If the mainstream media were to be believed, the Synod (church parliament) of the Anglican Diocese of Perth have just voted overwhelmingly to support same-sex marriage. So the ABC has this report…
Anglicans in Perth have voted to have same-sex relationships recognised.
The church synod voted by a two-thirds majority to call for legal acknowledgment of civil unions between people of the same sex.
SBS are running a similar line,
Anglicans in Perth have voted in favour of recognising same-sex relationships, including marriage.
If you don’t read carefully, you’d be thinking that there would be gay weddings beginning next month all over Western Australia. The truth is, as always, a little more complicated.
The original motion was put before the synod last year. Here’s the full text…
That this Synod:
- Recognises diversity within the Diocese of Perth, both in our sexual identities and in our theoogies of human sexuality;
- notes the support from many within the Anglican Church for committed same-sex couples being abel to register their relationship as ‘civil unions’ in Australia; and
- acknowledges that legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships may co-exist with legal recognition of marriage between a man and a woman.
At the time the Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft, vetoed the motion. When that happens, under Perth’s canons, the motion can be moved again the following year but requires a 2/3 majority to pass. That’s the situation we find ourselves in now. The motion has 2/3 support in both houses (clergy and laity) and goes before the Archbishop again. I understand that an exact count was asked for from the floor of synod but the Archbishop declined to give the numbers, as is his right. He now has 30 days in which to choose to allow it to pass or to use his veto again, at which point it passes to Provincial Synod (of Western Australia) for them to decide.
So a number of things need to be understood:
The real intent of the motion
One synod source called the motion “like soap in the bath – the importance of it is not in what is said”.
The first part of the motion, as written, is actually quite tame. It notes the presence of things that could not be denied; diverse opinions, understandings and expressions in the diocese over issues of human sexuality. The second part then is a sly way of affirming that recognising same-sex relationships is something that can happen legitimately. But, of course, it’s about more than that.
Father Chris said the aim of the policy was to counteract negative and hurtful comments about same-sex couples by other Christian groups, particularly the Australian Christians Lobby.
“When they come out and say things like `it’s unnatural to be gay’ or `it’s against the bible’ or `all Christians reject homosexual behaviour’ … we want to say `that’s not the case’,” he said.
“And if the government … goes ahead with any kind of recognition, whether that’s something as simple as changes to superannuation laws or marriage equality, we’re comfortable with that.
In plainspeak, it’s an attempt to get the synod to say that same-sex behaviour is acceptable, is a natural behaviour and that there is no Biblical proscription. Gay is OK. It’s not a full-blown motion affirming it in the strongest terms but then I’m sure Bedding is wise enough to know that one step at a time is the most practical way forward. It’s worked really well in The Episcopal Church in the US and in Canada.
Archbishop Herft’s Position and Response
Archbishop Roger Herft is respected across all sides of the debate in Perth as a consumate diplomat. Although there are many who would be very unhappy with his failure to rein in the heretical statements of the Dean of Perth, John Shepherd and it’s hard to find direct statements from him on the topic of sexual ethics, when I spoke to sources in Perth this last week they expressed a clear understanding that Herft is a conservative on the particular issue of “same-sex marriage”. One said to me,
“Roger is very clear about marriage being between one man and one woman and on a broader sexual ethic, that sexual activity is for marriage.”
In typical conciliatory style Herft is also very reluctant to endorse in any way anything that the wider church has not expressly affirmed, determined not to allow the church to move one step beyond where it should. Herft certainly has the wider church in mind at all time, as evidenced by his intervention during the contentious 2010 General Synod debate on GAFCON where he proposed an amendment that spoke in less hostile terms of the fledgling movement.
While his personal view on this subject remains a matter more understood rather than publicly stated, he has recognised the need to speak publicly about the motion which is now before him for consideration, issuing a media statement which draws heavily on a circular he issued following last year’s initial vote [pdf]. The statement is typical Herft, seeking to affirm what he can in a manner that gives as little reason as possible for conservatives to be offended while still defending what seems likely to be another veto. The opening has been welcomed by supporters of the motion:
The Anglican Church in the Diocese of Perth is an inclusive church. Married, divorced, single, gay, lesbian and people of other sexual orientations are welcome in parishes in this diocese. In fact, there are gay and lesbian clergy serving in the priesthood. They are licensed by me and are honoured and respected as priests who serve as others do with integrity and holiness.
