The big story coming out of the Anglican General Synod this year will be the 12 bishops who voted against Jesus’ definition of marriage (10 bishops voted to uphold Jesus’ teaching).
It’s encouraging to learn that a large majority of laity and clergy affirm this basic Christian belief. Nonetheless, it is tragic to see ecclesial leaders voting against God’s good purposes. To quote the Anglican marriage rites, “those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder”. These 12 bishops have decidedly torn the Anglican communion union, with a question remaining whether it can be healed or not. In response to the bishops abrogating their office & Christian teaching, synod delegates took the unusual step of writing and signing a letter this morning, calling on those bishops to repent and to affirm the biblical and historical view of marriage.
Archbishop Kanishka Raffel moved the original motion to support marriage. He later said how he was “deeply disappointed that a majority of Bishops voted against making a clear statement. A valuable moment for clarity has been lost.”
While the bishop’s decision to block the motion on marriage is grievous, other and related issues have been discussed and decided, and these have ramifications beyond what the General Synod may realise.
Two motions have been adopted by an overwhelming majority.
The first motion upholds the view that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage alone. Outside marriage, people are to be celibate. While the motion was sponsored by the Sydney Diocese it received wide affirmation across the country, including from Melbourne delegates. Although there was some opposition, with one delegate speaking with more candour than they perhaps released, “I object to this motion because it has a too strong of a reliance on Christ’s words…”
Perish the thought that Christians would rely too strongly on Jesus’ words! 11 Bishops voted against this basic instruction from Scripture!
A second motion was presented by Dani Treweek, affirming singleness.
“Affirms that singleness is, like marriage, an honourable state for God’s people, in which the fullness of God’s blessings may be enjoyed. Singleness is highly commended in Scripture (1 Cor 7:8, 32-38; Matt 19:10-12).”
In her speech, Dani observed,
“I fear that our reluctance to genuinely honour singleness is deeply informed by an underlying and often unspoken suspicion that singleness is an undesirable and even unliveable state. A large part of our reasoning for this is bound up in contemporary attitudes towards sex.
To live a potential lifetime without sex?
To never experience the joy of sexual union with another person.
To expect an unmarried Christian to resist sexual temptation till their life’s end?
The world around us sees such prospects as unthinkable… even cruel. And so it also sees the Christian aspiration of a chaste single life as unthinkable… even cruel”.
Dani righty presses against this popular narrative as she powerfully and autobiographically explains,
“Chastity, sexual abstinence, celibacy… whatever word we might otherwise insert here… is not an oppressive and unrealistic burden placed upon single Christians. Rather, chastity is the single Christians way of valuing their God-given sexuality.
To put it more personally, chastity is not a cruel suppression of my sexuality as a single Christian. Instead it is my active and godly expression of the sexuality God has gifted to me.
Chastity is the way in which those of us who are unmarried are able to both value our sexuality as a gift given to us by God… and the way for us to demonstrate to others the great esteem with which we hold that gift.”
What makes these two motions interesting is that their application in the State of Victoria is illegal.
Among the delegates voting and adopting these motions, are representatives from the Victorian dioceses. Indeed, a number of Melbournians spoke in support of the motion. The statements are straightforward and positive and Christian, and yet they cut against the grain of how people often view sex and fulfilment today. In Victoria, while these statements can be read out loud and the biblical principles explained in a public setting (i.e. preaching a sermon), counselling an individual along this line now sits outside the law. Victoria’s new conversion and suppression laws prohibit any conversation, counsel or prayer that is perceived to convert or suppress a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. To be very clear, the law isn’t limited to banning aversion practices and nonconsensual activity (everyone agrees such practices are wrong) but extends to prohibiting consensual prayer and conversation where the Bible’s sexual ethic is encouraged. For example, counselling a Christian same sex attracted man to stick with Jesus and remain celibate and single, is illegal. Setting a stand for church members of sexual godliness in conformity with Scripture is also contrary to the new laws.
Anyone falling foul of these new laws can be brought before a civil tribunal and even face criminal charges and up to 10 years imprisonment. In other words, Christians can hold to the principles (how very gracious of the Victorian government to allow Christians to believe what Christians have for 2000 years), but we cannot apply these principles to discipleship, pastoring, and rare cases of church discipline.
The motions about singleness are designed to encourage positive conversations about this oft forgotten people, so that churches can work harder at encouraging them and making church a community where they belong. As positive and faithful as these motions are, they are another reminder of how foreign and countercultural Christianity is in today’s Australia. I wonder if the Synod realises the implications of the position they have taken? Imagine the headline, “Australia’s Anglican Communion votes to oppose Victorian law”! I suspect the relevance has eluded most.
As a non Anglican observing the proceedings, there are lessons for other Christian denominations to learn, follow and avoid. The bonds of peace and spiritual unity require more than a few litres of administrative glue and a splash of rhetorical clag! Thank God for congregation members and local church leaders who have resisted the Sirens call to shipwreck on the rocks of Scylla. Isn’t that temptation? The sound of societal acceptance is strong. The pull of holding onto comfort and power is magnetic. However, we will not serve Christ and his body well, and neither will we display the beauty and grace of God by abandoning what God has laid out in his word as true and good. Even as I write this, the General Synod has returned to the issue of marriage with some voices calling for same sex marriage to be accepted. Despite the ominous signs in the Anglican communion as some blow the sails closer to the rocks, there are also some encouraging signs among crew members as they faithfully navigate through these dangerous waters.