Anglican split over same-sex marriage threatens to tear the church apart

When same-sex marriage was approved by the Commonwealth in 2017, it quickly became a potential focal point in Australia’s Anglican Church.

For the Conservative Diocese of Sydney, which contributed $1 million to the “no” campaign in the national referendum on same-sex marriage, it was the line in the sand that could open a major rift in the national church.

This week was the diocese’s first chance to pursue its anti-gay marriage agenda nationally, after COVID halted the scheduled 2020-21 meetings of the triennial General Synod.

The national church now stands on the brink of that divide, as the General Synod – the church’s “federal parliament” – refuses this week to endorse Sydney’s stance against same-sex marriage.

The Diocese of Sydney holds that the Bible only sanctions marriage between a man and a woman, and that this traditional position is a central doctrine of the Anglican Church.

What will happen next is up in the air. As an Anglican layperson who has been a member of the General Synod for 30 years, and as a reporter for the British weekly Church Times, I have been following the General Synod meeting via livestream.

Sydney’s contingent at synod is clearly unhappy. Sydney Archbishop Kanishka Raffel told Synod the Church was “in a dangerous position and no one should be mistaken”.

The issue of same-sex marriage was, he said, a “tipping point”, adding that “we should stop wasting each other’s time coming together in this way and supporting these structures”.

Read more: Talking about same-sex marriage affecting religious freedom has been misunderstood: Here’s why

What he suggested wasn’t clear, but it sounded like a possible shift in the national church structure—in other words, a disintegration of the national church. If that happened, each of the 23 dioceses across the country would be on their own. It would be less of a schism, but more of a return to the situation before the national church was formed in 1961.

However, given the massive representation of the Diocese of Sydney at synod after a few decades of what is often referred to as “branch stacking” in church circles, most observers do not expect this to happen.

The results of yesterday’s elections to the standing committee of the General Synod reveal that the conservatives now have almost complete control over the national church.

Progressive Anglican clergy and laity from across the country who had long served on the committee have been cast aside. From now on, the central structures of the national church will prosecute a virtual copy of Sydney’s conservative stance on same-sex marriage and other issues.

Same-sex marriage is not the primary focus of the church. Most of the other 22 dioceses are celebrating 30 years since women were first ordained to the priesthood. Female clergy now make up a quarter of the total number, and there are also seven female bishops in five dioceses. One diocese, Perth, has a female Archbishop, Kay Goldsworthy.

Not only are women clergy and bishops not ordained in the Diocese of Sydney, they are not even recognized there. In the Diocese of Sydney, where women are not allowed to lead in the church or at home, Goldsworthy would not be recognized as a priest, let alone an archbishop.

During the ordination of women’s debates in the 1980s and 1990s, a schism threatened. They came to nothing. Instead, the Diocese of Sydney has systematically taken over the national church by increasing its representation at the General Synod through a loophole in the constitution. Now it houses a third of the clergy and laity, as well as members of other dioceses where it has planted like-minded churches and clergy.

That is why conservatives have now taken over the standing committee, and why they won a large majority among the clergy and laymen for their action at the General Synod against same-sex marriage.

It was the diocesan bishops who thwarted the move. Just over half of the diocesan bishops could still be classified as progressive. In direct contrast to Sydney’s view, they see the blessing of same-sex marriage as a means of offering same-sex people in loving, committed relationships acceptance and God’s grace.

Movements are underway in the General Synod, approaching its closure on Friday, to call on progressive bishops to “repent” of their “sinful” position. Those moves may be successful, but they won’t affect the decision taken in what may well be the last position of progressives in the national Anglican church.

Read more: Talking about same-sex marriage affecting religious freedom has been misunderstood: Here’s why

All is not lost for the progressive position, however. The General Synod is a limited federal structure that gives the individual dioceses great autonomy. Until now, progressive dioceses have withheld the blessings of same-sex marriage in order to preserve national ecclesiastical unity.

Only two public blessings of same-sex marriages have occurred since the church’s highest court, the Appellate Body, ruled in 2020 that these services were acceptable in terms of the church’s constitution. It has hardly been a tsunami, as the Bishop of Ballarat, Garry Weatherill, told General Synod this week.

Now that true unity is clearly a dead letter, some dioceses may confidently step out to embrace same-sex blessings and other progressive causes, just as they embraced female clergy 30 years ago. The Anglican Church of Australia could have many different faces in the future.

Author: Muriel Porter – Honorary Research Fellow, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity The conversation

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