In what is likely to be a very well-received letter amongst conservatives, Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier (Primate of Australia) has written to all Australian bishops and published on his own website:
Dear brothers and sisters,
The proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage has been one of the more contentious topics in 2016. Individual Anglicans have adopted a variety of positions taken in good conscience based on their Christian understanding of the principles and issues, and this is right and proper.
Personally, I welcome the plebiscite, though with strong reservations that we must guard the tenor of the debate, and keep it positive. The Government promised a plebiscite in campaigning for the July election and, having been elected, they have the reasonable expectation of honouring this commitment. Further, those who oppose same-sex marriage will surely find it easier to accept it becoming approved in law if they have been given a vote. It is of course, far from certain at the present time that the measures will gain parliamentary approval.
If the plebiscite does happen it will be important that Christians – and others – vote according to their conscience and their view of what is best for society, and that the Government brings legislation to enact the will of the people. It is proper to expect that the Parliament should honour the results of the plebiscite.
Should the vote be in favour of same-sex marriage as suggested by the opinion polls, the Church must accept that this is now part of the landscape. We can still stand for and offer holy matrimony between a man and a woman as a sacred ordinance given by God, while accepting that the state has endorsed a wider view of marriage – as, indeed, the state has endorsed de facto relationships by legislating similar protections to those offered by marriage for people in such relationships.
The doctrine of the Book of Common Prayer remains unchanged, that marriage is between a man and a woman, under God, forsaking all others until death parts them. I do not believe that the Anglican Church in Australia is likely to revise its doctrine of marriage.
But that said, the Church also understands the desire of two people to express their commitment of love and self-sacrifice to each other, and that Christians have not always shown the respect or perspective they should. I am very concerned that the discussion does not become harsh or vilifying – on either side, for it is not only Christians who have sometimes failed on this score.
We understand that this is not a theoretical issue for many people, but one that directly impinges on their lives. We understand that sometimes gays, lesbians and others have felt judged and rejected, even ostracised, inside the Church and that we have to be much more pastorally sensitive in future.
Whether this is the threshold event that many in our church think or whether the widening of marriage happened many years ago and further widening is inevitable remains to be seen. What does matter is that we approach this question with prayer, confidence in the Church’s teaching as well as kindness in our speech towards those with whom we disagree.
Grace and peace in Christ Jesus
The letter has been well received with those Melbourne conservatives I spoke to today who are very happy with not just the content, tone and the clarity with which it affirms the church’s traditional view on marriage but also the call for a good, healthy and kind national debate when the plebiscite is finally announced and timetabled.
The letter comes amidst renewed tensions in Freier’s Metropolitan Province of Victoria. Bishop John Parkes of Wangaratta has already made it known that he is likely to break ranks with the House of Bishops and speak out in favour of a “yes” vote in any upcoming plebiscite on redefining marriage. In Melbourne itself, Assistant Bishop Phillip Huggins caused upset when he gave a radio interview last week where he stated he could envisage a same-sex wedding happening in an Anglican Church. The full interview is embedded below for context.
I understand that many conservatives have protested to their Archbishop that Huggins’ comments are contrary to and undermine the established position of the Anglican Church of Australia. Others have suggested to me that they represent a further unhelpful challenge to the Primate’s solidly orthodox position on marriage, following on as they do from both Bishop John Parkes’ comments and also the actions of Bishop of Gippsland, Kay Goldsworthy.
The Primate’s letter might now be seen as clearly setting out his stall, and that of the Anglican Church of Australia. It would be a very brave theological liberal who would choose, at this point, to try and push the issue.