Is the Anglican Church about to split?

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Dorothy Ann Lee and Muriel Porter

Almost three years on from same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia, the issue is threatening to break up the Anglican Church in this country.

This is the gravest threat to the church’s unity in its more than 200-year history. For the three million-plus Australians who identify as Anglican, it could mean at the least sharp disagreement and at worst, damaging disunity.

Same-sex blessings approved
Long-simmering tensions within the church have come to a head with a recent judgement that supports the right of clergy to bless civil marriages, regardless of sexual orientation.

Last year, the dioceses of Wangaratta and Newcastle approved services for marriage blessings. Wangaratta diocese, once conservative, has become more progressive, while Newcastle has long had progressive stance.

Their new services are just for blessings of couples married in civil ceremonies, not actual church marriages.

Nevertheless, the services sparked fierce opposition from the fundamentalist Diocese of Sydney. During the same-sex marriage debate in 2017, Sydney Diocese gave $1 million to the ‘No’ campaign, because Sydney and its conservative allies condemn same-sex relationships as sinful and bound for hellfire.

Church’s court weighs in
Given the disagreement, the blessing services were immediately referred to the church’s highest court, the Appellate Tribunal, to see if they conformed to the basic principles of the national church’s constitution.

On 11 November, the court ruled by a majority of five to one in favour of same-sex blessings. The one person who opposed the majority view was a lawyer from the Sydney Diocese, and whose minority view is included in the tribunal’s report.

The bishops of all the Australian dioceses then held rapid virtual meetings to review the tribunal decision, and it was expected they would decree no blessings should go ahead in the interests of church unity.

At this point, those in favour of the blessings, including Equal Voices Anglican, feared progressive bishops would give in to a conservative push to do nothing until the next meeting of the General Synod. The synod, the church’s national ‘parliament’, is not scheduled to meet until mid next year. But given the pandemic, even that timing is uncertain.

Some Anglicans want to see same-sex marriages ‘blessed’ by the church. www.shutterstock.com

A statement issued by the bishops on 20 November acknowledges “there is not a common mind” on same-sex issues among them. This is a significant comment, as this group has traditionally agreed in formal statements — however artificial — in the interests of church unity.

While the bishops say the General Synod will be able to address the issues, they have nevertheless urged clergy to consider carefully “whether or how to bless those married according to the Marriage Act” (which allows for same-sex marriage). In other words, the Australian bishops have officially recognised these blessings can now go ahead.

But disagreement continues
This will not be the end of heated disagreement. The Sydney Diocese will not easily give in on this issue. On same-sex relationships, they base their stance on a few contested Bible texts.

Most biblical scholars, however, see those texts as referring to predatory forms of sexual behaviour rather than loving monogamous relationships. They claim there is nothing in the Christian scriptures condemning same-sex marriage.

Other Anglican churches have split
The dispute is very real. There have already been splits in Anglican churches around the world over this issue. Whole dioceses and individual parishes have broken away from national churches to form conservative enclaves in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

Last year, Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies told Anglican supporters of same-sex marriage they should leave the church. Other Anglicans accused him of trying to force a split.

Newcastle Anglicans voted to support same-sex blessings in 2019. Darren Pateman/AAP

An amicable agreement might yet be possible across the Australian church, because there is already considerable diversity among the dioceses on numerous issues, such as women as priests and bishops, the submission of wives to husbands, and the remarriage of divorced persons.

But same-sex issues might well prove to be the Rubicon, because they have become an international Anglican issue in the era of the internet. This can be seen from the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ from the first meeting of the influential Global Anglican Future Conference in 2008.

We acknowledge […] the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family.

Once some clergy go ahead and bless some same-sex marriages, the Sydney Diocese might push for some form of division in the Anglican Church in the coming months. The crucial issue will be what form it would take.

Would progressives have to abandon the church?
The Sydney Diocese is by far the largest diocese in Australia, and would not countenance being part of an offshoot church. It would want to establish itself as the ‘true’ Anglican Church in this country, laying claim to the name and status. It would draw other conservative dioceses into its boundaries, and possibly even parishes and individuals from within progressive dioceses.

Progressive dioceses might be forced to abandon the national church structure, and be left impoverished. The battle over this issue, and who owns the name and church property, could well tie up lawyers and civil courts for years to come.

Such a split would also further diminish Anglicanism as a voice for justice and equality in Australian society.

However, such a split is not inevitable. Church leaders across the board will have to work hard in the coming months to find a way to prevent it, while allowing conservative and progressive forms of Anglicanism to flourish side by side, with mutual respect.

The decisions the leaders make in 2021 will be the most critical they have ever faced.The Conversation

Dorothy Ann Lee, Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College, University of Divinity and Muriel Porter, Honorary Research Fellow, Trinity College Theological School

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Written by The Conversation

21 Comments

Total Comments: 21
  1. 0
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    What worries me about religions generally is that they espouse peace and love to all people but then they start reading their Holy Books literally and start singling out people and groups that, according to their interpretation, don’t conform to their religion.

    • 0
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      I agree, I also think the church should clean up it’s own act before trying to impose it’s dubious values on others. What is that they preach about casting the first stone ?

