Australia’s Marriage Debate

The Rev. Stephan Clark, rector of St. Mary Magdalene’s, Adelaide

By Robyn Douglass

There might be wars abroad and economy to fix, but the Australian government has focused recently on same-sex marriage. When it was elected in July, the government promised a plebiscite on the question. As voting is compulsory in Australia, the poll would have given a definitive verdict from the community.

Defenders of traditional marriage have been vocal in their support of a plebiscite, saying their support in the community is wider than commonly believed. The government has pledged AUD $15 million (U.S. $11 million) for each side to make its case.

Supporters of same-sex marriage have opposed the plebiscite, saying the debate that would ensue would be hurtful to LGBT people, particularly young people. Let the Parliament decide, these activists argue, as it is elected to do.

Parliament vetoed the plebiscite, which means the issue is stuck in a stalemate, probably for three years.

“This latest political maneuvering does not change the essence,” the Rt. Rev. Michael Stead, Assistant Bishop of Sydney, told the diocese’s synod Oct. 12. “It just changes the timing.”

The conservative, evangelical Diocese of Sydney has long been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage. In 2015, the Sydney synod affirmed that marriage is “a gift from God who made us male and female, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

Bishop Stead cited a survey that showed a majority of Sydney Anglicans oppose same-sex marriage; only 8 percent want to see it practised in churches.

The diocese also is committed to a “civil and respectful public discussion on this issue.”

“It is essential that we should have a debate, before making such a fundamental change to the definition of marriage in our country,” Stead said.

The synod authorised publication of a booklet to explore the consequences of same-sex marriage in communities, particularly for children.

The bishop said the tone of the booklet would be “moderate and reasonable and non-defensive, and not narky or hysterical.”

He said it would seek “to present a positive argument that marriage as God designed it is a good thing. It gives — we think — a good way of communicating that message to people who don’t necessarily share our belief in God.”

Anglican supporters of same-sex marriage said they regret the public image of church is that it is of one mind on the issue.

The Rev. Stephan Clark, a parish priest, father, and grandfather who serves at St. Mary Magdalene’s in the gritty inner-city of Adelaide, says he has many colleagues in his and other churches throughout the country who support same-sex marriage.

“It’s a caricature that the whole church is opposed to marriage equality,” he told TLC.

Clark’s support for same-sex marriage emerges from his pastoral experience. One of his early parishes, he recalls, had a majority of families led by one parent.

“We only had two families in the parish which were the conventional nuclear family,” he said. “And one of them was ours.”

He talks about women who escaped domestic violence for a more nurturing same-sex relationship, or gay couples who proved to be the linchpin for their wider families when relationships broke down.

A study released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies earlier in October showed that 43 percent of children younger than 13 have more complex living arrangements than the simple nuclear family.

“Complex” families can mean those children living with single parents, with grandparents, or in blended families.

Marriage “is a more secure environment for the nurture of children,” Clark said. “It is bloody hard to bring up a child on your own.”

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