At the General Synod meeting in Freemantle on 6 October, Australia’s Anglicans rejected blessing gay marriages and ordaining ministers in gay relationships, voting to uphold the traditional position that sex outside marriage is wrong. The meeting also agreed to back Parliament’s decree that marriage, at law, was the exclusive union of a man and a woman.
Debating one of the most divisive issues facing the Anglican faith contributors to the debate spoke of their fears about the effect the church’s stance would have on gay people.
It was a second rebuff to liberal Anglicans in three days, after Tuesday’s rejection of women bishops, which was narrowly defeated, the general synod meeting upheld by a significant margin the stance taken by bishops at Lambeth in 1998. It was an emotional debate, with synod members arguing strongly for and against change. In his opening address on Saturday, Anglican Primate Peter Carnley said Anglican followers should adjust their attitudes towards homosexuals to think of gay relationships as “friendships”. The distinct division between progressive and conservative factions within the church became evident in the debate.
Progressives, however, said it was time the Anglican Church faced the realities of the 21st century and accepted that the church had a duty to interpret the Bible in the context of the modern churchgoer.
The Reverend Jill Varcoe, Rector of Canberra-Goulburn, said her family and friends had been subjected to violence because of their homosexuality and the church should beware of making negative judgments. She told the synod that passing such motions made the members complicit in violence against gays and lesbians. She opposed them not as a position on the morality of homosexuality but “the morality of what we do as powerful and public people when we vote on motions of this kind”. “I find wilful contradiction arises when we say to people: ‘You can only have sex in marriage, but we are not permitting you to marry’.” “The problem is that every time powerful people make a negative statement about gays and lesbians, that violence increases,” Ms Varcoe said. “If we pass motions of this kind we become complicit in violence done to gays and lesbians and I cannot vote for them.”
Bruce Ballantyne-Jones, the influential former head of Sydney’s Anglican Church League, said scripture was clear that sex outside marriage was sinful. “For 2000 years the church has held this position. Just because in the latter part of the 20th century sociological forces have given rise to the gay movement, which has impacted in the church, is no reason for the church to turn its back on the clear teaching,” he said.
Sydney diocese member Sandy Grant, a rector in the parish of Kurrajong, said it must be made clear the church would not give its blessing to gay couples. “We must say it gently and with compassion, but we must not condone any liturgical blessing of homosexual partnerships in disregard of the plain teaching of Jesus,” he said. “To deliberately hallow such god-forbidden relationships is to approve sin.”
The Bishop of Western Sydney, Ivan Lee, said the church had opposed same-sex unions for centuries. “We don’t hold this position as a matter of mere tradition but as the scriptures dictate,” Bishop Lee said.
Adelaide Archdeacon Dr Cathy Thomson asked the synod if it was clear the Bible said homosexuality was forbidden and sinful. “We do not know how homosexuality originates. We do not know if the source of homosexuality is biological, genetic or psychological,” she said. “Because we do not know that, we cannot assume it is wrong for someone to pursue their own homosexual nature.”
Progressive lay representative Muriel Porter said the Anglican Church had changed its position many times on contentious issues, not least on contraception, giving tacit support in 1930 and openly backing the issue in 1958. “Even St Thomas Aquinas condemned what are now many normal heterosexual practices as a form of sodomy and therefore a mortal sin,” Mrs Porter said.
The decision on gays was a further victory for radical conservative Anglicans, who have already stopped a move to consecrate women bishops. The General Synod also expressed regret over recent decisions by Anglicans in Canada and the US to break with the church over the issue.