Newcastle Synod Decision Pushes Australian Anglicans to Precipice

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The synod of the Diocese of Newcastle which met this past weekend has taken a decision that will only further exacerbate the already very high tensions in the national church.

As we reported last week, the synod was due to consider 2 controversial pieces of legislation.

The first is an ordinance to remove the possibility of clergy in a same-sex marriage being open to a disciplinary tribunal by virtue of that relationship. The second, a bill, sought to establish a “Wangaratta”-style blessing for persons in same-sex marriages.

Only the first ordinance actually passed. Reports from the synod tell of time running out on the second bill and so, although it had support in principle, it could not be completed and will have to be presented next year.

Speaking to the first bill, Bishop Peter Stuart said in a “pastoral letter” sent out today,

One of the responsibilities on me as the Diocesan Bishop is to indicate my assent or otherwise to the Ordinance. During and since the Synod I sought some advice about my responsibilities and the way forward.

I have communicated with the Primate and he has indicated that he will refer the Ordinance to the Appellate Tribunal. He will put to the Appellate Tribunal, at least the following questions which I proposed to him –

1. Is any part of the Clergy Discipline Ordinance 2019 Amendment Ordinance 2019 of the Diocese of Newcastle inconsistent with the Fundamental Declarations or the Ruling Principles of the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia?
2. Does the Synod of the Diocese of Newcastle have the authority under section 51 of the Constitution to pass the Clergy Discipline Ordinance 2019 Amendment Ordinance 2019?
3. Where an Ordinance is passed by a Synod of a Diocese in the Province of New South Wales and referred to the Appellate Tribunal prior to the Bishop giving her/his assent in accordance with Constitution 5(c) of the Schedule of the Anglican Church of Australia Constitution Act 1902, may the Bishop give assent to the Ordinance on receiving the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal or is the Synod required to pass the ordinance again?

The Primate had also received a notice under section 63 of the Constitution about the Bill before the Synod from 25 members of the General Synod.

All of this has moved more quickly than I imagined at the end of the Synod on Saturday.

With respect to the Bishop, here at we think that’s a little hard to believe. It was clear that there was always going to be a very strong response to the bill being passed and nothing that he reports in his letter is in any way unexpected.

The next paragraph is of great interest:

With this reference being made to the Appellate Tribunal, I will defer any consideration of my assent to the Ordinance until the Appellate Tribunal delivers its response.

One suspects that this will place the bishop and diocese in a very difficult position. The rules of the Newcastle Diocese require the bishop to assent to a bill within 30 days of its being passed by synod. It is widely acknowledged that the Appellate Tribunal will not have even begun it’s work, let alone offered any opinion, within those 30 days.

Peter Stuart, the bishop, will not want to be seen to be giving the bill assent without the cover of a decision of the Appellate Tribunal, lest he faces the inevitable disciplinary response that has been clearly signalled by conservative bishops. He’s gladly launched an assault on the doctrine of marriage in the Anglican Church of Australia but appears unwilling to have the courage of his convictions to be held accountable for his decision. So what to do to avoid taking responsibility?

The ordinance itself contains an attempt to work around this problem:

4. This Ordinance shall come into effect at such time as the Synod passes a resolution declaring that this Ordinance shall come into effect and the Bishop indicates in writing his/her support for the Ordinance coming into effect. The Bishop shall indicate his decision within 30 days of the conclusion of an ordinary or special session of the Synod in which the resolution is considered.

5. No resolution declaring that this Ordinance shall come into effect may be considered by this Synod prior to the Fifty Third Synod being summoned by the Bishop.

6. The Synod may consider a resolution that this Ordinance comes into effect on more than one occasion.

7.This Synod confirms that any assent by the Bishop to this ordinance expresses nothing more that the Bishop assenting to the Synod’s wish that it have a process for further deliberation.

We’re not sure that the logic holds. The ordinance wants to change the requirement for the bishop to assent within 30 days and sets up an indefinite delay (clause 4.) until a second vote in synod at a later date, no earlier that the synod of 2020 (clause 5.) Clause 7 clarifies this intent.

But, in order for those clauses to be effective as part of the ordinance the ordinance must first be given assent by the bishop. Until that moment they remain in potentia and not brought into effect. The only way they can become “live” (as it were) is by the ordinance being given assent by the bishop. And he has to do that within 30 days.

Or, to put it more simply, the only way to bring the desired “longer than 30 days” delaying rules into effect is to give the ordinance assent within 30 days. Without Bishop Stuart’s assent within 30 days, the ordinance cannot effectively lengthen the 30 days requirement.

In answers to questions at the synod, Bishop Stuart said the following:

The Primate has advised me of a curious occurrence in which at least 25 members of the General Synod, who are also members of the Synod of the Diocese of Sydney, have requested him to refer the Bills before this Synod to the Appellate Tribunal. There is no capacity to refer Bills or Ordinances that have not received assent so they may need to repeat this again once they have seen what this Synod and Diocesan Bishop actually decide or not decide.

There does appear to be an inconsistency here. Bishop Stuart rightly notes that only an ordinance that has received assent can be referred to the tribunal. But in his pastoral letter he told us that “I have communicated with the Primate and he has indicated that he will refer the Ordinance to the Appellate Tribunal.” Yet how can the Primate refer the Ordinance and have an opinion on it issued if Bishop Stuart has not yet given assent? Make up your mind, please.

So where to from here? Newcastle now has an ordinance in limbo that effectively states that marriage between a homosexual couple is perfectly ok. It is, by any assessment, an attempt to introduce a de facto change in the doctrine of marriage without having the courage to just say “we’re changing the doctrine of marriage” or having provided anything like the necessary theological justification. Given the deep debate over this topic in the recent years (not to mention the repeated motions in General Synod affirming what the church’s doctrine of marriage – not least that it is between a man and a woman), those that claim this is not a change in the doctrine of marriage can only be understood to be disingenuous. Or utterly ignorant of the current debate. The latter is simply impossible. But the bishop is is signalling that he won’t give it assent and so the Appellate Tribunal cannot consider it, even though that’s just what Bishop Stuart wants them to do in order to provide him cover to give assent.

And so Newcastle, led by its bishop, has pushed us further to the cliff edge.

What will the Appellate Tribunal say? Will they even ever meet? Will the Primate publicly back the position of General Synod and call on revisionist bishops to cease their deeply damaging actions? What will happen when the bishops meet in Melbourne next month?

Most urgently, will Bishop Stuart have the courage to assent to the ordinance and stand by his convictions? At General Synod last year he told the room that we did not have a settled doctrine of marriage. Now is his moment to demonstrate the truth of his claim. But will he?

Lots of questions to be answered over the coming months.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Robert Bruce

    The situation now reached requires the bishop to have the courage of his convictions. What he decides to do will show if his convictions truly are still as he declared before God at his episcopal ordination when he vowed assent to the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia and expressed his belief that doctrine is agreeable to the Word of God, and sincerely assented to be bound by the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. How he acts on this ordinance and what he allows clergy to do in his diocese in relation to the issues involved will demonstrate if he still holds those convictions and will have eternal consequences for him and for them.

  2. Chris Douglas

    I assume a number of diocesan clergy spoke in favour of the bill during the Synod debate.
    This would be a public departure from the doctrine of marriage that they would’ve previously agreed to in vow and declaration.
    What sanctions or disciplinary processes have they now opened themselves to?

    1. David Ould

      Chris, as I understand it conservatives have been clear that when clergy carry out such services they will be subject to charges. With bishops it’s different, their role is to defend the doctrine of Christ and the church and it’s hard to see how giving assent to these changes is compatible with such a move.

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