By Mark Michael

Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, the Anglican Church of Australia’s primate, has strongly criticized GAFCON Australia’s plan to form a non-geographic diocese for disaffected conservative congregations that “will be forced to leave the Anglican Church of Australia,” calling the plan divisive and unnecessary.

In a July 26 letter to the church’s house of bishops, Smith wrote, “It feels like the life of our church is being undermined from within. Rather than ‘making every effort’ to stay together, a way is being prepared for a quick exit. We haven’t even had the conversation yet, and the Gafcon boat out of the Anglican Church of Australia is being readied for departure.”

GAFCON’s plan, announced during an online gathering of its supporters on July 19, follows on from the group’s pledge last December in Commitment 2020 to set up such a diocese, akin to the one currently established in New Zealand, “if a sufficient number of clergy and churches disaffiliate from the ACA.”

At the online gathering, GAFCON Australia’s president, Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania, said “With great sadness and regret, we realize that many faithful Anglican clergy and lay people will no longer be able to remain as members of the ACA if changes allowed by the Appellate Tribunal majority opinion take place in their dioceses. We love these people and don’t want them to be lost to the Anglican fold.”

Condie was referencing the November 2020 decision of the Australian Church’s highest court to allow the use of a liturgy developed in the Diocese of Wangaratta for blessing same sex relationships. The tribunal ruled on narrow grounds that the Wangaratta liturgy was permissible, but stressed that the Australian church’s traditional doctrine of marriage remain unchanged. Subsequently, Archbishop Smith emphasized that the decision does not permit the church’s clergy “to officiate at weddings other than those between a man and a woman.”

Smith, a moderate conservative who became primate only after a long-deadlocked election process (Condie was among the losing candidates), urged restraint and mutual respect as the church looked toward taking decisive action on the matter at its General Synod, then scheduled for June 2021, but since postponed indefinitely because of ongoing pandemic restrictions.

In his letter to his fellow bishops, Smith pointed out that the church’s doctrine of marriage remained unchanged, and that no bishop of the church had “departed from the doctrine of our church.”

“Despite the forecasts, there has not been a flood of same-sex blessings following the Appellate Tribunal opinion. Not a flood, not a trickle. Not a drip,” he added.

“In other words, faithful, orthodox Anglicans can continue with confidence as members of the Anglican Church of Australia. To suggest or insinuate otherwise is not to speak the truth.”

Conservatives in the Australian church, though, point out that the Diocese of Gippsland, at its June 2021 synod revised its version of “Faithfulness in Service,” the document that outlines standards for clergy conduct, to eliminate bars to ministry for clergy in sexual relationships outside marriage, a move similar to action taken by the Diocese of Newcastle in October 2019, which was also upheld by the Appellate Tribunal.

Closer to home, in October 2020, Smith refused to license the Rev. Sorel Coward, a transgender woman who is married to another woman, to officiate in his Diocese of Adelaide. Coincidentally, Archbishop Smith had preached at Coward’s ordination to the priesthood 25 years earlier when she was living as a man named Simon and married to the same wife.

Responding to Coward’s online criticism of his pastoral insensitivity, Smith sent her a letter, since released online. In it, he followed his own counsel of postponing judgment on the matter.

“The General Synod is due to meet next year and is very likely to have before it motions concerning same-sex marriage generally including the licensing of clergy,” he wrote.

“I understand that it was not your intention to be in a same-sex marriage and that the situation has come about due to your transition. My understanding is that the Church is still in the process of decision making concerning same-sex marriage however that marriage situation has come about. In my view, granting you a [permission to officiate] at this time would be to get ahead of where the Church currently is on these matters, and for that reason would not be appropriate for me to do.

“If the Church’s position on same-sex marriage changes or is further clarified and it becomes appropriate for me to reconsider your request, I will certainly do that.”

In May, however, Coward was licensed by the Rt. Rev. John Stead of Willochra, in Smith’s own province, and is now serving as a parish priest in Gladstone. The archbishop has not commented publicly on the matter.

Condie outlined detailed plans for the GAFCON diocese in formation at the July 19 GAFCON Australia meeting, noting that it would be initially formed as a company led by a board of directors, and that former Anglican Church of Australia churches could join through an affiliation agreement. At a later point, the churches would become a diocese, and establish a synod to elect a bishop.

The diocese would then petition for recognition and endorsement by the GAFCON primates, the process used to form similar dioceses in the US, Canada, Brazil, and New Zealand.