By Robyn Douglass
GAFCON Australia has fired a shot across the bow of the Anglican Church of Australia, threatening to set up “alternative oversight” for Anglicans who want to “disaffiliate” from their national church.
The Australian branch of the global network of Anglican traditionalists released a statement called “Commitment 2020” on December 11 in response to the church’s legal approval of blessing services for civil same sex marriages.
While GAFCON has urged restraint until the national General Synod meets in May 2021, it says that it has “made clear public accusations that there are bishops in the Anglican Church of Australia who do not uphold the doctrine of the church”.
GAFCON says if enough churches and clergy disaffiliate from the national church, it will “seek approval of the Gafcon Primates Council to establish an extra-provincial diocese for Australia.”
In August 2019, the synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta synod approved a liturgy for the blessing services, which was then referred by the church’s then-primate, Philip Freier, to the Appellate Tribunal, the Australian Church’s highest court.
On November 11, after deliberating for 14 months, the Appellate Tribunal ruled by five judges to one, that the blessing service was not inconsistent with the church’s ruling principles. The tribunal stressed that the liturgy does not “involve the solemnisation of matrimony”.
But the Tribunal acknowledged that the Wangaratta blessing could be used for marriages contracted legally in Australia or overseas. Same-sex marriages have been legal in Australia since 2017.
The first Wangaratta blessing service took place on November 21, when retired Bishop John Parkes blessed the civil marriage of two retired clergymen, the diocese’s archdeacon emeritus John Davis and the Rev. Rob Whalley, a former California Episcopalian.
But GAFCON says the Appellate Tribunal’s decision is “seriously flawed” and that the proper place for determining the doctrine and practice of the church is the national General Synod.
GAFCON Australia says there are five scenarios that would push Anglicans out of their church: If the bishop no longer believes the doctrine of the Anglican church; if he or she fails to discipline a clergy person who acts against the church, or disciplines a clergy person who acts consistently within the Anglican church; and where a synod adopts a resolution contrary to the Anglican church’s canons, or adopts an “unbiblical” position.
GAFCON says it will support both those who want to cut ties with their diocese and bishop, and those who wish to remain in the Anglican Church of Australia.
Australian bishops responded to the Wangaratta ruling late last month, saying “there is not a common voice” on same-sex marriage, and acknowledging the pain that “there is a not a common mind on these issues within the house of bishops.”
The bishops also said the issue will be addressed at General Synod, and called for people to prepare for informed and careful debates there, and care for people affected by the discussions, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ.
The Australian General Synod is set to meet in Maroochydore, southern Queensland from May 30 to June 4, 2021. Rigid lockdowns have kept the country relatively free of COVID-19, so the meeting is still planned as a live, rather than online, convention.
GAFCON set up an alternative diocese in New Zealand in 2019, when twelve parishes that dissented from the Anglican Church of New Zealand’s decision to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages voted to leave their dioceses. They elected one of their own clergy, the Rev. Jay Behan, to serve as the bishop of what is now called the Church of Confessing Anglicans Aotearoa/New Zealand.
The GAFCON Primate’s Council subsequently declared that it “gladly endorses the new Diocese, recognizes it as authentically Anglican, declares itself to be in full communion and celebrates our common life.” Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney notably participated in Behan’s consecration, as did Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania, GAFCON Australia’s chair.