By Mark Michael

The Appellate Tribunal, the highest legal authority in the Anglican Church of Australia, has ruled that same-sex couples may have their civil marriages blessed and that a diocese may remove the possibility of disciplinary action against members of the clergy who enter into a same-sex marriage.

The 5-1 ruling, issued on November 12, was framed in narrow, legal terms — while it authorizes the blessing of civil same-sex marriages, it does not authorize the performance of Anglican same-sex marriages. The tribunal members emphasized that they were not changing church doctrine or authorizing practices beyond the particular dioceses whose actions had been challenged.

Their decision, though, will inflame tensions across a church deeply divided between small and declining dioceses that are committed to progressive change on human sexuality and the GAFCON-affiliated Diocese of Sydney, by far the church’s largest, which has suggested it could break away if the church revises its traditional teaching. (GAFCON stands for Global Anglican Future Conference, a traditionalist movement.)

The Diocese of Wangaratta approved a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions by wide margins at its synod in August 2019. Wangaratta’s then-bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Parkes, said before the synod meeting that he was prepared to officiate at the marriage of the diocese’s former archdeacon, John Davis, to the Rev. Rob Whalley, a former California Episcopalian, who had been his partner for 25 years

Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne, the metropolitan with jurisdiction over Wangaratta, announced in advance of the meeting that if a liturgy for same-sex blessings were approved, he would refer it to the tribunal to “assist the Anglican Church of Australia in the clarification of this issue and put in place an orderly process by which the issue can be addressed.” When he did so, Bishop Parkes agreed to suspend the use of the liturgy until the appellate tribunal had issued its decision.

The tribunal ruled that the liturgy was licit on the narrow grounds that the Anglican Church of Australia’s constitution allows dioceses to develop supplemental liturgies for local use. The liturgy was a valid form of service, it said, because it had been “approved for use within the diocese by the diocesan council of that diocese.”

Emphasizing that “all of the issues in this reference are of a legal nature,” it emphasized that making a judgment about the doctrinal content of the service was beyond its remit. “The issue of approving the solemnization of a same-sex marriage is not before the tribunal”, it averred. “The tribunal has not had to address the ‘merits’ of blessing services or even the theology of blessing same-sex ‘coupling’ beyond the inquiry as to whether it entails a relevant teaching on a question of faith.”

The tribunal also ruled that the Diocese of Newcastle in New South Wales could revise its clergy discipline rules to suspend the possibility of disciplinary action against clergy who bless same-sex marriages or enter into them. Newcastle’s diocesan synod had approved the changes to its clergy discipline ordinance in October 2019, but its bishop, Peter Stuart, had requested that the tribunal determine whether the action was legal before he gave it his assent.

The tribunal judged that the amendments to the Clergy Discipline Ordinance approved by Newcastle’s diocesan synod were not inconsistent with the constitution or any canon of the Anglican Church of Australia. No church tribunal had determined, it said, if “ the mere entry into a same-sex marriage by a member of the clergy entails ‘a breach of faith,’ ‘unchastity,’ or a breach of ‘obligations in the ordinal undertaken by’ the particular member of clergy charged.” The Anglican Church of Australia’s constitution, it noted, “does not mandate an identical disciplinary system across the dioceses,” so that prohibitions against same-sex marriages in the clergy disciplinary rules of other dioceses are not altered by Newcastle’s decision.

The one member of the tribunal who objected to both decisions was Ms. Gillian Davidson, a lawyer who serves as a Sydney diocesan delegate to the church’s General Synod. She filed a 54-page dissent to the 67-page ruling, rejecting the majority position that the issues fall outside the realm of doctrine. She argued two things: 1.) that same-sex marriage is appropriately seen as a doctrinal issue, thus subject to regulation by the national church; and 2.) “The witness of the Church Universal is opposed to same-sex practice.”

The Australian church’s primate, Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, described the tribunal’s decisions as  “an important contribution to the ongoing conversation within the Church about how to respond to issues of human sexuality while reflecting God’s love for all people.”

Smith, a moderate conservative who ascended to lead the province in April after a highly contested election process, stated that that tribunal’s decisions do not permit Australian Anglican clergy “to officiate at weddings other than those between a man and a woman.” He also referred to a 2017 General Synod resolution, which acknowledged that the doctrine of the church “is that marriage is an exclusive and lifelong union of a man and a woman.”

“The people of the Church hold a wide variety of opinions on these issues, considering historical teaching of the church and changes in society,” Smith noted, “Some will welcome the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion, while it will cause significant concern to others… It is important to note that there is significant goodwill among leaders of the church to work together on these difficult issues. We do so in good faith and faith in God’s love for all humankind.”

Sydney’s powerful archbishop, Glenn Davies, has not yet issued a statement about the decision, but shortly after the 2019 vote by Wangaratta’s synod, he compared the decision to the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster’s 2003 authorization of same-sex blessings. He said then, “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.”

The Anglican Church of Australia’s House of Bishops began its regularly scheduled seasonal meeting on November 12, just after the tribunal’s decision was announced. The General Synod’s steering committee will convene on November 13. As Archbishop Smith suggested in his statement, attention now turns to the church’s General Synod meeting, currently scheduled for June 2021, which is expected to take decisive action on the controversial issues.