The Anglican Church of Australia has arrived at the crisis moment that so many of us have feared and warned about. The Melbourne Anglican reports that Bishop John Parkes of Wangaratta will ask his diocese’s upcoming synod (meeting on the weekend of August 30-31) to endorse a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex marriages and will, himself, be prepared to preside over such a service.
So why this move and why now? Parkes gives his own reasons in the interview but one key factor isn’t noted. Orthodox bishops have made it quite clear that if such a move were taken then they would immediately instigate disciplinary procedures against any bishop who approved such a liturgy, let alone presided over one. Parkes, however, is about to retire so he has far less to lose. Moreover, in his retirement announcement he tells the diocese that,
What does this mean in terms of timing? I will continue in office until the 31 August and will therefore preside at my final Synod on 30 and 31/8. I will then take my accumulated leave and return on 21 December to lay up my pastoral staff. This will mark the end of my time as your Bishop.
So he can preside over the synod when they take the vote. Then effectively disappear and leave someone else to deal with the massive shockwaves that it will cause.
And what of our national church’s leadership in all of this? The Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne, issued the following statement:
I have become aware that the forthcoming Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta will be considering a proposal to approve a service of blessing of same-sex marriages. This follows the change in the Commonwealth Marriage Act in 2017 which made same-sex marriages legal in Australia.
This is a significant matter for the national Church and, on my present advice, would likely give rise to a question under the Constitution on which minds will differ. Should such a proposal be approved by the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta and give rise to such a question, I intend, after obtaining appropriate advice, to refer that question to the Appellate Tribunal under s63(1) of the Constitution. This would assist the Anglican Church of Australia in the clarification of this issue and put in place an orderly process by which the issue can be addressed.
I ask for your prayers in the conversations and deliberations around this sensitive pastoral and theological matter.”
There will be many Anglicans in Australia who would have hoped that the Primate could offer a firmer response to this deep crisis. While the Primate’s role is that of a chair, not a chief executive, there is still considerable weight given to any opinion he might offer.
As chair of the General Synod he could easily have reminded the national church of the position that the General Synod has repeatedly taken on this topic, most recently crystallised in a motion which declared that the blessing of same-sex marriages is,
…contrary to the doctrine of our Church and the teaching of Christ…
He could have affirmed that doctrine and teaching and even reminded us of Jesus’ clear words on the topic. But instead he punted the ball away.
He might have pointed out that Bishop Parkes has openly breached the 2018 Bishops’ Agreement on this topic which opens like this:
Responding to Recent Changes in the Marriage Act
We, the bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia, affirm the following.
1. The doctrine of this Church is that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. If we as a Church are to change this doctrine to permit same-sex marriage, the appropriate mechanism is through the framework of the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Church of Australia. Bishops should give leadership in demonstrating trust in this framework as the way to move forward together, recognising that this will require care, persistence and generosity. The bishops commit to working together to manifest and maintain unity, as we together discern the truth.
Bishops Parkes has now openly stated that he wants to circumvent the framework of the Constitution and Canons and pursue a unilateral course. The Primate says nothing against it.
On other topics the Primate has been happy to speak out about alleged breaches of the Constitution. When a number of Australian bishops took part in the consecration of Andy Lines in 2017, Archbishop Freier wrote and published the following in an open letter:
…I advised both bishops against this course of action. I take the view that communion – koinonia, is a gift of our Lord to his Church and that in our context it is the Anglican Church of Australia, through its constitution and the framework it establishes, that determines how this is expressed in practical terms.
As s5 of our National Constitution provides:
Subject to the Fundamental Declarations and the provisions of this chapter [Chapter 2] this Church has plenary authority and power to make canons, ordinances and rules for the order and good government of the Church, and to administer the affairs thereof. Such authority and power may be exercised by the several synods and tribunals in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.
For reasons explained below, I do not think that it is for us individually, acting independently, to determine with whom we are in communion or to act unilaterally to that end.
So note carefully. 2 years ago the Primate publicly admonished (albeit politely) 2 bishops for taking part in a consecration. He did so by arguing that the move was contrary to the Constitution and over-rode “the plenary authority of General Synod”. He wrote about the obligations of bishops and expressed his “deep concerns” about their actions, not least their break of koinonia fellowship.
Now, two years later, faced with a much larger crisis we hear far, far less despite the fact that this is a topic on which the General Synod that he chairs has spoken repeatedly. Two years ago he openly criticised those who acted. Now that we have a topic on which there is much more clarity in the national church’s position and a clear breach of fellowship and trust by a bishop in direct contradiction of an agreement that he had entered into and a matter on which the Primate himself is known to be conservative. And yet, in the face of a direct challenge to the church’s long-held position on this most vexed of issues it appears he has simply blinked. Just as he did last year when clergy licensed in his diocese actively participated in a liturgy for a same-sex marriage.
It is not surprising that where there is a vacuum of leadership it will cause those who want to overthrow long-established doctrine and teaching to have every encouragement in acting. Here at davidould.net we think the writing is on the wall that there will be no effective response from the national leadership to oppose them. Some would say that much has been clear for quite a while.
And there should be no surprise, either, that there will be others who see this failure to lead, let alone to discipline, and consider that alternate arrangements may need to be made. Especially if Wangaratta’s challenge to the entire national church (and the wider Communion) comes to fruition.
But for now the spotlight is on Bishop Parkes. Will he follow through with his stated intention and push the Anglican Church of Australia into a crisis?