After a relatively quiet period, the issue of same-sex relationships has made a sudden reappearance in Anglican politics. We asked David Ould, Anglican minister and prominent blogger on Anglican affairs, to help us understand the situation.
TGCA: There seems to be quite a bit of noise about same-sex marriage in the Australian Anglican Church at the moment. Could you tell us what has caused this flurry?
While the question of marriage has been a difficult one for both the global Anglican Communion in general and the Anglican Church of Australia for quite a while, things have come to a head recently through the decision of the synod (church parliament) of the diocese of Wangaratta to approve a liturgy for the blessing of persons who have entered a same-sex marriage. While this decision is grievous in and of itself, it’s been made worse by a number of exacerbating factors:
- The motion was promoted by the Bishop of Wangaratta, John Parkes.
- The Anglican Church of Australia has been in a temporary “cease-fire” over this topic. The bishops agreed when they met in March 2018 not to pursue or progress any unilateral innovation in this area and, instead, to act only within the constitutional framework of the Anglican Church of Australia. In effect this meant that they were agreeing that change could only be made through the General Synod (effectively the national parliament of the denomination). Bishop Parkes promotion of a liturgy of blessing is seen by many as a direct breach of this agreement.
Things have come to a head through the decision of the synod of Wangaratta to approve a liturgy for the blessing of persons who have entered a same-sex marriage.
TGCA: What has been the response from the main dioceses to these developments?
Varied! There are 23 dioceses in Australia, including 5 Metropolitan dioceses; Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Sydney has long been conservative and their standing committee and Archbishop both issued strong condemnations of Wangaratta’s actions. Brisbane is a hotbed of liberal theology—often actively promoting gay ideology—and so, while there has been no official reaction, it is reasonable to assume they are watching with supportive interest. Perth will be much the same. Adelaide is a very mixed economy.
Melbourne—the seat of the Primate (lead bishop) of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier—is orthodox on the key questions yet is often accused of being too passive. While the diocese of Melbourne leans towards the evangelical wing there are a good number of liberal clergy and perishes who have often aggressively pushed the revisionist agenda, particularly in matters of human sexuality. Archbishop Philip Freier has the very difficult job of balancing his clear obligations as a bishop to “drive away all false and strange doctrine which is contrary to God’s word” with his deep desire to “keep the peace”.
TGCA: How have evangelical and orthodox organisations such as EFAC and GAFCON responded?
EFAC do not see themselves primarily as a political body and so any action has been left to GAFCON who issued a response to Wangaratta which contained, not only a rejection of Bishop Parkes’ actions and the more general promotion of liberal theology in the Australia Church, but an invitation to anyone “troubled” by these moves to contact GAFCON directly. This has been interpreted by many as the beginning of GAFCON laying out a structure for support and even alternate oversight of faithful Anglicans.
TGCA: Is this a line in the sand for the Anglican communion? What’s at stake here? What are the best and worst cases?
When similar events have happened in other Anglican provinces (national churches) there have been splits arising from what has often been described as “a tear in the fabric of the Communion”. Most notably, a new province was formed to respond to the decision of both The Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada to use liturgies for same-sex marriage and blessings and to consecrate men and women who are in active homosexual relationships. That new province, the Anglican Church in North America, is growing rapidly and has the support of the majority of Anglicans around the world through the GAFCON movement. Other such moves have happened in Brazil, New Zealand and, to some extent, in the U.K.
When similar events have happened in other Anglican provinces there have been splits arising from what has often been described as ‘a tear in the fabric of the Communion’.
The push towards revision in the doctrine of marriage has effectively divided the Anglican Communion. Many bishops have decided not to attend the decennial Lambeth bishops conference (2020) hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, instead chosing to support the GAFCON movement which has now held 3 conferences—the latest of which met in Jerusalem last year with more than 2000 global delegates (the largest Anglican gathering in almost 100 years!)
The best outcome would, of course, be repentance on the part of those who have walked away from the word of God and the lordship of Christ. That’s Jesus’ prayer; that we would be set apart and therefore united in truth (John 17:17 etc.)
Sadly we have seen little to no such response despite repeated calls. The next choice then, as difficult as it might be, is to part ways. The Scriptural mandate for such a move is clear:
Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work. (2John 9:10-11)
I’m also particularly struck by Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1Cor. 11:19)
Sometimes we need to not shy away from a clear distinction, and even division, between those professing to be Christians. When there are diametrically opposed views on a key topic then only one can be correct; only one with God’s approval. To separate from false teachers is never something we look forward to but it is, in many ways, a “good” outcome because it restores truth and discipline to God’s church.
The worst case outcome is something different—it would be the “middle ground” not being clear on the issues that are at stake and embracing false teaching and apostasy for the sake of a misguided unity. The worst case outcome would be the sheep being led astray by false shepherds. This will certainly happen if there is inaction.
TGCA: Are there global or historical perspectives that we should be aware of?
There are a number of lessons from history that should guide us in these matters. First, the immediate experience of liberal revisionist theology in the church shows us that there is rarely if ever repentance and a movement back to orthodoxy by its adherents. In every province of the Anglican Communion where false teaching has been allowed to continue or where small concessions have been made for the sake of maintaining peace, it has only served to encourage and embolden the revisionists. We shouldn’t give snapping crocodiles little scraps of meat and think that it will sate their appetite.
In the medium term we should be encouraged that the genuine gospel faith of evangelicals has always existed and will always exist. The good shepherd knows his sheep; there will always be a faithful 7000! The mechanistic deism that gripped the Church of England in the 18th century or the renewed German liberalism of the Victorian age sat alongside the faithful evangelicals of Wilberforce’s generation or giants such as Bishop J.C. Ryle. Fashions of liberal theology come and go almost as frequently as the ear-rings on the ears that they tickle, but the faith entrusted once for all to the saints continues unchanged. It has always been God’s power for genuine salvation.
Fashions of liberal theology come and go almost as frequently as the ear-rings on the ears that they tickle, but the faith once-entrusted continues unchanged. It has always been God’s power for genuine salvation.
Finally there is always the example of the Reformation and the willingness of key leaders to step away from familiar and comfortable church structures for the sake of the gospel. God has more than honoured those brave steps even though at the time they may have appeared foolhardy. Even now, many congregations that have left apostate dioceses have found themselves 10 years later in far better circumstances than they could have imagined. The health of a church is measured by things other than the size of a building or endowment fund or the pension and health insurance provision of the clergy.
Globally, we also need to keep remembering that the orthodox are actually in a majority in the global Anglican Communion. The world of social media can sometimes make us think that the western church, with it’s rampant liberalism and seeming daily apostasy, is all that there is. But all over the globe God is building his church as faithful men and women seek to live for the Lord Jesus Christ and proclaim him to others.
TGCA: What things do you pray for about this situation?
I pray for a number of things:
- I ask that our leaders would be wise in their actions and courageous as they carry them out.
- I pray for repentance on the part of those who are leading our church into such a terrible crisis.
- I also pray for my own heart—it would be so easy to become bitter or angry about what others in the church are doing and to slip into an entirely combative frame of mind. Of course, there is a righteous indignation which we should not be afraid of but I’m kidding myself if I think that my heart is pure.
- Most of all we need to pray that we would not be distracted from the great cause of the gospel. When Jude writes he expresses this great tension:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. (Jude 3)
The entire short letter is so useful for us in this rapidly gathering storm. As we contend for the faith we need to pray that we ourselves remain faithful to the great priority of that same faith—the proclamation of Christ in all his glory and the call on everyone around us to turn to him and find their salvation in him.