By Robyn Douglass
The Anglican Church of Australia’s General Synod has narrowly failed to endorse a motion declaring that marriage is exclusively between men and women. At its meeting on the Gold Coast, a three-hour debate on May 11 was followed by the tightest of votes, and the response was tears, anguish and a suspension of business for the day.
General Synod last met in 2017, before the government of Australia voted to endorse same-sex marriage later that year. The Australian church does not solemnize same-sex marriages, but the Appellate Tribunal, its highest court, in 2020 permitted the Diocese of Wangaratta to use a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions that the diocese had approved the year before. The tribunal based its decision on the narrow grounds that a liturgy developed for local use was not a violation of the church’s existing doctrine of marriage.
The motion proposed to General Synod sought to invalidate that argument by affirming that marriage is the “exclusive union of one man and one woman”, and that “any rite or ceremony that purports to bless a same-sex marriage is not in accordance with the teaching of Christ and the faith, ritual, ceremonial and/or discipline of this Church”.
The vote was taken in houses, and it passed easily in the Houses of Clergy (70-39) and Laity (63-47) but was vetoed by the House of Bishops, 10-12.
The motion was moved by the leader of Australia’s largest diocese, Archbishop of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel, who was visibly distressed by its narrow failure.
The Sydney diocese’s official statement offered thanks that the debate was conducted with “deep mutual respect and care” but expressed disappointment that it was the bishops who vetoed the majority of the house, saying, “a valuable moment for clarity has been lost.”
In his personal remarks, Raffel reminded the church that in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, the issue of the blessing of same-sex marriage had been a tipping point. He named the countries which had seen dioceses and clergy leaving the established church, including the U.S., Scotland and New Zealand.
“Failing to make these affirmations today has left us in a perilous position, and no one should be mistaken about that,” he said. “I deeply regret the outcome, though of course I accept it.”
Bishop Garry Weatherill of Ballarat opposed the marriage motion, saying he was aware of only two same-sex blessings which had occurred in the church since the Appellate Tribunal’s decision.
“That is not a tsunami. People have been saying this is a tear in the fabric of the church, and drawing a line in the sand. It’s not,” he told TLC. “The reason the bishops voted against the motion was to leave the space open for discussion, not to make hard line edicts.”
The church’s primate, Archbishop of Adelaide Geoffrey Smith, told The Australian newspaper last week that the scriptures and church clearly understood marriage as between a man and woman.
“I am not aware of any proposal to alter that,” Smith said. “The current discussion is really about the ‘therefore’ part. Is it the case that therefore blessing a marriage that is not between a man and a woman is inappropriate or impossible to be done?
“Or is it the case that yes, the doctrine of the church is that marriage is between a man and a woman but actually we are living in a culture and society where lawful marriage is possible between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, and there might be good that comes from that relationship and it might reflect something of God’s love and therefore it’s appropriate for some kind of blessing or recognition.”
The vote has highlighted the Diocese of Sydney’s power in the Australian church. The conservative evangelical diocese does not accept the ordination of women, and any woman priest or bishop who officiates within the diocese can only do so while vested as a deacon. The diocese’s bishops have also participated in irregular consecrations, including that of Jay Behan, the leader of the GAFCON-affliated Church of Confessing Anglicans Aotearoa New Zealand.
But Sydney holds the numbers in General Synod, given its consistent growth and sustained wealth.
In the Australian Church’s polity, the House of Bishops grants equal representation to each of its 23 diocesan bishops (plus the Aboriginal bishop). The Houses of Clergy and Laity have an equal number of members – 113 in each. But representation in these houses is calculated according to the number of full-time, paid clergy in each diocese. Sydney has 73 of the 249 votes in the national body (29%), well outnumbering the more liberal Melbourne or Brisbane dioceses, who have, respectively, 47 and 21 seats, though based in cities of similar size.
Archbishop Raffel said the national church’s federated structure and processes were at risk. “We may very well become a church where every clergyman relates to his bishop in the 23 dioceses,” he told delegates.
“And in that case we ought to stop wasting each other’s time by gathering in this way.”
GAFCON Australia, which has prepared a breakaway entity, the Diocese of the Southern Cross, is holding its fire. It issued a statement saying the synod’s decision was “deeply lamentable” but has made no indication of any future move. It will hold its national conference in August.