  2. 0
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    Don’t blame religion for that. It is across the board in every facet of society, with or without religion taken into account. We seem to be hard-wired for this sort of thing, maybe from the development of humanity as a means of preservation by establishing rules etc..
    We are ego-centric and, scratch most of us, you will find varying degrees of intolerance under the skin. In many cases religion, if applied carefully, can have beneficial effects on society, but there will always be sticking points. Christianity is not the only faith with such problems to address.

  3. 0
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    Religion? Opiate of the masses.Just a way of controlling people through ignorance and fear.Willwe ever grow up enough to rid ourselves of this mumbojumbo belief in some sky spirit and begin to develop as creatures in our own right.
    Religion is the biggest curse ever inflicted on humans and all creatures.

    • 0
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      pedro, I appreciate that the world religion at this time is Materialism, but there is a lot that Materialism can not explain so perhaps not wise to put all your eggs in that particular basket.

      In regards to the split talked of in the article it is also a split between those who believe in love and those who believe in dogma.

      Christianity will only re-become a real religion when it separates itself Fully from the Old testament, Only then will we discover our common humanity and the connection between all of us.
      Hopefully, if that ever happens, you will find a very different world view to look at than patriarchal jehovah, – who also is the god of the jews and moslems – Hey?

  4. 0
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    It is quite possible to disagree with something that someone says or does, but still love them as a person. Most parents of teenagers will tell you that! I don’t agree with same-sex relationships as a life-style choice, mainly because of my Christian beliefs, but I respect others’ right to make that choice for themselves. I do get a bit upset, however, when they demand that I change to not only accept, but actually endorse, their lifestyle. The Christian church has held these views for the last 2,000 years (and Judaism for even longer), and has been a mainstay of Western civilisation for all that time. Why should the church change such long-term, widely-held beliefs, just because a small, vocal group has now decided that they disagree with them? Even non-religious groups in the community have rules their members abide by. If you don’t like the rules, don’t join the group! Simple.

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      Totally agree with your comments differentiating between the person and their actions. We are taught to love the person and not their sin. It is not up to us to impose our world view on those who choose not to accept the essentials of Christian belief. It saddens me that there are activists who insist that we endorse their lifestyle and that the Church should change to accommodate their world view.

  5. 0
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    Why do these people need a church blessing? If they are regular church goers the I am sure they can find a clergy that is willing to bless their union with out causing dissension, I believe this is just another facet of the political correctness agenda along with same sex marriages, female clergy, humans instead of peoples, Holy god instead of holy father, was born and is truly human etc, every one is entitled to be happy but why cause disruptions just for their own selfish P.C agenda and social engineering.

  6. 0
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    Over the 5 million years Homo Sapiens have been on this earth in one form or another there have been about 2000 different religions come and gone. The same thing will happen to today’s religions they will all disappear in about 2 to 300 years’ time, they’re all man-made. They fight each other in wars but claim to belong to the same God. What is written in their holy books was all written by men, mainly to control their flocks and what was OK years ago does not apply today.

  7. 0
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    Why all the discussion? I would imagine a lot of people who disagree with same sex marriage believe in Adam and Eve but, as we know now, taking tissue or a piece of bone/rib will recreate a carbon copy of the donor. So if a rib was taken from Adam the clone would be another man…Adam and Steve.

  8. 0
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    “Most biblical scholars, however, see those texts as referring to predatory forms of sexual behaviour rather than loving monogamous relationships. They claim there is nothing in the Christian scriptures condemning same-sex marriage.” How do the authors of this article define “most”? 51% vs 49%? There are plenty of biblical scholars on both sides of this debate. Without taking one side or the other, the authors should be more careful with stating “facts” that could be construed to make you believe there is an overwhelming support for one side as compared to the other. By making this mistake, they are simply revealing their own bias.

  9. 0
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    the biggest problem all church’s face is judgement, as Christians we are to love EVERYONE regardless of how they live their lives, and we are not to judge them, I have been a committed Christian for quite a number of years, I also have a number of ‘gay’ friends, they know I do not agree with their lifestyle, but they also know I do not judge them, nor will I ever, they make their own choices in life as do I, many Church’s do not exist as they should, and most a covered, in fact bathed in blood due to judging others, which the Bible clearly states they should NOT do, but again that is their choice, and I again will not judge them, someone else, someone mandated to be their judge will do that, what we should be doing is living our lives as best we can, offering love to anyone whop needs it

  10. 0
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    So much ado about NOTHING.

    Religions were invented by humans to explain the unexplainable.
    As human knowledge increases, the religions become more and more irrelevant.
    So they then search for controversies and start arguments (and wars) in an attempt to regain some relevancy.

    The churches are the business end of the religions, and over the centuries many (not all) have been taken over by bigots, criminals, pedophiles and other unsavory types, who have used them as a tool to control the unthinking masses.

    If there was truly one all powerful “god” then there would be only one religion.
    Ergo, the existence of multiple religions is undeniable proof of the non-existence of a god.

    I also find the thought that some “god” being might have the capacity to control my life and everything around me as extremely unpalatable and depressing.
    I can’t understand how anyone could possibly find such a thing attractive, let alone a necessity.

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