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Too slow or too fast?

Posted: 08/03/18

This article by faculty member, Rhys Bezzant, was first published on The Melbourne Anglican Website, it is in response to an article published on The Conversation by John Capper.

A recent article on The Conversation website asked us why the Anglican Church is so slow in its acceptance of same-sex marriage: “Why, then, is progress so slow?” The assumption was that most Christians agree with the revision of a traditional understanding of marriage: “Nevertheless, there are more Christians supportive of marriage equality than opposed.” The article went on to explain how the Anglican Church is an outlier in the Christian world as it is episcopal and hierarchical, yet a change in definition of marriage is on our agenda. In theory, institutions like ours should be less likely to provoke change of this magnitude because they have so much to lose, or because they have so many levels of decision-making through which to negotiate any revised outcomes in moral theology. Is the Anglican Church of Australia really such a pariah? There are a number of difficulties in the original post I would like to explore.

The article, it seems to me, contains some logical difficulties. It assumes that a hierarchical church will (unfortunately) be more conservative, however it was the Episcopal Church in the US and in Canada, both hierarchical institutions, which led the way (against the rest of the Communion) in promoting as leaders those in same-sex relationships, or in introducing rites to affirm same sex marriage. The US has a venerable tradition of pursuing independence, and in this issue The Episcopal Church has acted consistently! Conversely, of course, many independent congregations maintain a conservative witness to marriage, though it would be easy for them to decide for their own local congregation to adopt the revised view. The Uniting Church and the Presbyterian Church in Australia have come to differing opinions on sexual ethics, though they have similar structures. There are obviously other factors at play which account for the positions they have taken on same-sex marriage other than their polity. The theological views of the Anglican Church in Australia must be shaped through appeal to criteria other than its polity! There is no necessary or causal connection between polity and doctrine.

The title of the piece also assumes that progress should be made on this issue within our church, and that we should make that decision quickly. But of course, there is no reason why we must change our view. The church of Jesus Christ must remain distinct from the world around us, and Jesus actually encourages us to think this way. We are his body, and the world is not. Our witness is based not on our likeness to the community in which we live, but on offering a different view of human flourishing. It might be uncomfortable for us to maintain a minority view in our culture, but this would not be something historically new! The church throughout history has not only survived but thrived in contexts where it had nothing to lose socially.

We should also exercise some caution in relation to the survey which the statement was quoting, for it was the result of only one thousand people being polled. Those one thousand people comprised Christians from any denomination or none, and Anglicans represented less than half those surveyed. I would like to learn how those one thousand people were chosen in the first place, and what question(s) they were asked. We all recognise that sampling can be dramatically affected by the shape of the survey. Without the luxury of formal polling, it would be my confident guess that a significant majority of “bums on seats” in the Australian Anglican church would be opposed to any revision of the church’s views on marriage. I will leave it to other denominations to decide this issue for themselves, but as an Anglican leader, I choose slow rather than fast as my lane to drive in on this issue!

I understand that the title given to the article “Same-sex marriage is legal, so why have churches been so slow to embrace it?” first appeared on The Conversation website, so the words may not represent the author fairly. But I found the content of the article neither helpfully informative, nor overly useful in complex theological debates. At least the article recognised that one reason, perhaps the key one, for maintaining a traditional view of marriage is the Scriptural account of sexuality, which cuts across all different ecclesiastical polities and human cultures. It is right to acknowledge that fear is a factor too, but only if it is acknowledged that fear clings tenaciously to both sides of the debate. No one likes to be in a minority, whether that is social/cultural, or creedal/historical. Love can be expressed on both sides of the debate as well! Emotions run deep wherever we choose to hoist our flag.

As the Anglican Church in Australia comes to terms with a new social normal, let us not be afraid to confess Christ and take up his cross in discipleship. But it is going to hurt. And my personal motto in life is “Slow and steady wins the race.”

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