Wangaratta’s same-sex marriage blessing ‘valid’, Church of Australia’s highest court rules
Photo credit: The Advocate Newspaper / Diocese of Wangaratta
A blessing service for civil marriages – including those between same-sex couples – is valid, according to a ruling by the Appeals Tribunal, the highest legal authority in the Anglican Church in Australia. And in a second judgment handed down at the same time, the Tribunal ruled that the Diocese of Newcastle had the right to remove the possibility of disciplinary action against clergy who enter into a civil marriage with a person of the same sex.
The rulings were made in two 5-1 majority opinions which were delivered by the appeals tribunal after considering two sets of questions posed by the former primate of Australia, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier.
The first referred to regulations adopted by the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta in August 2019 which provide for a form of service for a church blessing for married couples in accordance with Australian Marriage Law. The second concerned a Newcastle Diocese Synod ordinance, drafted in 2019, which removes the possibility of disciplinary action taken against a clergyman who is married under the Same-Sex Marriage Act; or who blessed – or refused to bless – a same-sex marriage.
The court of appeal ruled that the Wangaratta liturgy was valid because the Church’s constitution permitted forms of service that had been “approved for use in the diocese by the diocesan council of that diocese.” In validating the Newcastle ordinance, she clarified that the national constitutional disciplinary regime may still apply, in specific cases.
The Appeals Tribunal explained that its role was to decide questions of law rather than doctrine. “The issue of approving the celebration of a same-sex marriage is not before the Tribunal,” he said. “And… The Tribunal did not have to consider the ‘merits’ of blessing services or even the theology of same-sex ‘coupling’ blessing beyond whether it involves a relevant teaching on a question of faith.
“All we have done is declare that the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta has not acted contrary to the Constitution nor to the extent of authority given by the General Synod. . . All matters discussed in this reference are legal in nature. No question of fact or credibility is at issue.
The Bishop of Wangaratta, Clarence Bester, said: “In this opinion and this determination, I don’t think we have winners or losers. This issue will continue to be a bone of contention within the Anglican Church, also certainly within our diocese, as some do not occupy the same position.
“When this regulation was presented to the synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta last year, the former bishop explicitly stated that no member of the clergy should feel obligated to do anything against their own belief and I wish to underline it again. What I hope is that all points of view will be respected and that we will stay together as members of the Anglican Church even when we do not agree.
Responding to the opinions, the current Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop of Adelaide, Geoff Smith, described them as “an important contribution to the ongoing conversation within the Church on how to respond to issues of human sexuality while reflecting God’s love for everyone. “
In a statement, the Church said the judgments “do not allow Anglican clergy to officiate at marriages other than those between a man and a woman” and said the 2017 General Synod meeting adopted a motion recognizing that the doctrine of the church “is that marriage is the exclusive and permanent union of a man and a woman.”
“Church members hold a wide variety of opinions on these matters, given the historic teaching of the Church and changes in society,” Archbishop Geoff said, “and some will welcome it. opinion of the appeal tribunal, while it will greatly worry others. .
“The Church is a large community made up of a wide variety of people, young and old, across the country. And, this is a question in which there is a range of opinions
“We believe that God loves all people, including those in the LGBTI + community and those who have same-sex relationships. We are committed to reflecting God’s love for them
“It is important to note that there is significant goodwill among church leaders to work together on these difficult issues. We do this in good faith and in the love of God for all mankind.
Church statement says Australian General Synod is expected to meet in 2021, where the Tribunal’s opinion will likely be taken into account as part of discussions regarding the Church’s response to the 2017 amendment to the law on marriage and on changing attitudes in the community towards human sexuality. “
Same-sex marriage became legal in Australia when the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 amended the Marriage Act 1961 to allow marriage between two people regardless of their sex.