BY A five-to-one majority, the Australian Anglican Church’s highest court, the Appellate Tribunal, has in effect cleared the way for the liturgical blessing of same-sex civil marriages.
In a decision handed down after more than a year’s deliberation, the tribunal said that blessings approved by two Australian dioceses were not inconsistent with the Church’s Constitution or with its canon law.
The tribunal determination was in response to references made last year after the synods of the dioceses of Wangaratta, in regional Victoria (News, 6 September 2019), and Newcastle, in New South Wales (News, 8 November 2019), decided in favour of same-sex blessings.
The decision is expected to ignite controversy in conservative sections of the Anglican Church of Australia, principally the diocese of Sydney, which is vehement in its opposition to same-sex relationships. The majority members of the tribunal have alluded to this, noting that “the Tribunal has been confronted with deciding on behalf of a divided church strictly legal matters that will affect authoritatively the future choices for prayerful further action by synods, bishops, clergy and lay people.”
The first reference concerned a prescribed liturgy for blessing civil unions overwhelmingly approved by the Wangaratta synod in August last year. The regulation to approve the liturgy does not specifically refer to same-sex marriages, but provides for “persons married according to the Marriage Act 1961”, the Australian Government marriage legislation amended in 2017 to provide for same-sex marriages. The regulation does not compel clergy to officiate at a marriage blessing “if to do so would offend their conscience”. If they refuse, they are not compelled to refer couples to another minister.
The planned blessing of the civil marriage of two male Wangaratta clergy in a long-term partnership, scheduled to take place two weeks after the synod vote, did not proceed after the then Primate, the Most Revd Dr Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne, referred the matter to the Appellate Tribunal, asking that the liturgy not be used while the tribunal deliberated (News, 13 September 2019).
In October last year, the synod of the diocese of Newcastle passed a similar regulation, including the same form of service for the blessing as approved by Wangaratta. The synod also amended its clergy-discipline ordinance so that clergy “cannot be charged with an offence by choosing to participate or not participate in the blessing of a legally solemnised marriage of two persons of the same sex”.
It also provides that “the legal marriage of a member of the clergy to a person of the same sex is not grounds for a charge of offence.” These decisions were also referred to the Appellate Tribunal.
The tribunal decision says that the diocese has authority “to amend its own diocesan clergy discipline regime in relation to clergy who bless or are party to a same-sex marriage”. But it warns that this “would not affect the constitutional jurisdiction of diocesan tribunals to determine charges for offences created by the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia or by any Canon of the General Synod that is in force in the Diocese”.
The dissenting member of the six-person Tribunal was Gillian Davidson, a Sydney lawyer and Sydney representative on the General Synod.