By Mark Michael

Bishop John Parkes of Australia’s Diocese of Wangaratta announced on Tuesday that he will suspend the authorization of same sex marriages, pending a ruling on the matter by the Anglican Church of Australia’s Appellate Tribunal. Legislation permitting the marriages had been approved by wide margins at Wangaratta’s Diocesan Synod two weeks ago. The Most Rev. Philip Freier, Australia’s primate, responded with an immediate appeal to the tribunal and a clear direction that no marriages should be celebrated until the matter was resolved.

The Wangaratta bishop had earlier announced an intention to officiate this Saturday at the marriage of the diocese’s archdeacon-emeritus, John Davis, to the Rev. Rob Whalley, a former California Episcopalian. Parkes had ordained Whalley to the diaconate in 2009. While Davis and Whalley’s civil marriage was sealed on Tuesday, a church marriage for the couple has been delayed indefinitely.

Davis and Whalley, who have been partners for twenty years, have been advocating strongly within the diocese for the change since 2017, when same sex marriage became legal in Australia. They told The Australian Broadcasting Company that that it was a “privilege” and an “honor to serve as the test case for the issue. “If the tribunal does come together and say there’s nothing to see here,” Davis said, “then this will be something of huge significance to every diocese across the country.”

It is far from clear, though, that the Appellate Tribunal will sanction the Wangaratta decision. The body, which is composed of three bishops and four legal authorities, is summoned at the primate’s direction to render judgment on matters that affect the whole church. Freier wrote to all the church’s bishops about his decision, describing the Wangaratta legislation as “a significant matter for the national Church” that would “likely give rise to a question under the Constitution on which minds will differ.”  Freier had previously promised to take precisely this step if the Wangaratta legislation were approved.

The archbishop also told the bishops that he had written to Bishop Parkes and to Wangaratta’s current archdeacon “asking that the service of blessing not be used while the Appellate Tribunal’s reference is under consideration.” Under the Australian church’s canon law, diocesan bishops have the power to veto synodical legislation, and Archbishop Roger Herft exercised this power to quash similar legislation passed by Perth’s diocesan synod in 2012 and 2013. Freier does not, however, have the same authority over the actions of other dioceses in his role as primate.

Bishop Parkes said he will abide by Freier’s direction and will respect the final decision of the Appellate Tribunal. He told The Australian Broadcasting Company, “The convention is we respect the institution of the Church. The Primate has asked and we will honour his requests. Although, we won’t wait forever.”

In an interview with The Border Times, Parkes added, “We will give the appellate tribunal a chance to meet and consider and we will be actively involved in presenting our views before the tribunal. I can’t for the life of me believe that we won’t be able to bless people, but if not, some of us will have to consider our position very carefully.”

It is unlikely that Parkes will have time left in his tenure as a bishop to respond to the tribunal’s decision. At the conclusion of the diocesan synod, he began an extended leave given in recognition of his long service, and he will only briefly resume his duties in late December, when he will formally resign. If past precedent is a reliable guide, the tribunal will take many months to render a decision.

Attention is now likely to be shifted to a meeting of the Anglican Church of Australia’s bishops that Freier has called for November 20 in Melbourne. That meeting will serve as a prelude to next year’s special session of the church’s General Synod, which had been previously planned as a time for determining a way forward for the church on this highly contentious issue.

Parkes’ willingness to back-track his earlier plans may allow the Australian church to continue with its previous agenda for a gradual process of discernment about the issue, guided by materials prepared by the church’s Doctrine Commission and “to resist simple solutions or courses of action.”

In a March 2018 agreement all of the church’s bishops, including Parkes, had stated, “if we as a church are to change this doctrine to permit same-sex marriage, the appropriate mechanism is through the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Church of Australia. Bishops should give leadership in demonstrating trust in this framework as the way to move forward together, recognizing that this will require care, patience, and generosity. The bishops commit to working together to manifest and maintain unity, as we together discern the truth.”

Freier noted in his letter to the bishops that the General Synod would invite submissions for the tribunal’s consideration from across the church on this issue. One of those is surely to come from the large and powerful Diocese of Sydney, a bastion of conservative evangelicalism, which has figured prominently in Anglican realignment movements since 2003.

Sydney’s archbishop Glenn Davies strongly condemned the Wangaratta decision. In a statement issued last week, he noted, “The doctrine of our Church is not determined by 67 members of a regional synod in Victoria nor is it changed by what they may purport to authorise. Time and time again, the General Synod has affirmed the biblical view of marriage as the doctrine of our Church. To bless that which is contrary to Scripture cannot, therefore, be permissible under our church law.”

Davies also compared the Wangaratta decision to the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster’s 2003 decision to authorize same-sex blessings. He wrote, “It is now universally acknowledged that those events were the beginning of the ‘tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion’ To claim the authority of our Church to carry out a service of blessing contrary to the biblical view of marriage and the doctrine of our Church will certainly fracture the Anglican Church of Australia.”

Sydney is the largest of the Australian church’s 22 dioceses. It has shown growth, even as the more rural dioceses, like Wangaratta, have consistently declined and aged. Bishop Parkes seems to assume that Australian Anglicanism will gradually follow the liberalizing trajectory of the wider culture on these issues. But as David Goodhew has pointed out, Sydney’s brand of Anglicanism seems poised to dominate the Australian church’s future, as over half of Australian Anglican clergy under 40 serve in its churches.