Lay people who identify as gay and lesbian are welcome in our churches. Some of them bring their children for baptism and are warmly welcomed into our parishes. There are particular parishes in which special services are held for gay/lesbian/transsexual persons, their partners, parents, siblings and supporters.
I have promised to stand firm against any discrimination or phobia exhibited against persons who identify as gay and lesbian.
The first paragraph is carefully worded. It notes that there are homosexuals who are ordained without affirming homosexual behaviour. Of course that may be a distinction lost on some people – so liberals will cheer and conservatives may be chastened. Take it as you may – and that, of course, is Herft’s intention; not to be tied down but hold open as much as possible.
Nevertheless, he then moves to repeat the arguments that led him to veto the motion last year:
I believe the first part is theologically flawed and has serious consequences in terms of the message it proclaims.
Our primary identity and place before God is not sexual. We are sexual beings but this is not the sum total of who we are.
There is a further difficulty with the open-ended recognition of diverse theologies and sexual identities. The Royal Commission has made us more aware of how careful we must be with our actions, our words, and our legislative language.
There are priests who have used the concept of diversity to justify their abuse of another person. It is ordinarily inappropriate for a governing body to be so general in its wording in this way.
It’s also worth noting that in a radio interview with ABC 720AM, Herft said,
“we must be careful that we do not send the message that anything is acceptable”
What this is, therefore, is not so much an outright rejection of the theological position re sexual ethics (which conservative would, of course, be looking for) but a rejection of some of the assumptions underlying the position. More subtle and, of course, leaving some wiggle room but, at the same time, challenging some of the more liberal position to be reassessed.
His other objections centred around issues of legal understanding,
The second part of the motion notes support for civil unions for same-sex couples. An in-principle support for civil unions might be recognised as an important step for gay and lesbian people. However, the difficulty in Western Australia is that this legislation has not been passed by parliament. For synod to endorse legislation it has not seen is fraught with difficulty.
The third part of the motion claims that the legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships may co-exist with the legal recognition of marriage between a man and a woman. We have no legislation that has been passed at a federal and state level to know what the legislation looks like, but the words “legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships” may be seen to include the recognition of same-sex marriage.
This part of the motion, in the context of the motion as a whole, is likely to have unintended consequences in terms of the Fundamental Declarations of our church regarding the Sacrament of Marriage.
These matters require further consideration and I will inform the synod within the next 30 days of my decision.
Again, all good points. But at no point is there a simple rejection of the main theological assertion being made – that same-sex relationships are an intrinsically good thing. But then if you were hoping for that you were hopelessly optimistic. It’s usually the sign of a diplomat that nobody is terribly happy at the end of it all. Nevertheless, I think it’s pretty clear from the way that Herft has repeated his arguments from last year that we will be expecting another veto. The motion will then pass to Provincial Synod where it’s hard to tell what will happen. It could very well be that delegates are very reluctant to go against their Metropolitan.
The Synod Debate
The debate itself has exposed a Synod that is perhaps far more liberal than the Archbishop which it elected. Sources who were in the debate spoke to me of a discussion that wasn’t actually addressing the substance of the motion but, rather, the wider topic of same-sex behaviour. The pattern of the discussion will be familiar to many of us who have been engaged in these debates.
One particular talented speaker gave a speech that was described to me as being made with humour and eloquence, and all the more dangerous because of it’s winsome manner. Despite the fine rhetoric, the speaker mocked and ridiculed the proposition that scripture was authoritative. The speech was met with resounding cheers and applause.
My source described the whole approach to the Bible and theology as “a disaster area” telling me “a theological position that allows one to utterly reject the Bible and also promotes a situation where ‘I don’t want anyone to change’ is as far away from healthy as you can get”. The doctrine of affirmation of everybody and everything appears not only to have been alive and well on the floor of synod but also heartily accepted by many delegates. More than one person I spoke to expressed their discouragement at the way these underlying assumptions were given such ringing endorsement.
The Way Forward
As I wrote above, the assumption should be that Herft will veto the motion. But that will not stop liberals trying to put facts on the ground in other ways and, no doubt, present another motion next year. Herft might not be many conservatives’ first choice for bishop but he needs supporting in this area. Perhaps the first place to start is the upcoming Sydney Synod where a strong motion may bolster his resolve.
The reality is that liberals will be encouraged by this vote, and in particular the strength of the majority. No official policy change has occurred but there’s no doubt amongst many that an even stronger motion may arrive sooner rather than later. As already noted above, the damage that would be done would be not simply to our publicly stated sexual-ethic but to our understanding of the gospel itself.