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Wangaratta’s same-sex wedding blessing “valid”, Australia’s highest Church court rules

Posted on: November 12, 2020 12:45 PM
The Appellate Tribunal has validated a form of service for a church blessing for couples who are married in accordance with Australia’s Marriage Act, that was approved by the Wangaratta Diocesan Synod in 2018.
Photo Credit: The Advocate Newspaper / Diocese of Wangaratta

A service of blessing for civil marriages – including those between same-sex couples – is valid, according to a ruling by the Appellate Tribunal, the highest legal authority in the Anglican Church of Australia. And in a second judgment released at the same time, the Tribunal ruled that the Diocese of Newcastle was entitled to remove the possibility of disciplinary action against clergy who enter into a civil marriage with a person of the same-sex.

The decisions were made in two 5-1 majority opinions which were issued by the Appellate Tribunal after considering two sets of questions referred by the previous Primate of Australia, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier.

The first referred to regulations passed by the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta in August 2019 that provide a form of service for a church blessing for couples who are married in accordance with Australia’s Marriage Act. The second concerned an ordinance by the Synod of the Diocese of Newcastle, drafted in 2019, which removes the possibility of disciplinary action taken against a member of the clergy married under the Marriage Act to a member of the same sex; or who blessed – or declined to bless – a same-sex marriage.

The Appellate Tribunal ruled that the Wangaratta liturgy was valid because the Church’s constitution allowed for forms of service that had been “approved for use within the diocese by the diocesan council of that diocese”. In validating the Newcastle ordinance, it said that the national constitutional disciplinary regime may still apply, in particular cases.

The Appellate Tribunal explained that its role was to ajucicate questions of law rather than doctrine. “The issue of approving the solemnisation of a same-sex marriage is not before the Tribunal”, it said. “And . . . the Tribunal has not had to address the ‘merits’ of blessing services or even the theology of blessing same-sex ‘coupling’ beyond the inquiry as to whether it entails a relevant teaching on a question of faith.

“All we have done is to declare that the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta has not acted contrary to the Constitution nor contrary to the scope of authority given by the General Synod. . . All of the issues in this Reference are of a legal nature. No questions of fact or credibility are involved.”

The Bishop of Wangaratta, Clarence Bester, said: “In this opinion and determination, I do not believe that we have any winners or losers. This matter will continue to be a bone of contention within the Anglican Church, as certainly within our Diocese, as some do not hold the same position.

“When this regulation came before the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta last year, it was explicitly stated by the former Bishop that no clergy person should feel compelled to do anything against their own belief and I would want to emphasise that again. What I do hope is that all viewpoints will be respected and that we will hold 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, the Archbishop of Adelaide, Geoff Smith, described them as “an important contribution to the ongoing conversation within the Church about how to respond to issues of human sexuality while reflecting God’s love for all people.”

In a statement, the Church said that the judgments do “not authorises Anglican clergy to officiate at weddings other than those between a man and a woman” and it said that the 2017 General Synod meeting passed a motion recognising that the doctrine of the church “is that marriage is an exclusive and lifelong union of a man and a woman”.

“The people of the Church hold a wide variety of opinions on these issues, considering historical teaching of the church and changes in society”, Archbishop Geoff said, “and some will welcome the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion, while it will cause significant concern to others.

“The Church is a broad community made up of a great variety of people, young and old all over the country. And, this is an issue in which there's a range of opinions

“We believe God loves all people including those in the LGBTI+ community and those in same-sex relationships. We are committed to reflecting God’s love for them

“It is important to note that there is significant goodwill among leaders of the church to work together on these difficult issues. We do so in good faith and faith in God’s love for all humankind.”

The Church statement said that Australia’s General Synod is next expected to meet in 2021 where the Tribunal’s opinion is likely to be considered as part of discussions concerning the response of the church to the 2017 amendment to the Marriage Act and changing community attitudes to human sexuality.”

Same-sex marriage became legal in Australia when the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 amending the 1961 Marriage Act to allow marriage between two persons regardless of their gender.