishop of Gippsland there is “nothing to stop them”. To all intents and purposes they are acting as though the doctrine of marriage now encompasses not only the “traditional view” but also same-sex couples.

The Primate may be technically correct that no official change has happened, but the result of General Synod has been that it is now understood by those who wish to pursue this option as being an effective change and they are proceeding as though that were the case. They have publicly stated this.

One of the principles of the Catholic church since primitive times has been lex orandi, lex credendi (lat.: “the law of what is prayed [is] the law of what is believed”). In other words, our liturgy is a statement of our doctrine. To claim that a liturgy is valid is to assert that the doctrine it expresses is our doctrine.

Which brings us back to the Primate’s statement.

The meeting of the General Synod held in May this year clearly affirmed the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and declined to affirm same sex marriage. It is perplexing therefore that the leaders of this breakaway movement cite the reason for this new denomination as the failure of General Synod to explicitly express an opinion against the blessing of same sex marriages.

Is it too much to suggest that it is perplexing that he is perplexed? Of all people in the Anglican Church of Australia he ought to be very aware of what courses the various parties are pursuing. He must surely have been aware of the statements by Dean Catt and Bishop Treloar. So he would be aware that they (and others with them) are treating General Synod as though it had signalled a change in the doctrine of marriage since they now claim validity for their new same-sex blessing liturgies. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

So we might very well ask, where was the Primate’s statement when Treloar and Catt made their statements? They asserted canonical validity for a liturgy that contained a change in doctrine. And not just “doctrine” in its narrow definition set out in the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion. No, this was the wider sense of doctrine in its fullest sense, as the rejected Statement 1 made clear. The Primate claims that the doctrine of marriage has not changed and yet the revisionists now act as though it has. Yet the Primate remained silent for months. He only puts an accusatory pen to paper when those who wish for nothing more than the doctrine of marriage to remain the catholic doctrine feel compelled to act. And not least because of the vacuum left by his silence.

Change. But No Change

So now we arrive at an all too familiar position. There has been an effective change in the doctrine of marriage in the Anglican Church of Australia. Some are now taking the events of General Synod 2022 as de facto permission to extend the blessing of marriages to include same-sex couples. Their claim is that marriage now encompasses such pairings.

But in other avenues there is no change. Our key leaders remain reluctant to call this out for what it really is; rather than chastising those who have enacted a change in a key doctrine, instead our Primate continues to criticise those who point out what has happened and want to continue in the Christian Faith as professed by the Church of Christ from primitive times.

And they will not change. Because the faith delivered once for all to the saints, by its very nature, does not change. Just like the Lord Jesus Christ that it points to.

It is more than very likely that more and more faithful Anglicans who hold to that true unchanging doctrine will seek a new home. And the Primate ought not to be perplexed about that.