By Mark Michael

In what his diocesan newspaper described as a “shock announcement,” Archbishop Philip Freier said on November 25 that he will resign in March as primate of the Anglican Church of Australia. Freier, 65, will have served as primate for just short of six years, and will continue as Archbishop of Melbourne. Freier gave no reason for his decision. The announcement came less than a week after an emergency meeting of the church’s bishops called to deal with growing tensions surrounding same-sex marriage.

Freier would have been eligible to stand for a third term as primate at the church’s triennial General Synod, which will be held May 31-June 5 at in Maroochydore, Queensland. His decision to step down early will allow for the election of a new primate on March 14 by the church’s board of electors, a representative body of bishops, clergy and lay delegates.

An open letter issued on November 20 by the House of Bishops seemed to outline the agenda for the coming synod and the new primate’s work. It said, “The bishops identified the following as having the highest priority in our shared leadership of the national church: ‘working on a mixed economy and discerning boundaries of unity;’‘responding to LGBTIQA+ people and their needs;’ ‘further theological work on the doctrine of marriage and blessing;’ and ‘building trust as a college of bishops.’”

The letter also noted that a one-and-a-half day conference about same-sex marriage will be held in conjunction with next summer’s general synod, to consider “the range of issues the Church is facing in relation to human sexuality, same-sex relationships and marriage and possible ways forward for this Church, with the expressed intention of this being a safe place for people of differing experiences and views.”

Differing experiences and views about these issues are not new to Anglicans in Australia, where same-sex civil marriage was legalized in 2017. But tensions have climbed since the rural diocese of Wangaratta voted in August to allow clergy to bless couples who have entered into same-sex marriages. Shortly after the vote, Freier appealed the decision to the Appellate Tribunal, the Australian church’s high court, and Wangaratta bishop John Parkes agreed to his request that no same-sex blessings be celebrated until the Tribunal has issued a ruling.  A verdict is not expected until next year.

On October 26, the Diocese of Newcastle in New South Wales voted to exempt clerics who bless same-sex marriages from church censure, and to shield clerics in same-sex marriages from discipline.  The Rev. Noel Richards, a priest of the diocese, had married his long-term partner in a Uniting Church in September. A bill authorizing a form of service for same-sex marriage modelled on Wangaratta’s action was also proposed. The Newcastle synod, however, ran short of time and it was not approved. The Newcastle decisions have also been referred to the Appellate Tribunal

The decisions in Wangaratta and Newcastle provoked strong reactions from the church’s conservative wing. The synod of Freier’s own Diocese of Melbourne, where growing evangelical church plants hold increasing power, passed resolutions at its mid-October gathering expressing “sorrow” over the Wangaratta actions and reaffirming a traditional doctrine of marriage.

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, one of the church’s most outspoken conservatives, also attacked the Wangaratta decision in his address to the Sydney diocesan synod on October 14. Davies said, “Do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us. We have far too much work to do in evangelizing Australia to be distracted by the constant pressure to change our doctrine in order to satisfy the lusts and pleasures of the world.”

Davies’ words were widely criticized within the church for suggesting that gay and lesbian Anglicans had no place in the church. Archbishop Kaye Goldsworthy of Perth told The Guardian that LGBTIQ people were welcome in her diocese, and it is “troubling that the welcome is not universal.” She added, “We desire to be places where all people will feel safe. We want to be welcoming of all people.” In response, Davies clarified in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Post that his comments were directed at his fellow bishops, and that he was not urging gay Anglicans to leave the church.

In an interview with evangelical journalist Dominic Steele, Davies also called on the General Synod, where the growing conservative wing of the church holds increasing power, to resolve the crisis. He said, “The time has come to take action and make decisions, and these recent events have made it all the more imperative to do so. The General Synod must make a clear statement about the teaching of the Bible on the sanctity of sex within the marriage bond of a man and a woman, so that marriage is held in honor among all and the marriage bed is not defiled.”

“The rupture has begun, unless they are brought to discipline,” Davies continued. “My view is this, if you want to have same- sex blessings, if you want to have same-sex marriage, go off and start your own church. They have to realize this church is not going to change. And I will say ‘God bless you, and off you go.’”

Davies also warned that if progressives continue to push for change, disgruntled Australian Anglican parishes could affiliate themselves with Bishop Jay Behan, who was consecrated on October 19 to serve a network of conservative Anglican parishes in New Zealand. “It may well be that the Bishop of the Confessing Anglicans in Aotearoa New Zealand may well become the bishop of the dissenting Anglicans in Australia … that’s a great idea, don’t you think?”

Behan’s episcopal ministry has been established under the auspices of GAFCON, a conservative renewal movement, and Davies participated in the consecration service. The Diocese of Sydney has played a prominent role in GAFCON, and Davies’ predecessor, Archbishop Peter Jensen, was General Secretary of GAFCON from 2013-2019.

Candidates for Archbishop Freier’s replacement will be selected by the Australian church’s board of electors in mid-December. Since the church began electing primates in 1910, they have always been chosen from among the five metropolitan archbishops. Davies of Sydney, who is already past the church’s mandatory retirement age, will step down early in 2020, and 59-year old Philip Aspinall of Brisbane has already served as primate from 2004-2014.

This leaves two natural candidates, prominent progressive Goldsworthy of Perth and Mark Smith of Adelaide, a centrist conservative described as “Freier redux” in an analysis piece by Australian Christian newspaper Eternity News. Smith has publicly endorsed Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which reaffirms traditionalist teaching about human sexuality.

John Sandeman, editor of the national Christian news service Eternity News, says Smith “is regarded as very ‘middle,’ with a concern to build unity. He believes in a ‘mixed economy’ church, which is Anglican jargon for a church containing both traditionalists and progressives.” Sandeman continues, “Smith is a strong and effective chair of meetings; Freier is not. Smith’s chairing would be a ‘marked improvement on the current primate,’ one Anglican insider told Eternity.”

Goldsworthy has described herself as being on the “inclusive” side of same-sex marriage issues, but told Eternity “I recognise that this is a matter that will be decided by the government changing laws about marriage and I don’t see the Anglican Church in this country changing its understanding of marriage.”

Diocesan bishops could also be proposed as candidates for the position, though Sandeman says there are few obvious choices at this tense moment in the church’s life.