A letter from the Bishop: Reflections on General Synod 2022

Dear Brothers and Sisters

Some reflections on General Synod

I was grateful that we could gather together as a national church for this meeting. The last time we met was in 2017, and the current meeting had been postponed twice, so it was a relief to be together. While about 9 members were unable to be present in person due to Covid and one person contracted Covid during the meeting, all were able to participate by being present on zoom and voting electronically. Some speeches were made by zoom participants.

The spirit of the meeting was respectful and gracious for the most part. The Primate, Archbishop Geoff Smith, chaired the meeting extremely well with a mixture of good humour, self-deprecation and wise judgement. He was thanked with a standing ovation on the last day. The General Synod office under the capable leadership of Anne Hywood did a terrific job in organising the meeting.

I want to give you a feel for the business of the meeting. There has been a lot of press coverage about the debates on same-sex marriage, but the meeting was about a lot more than that. The agenda and minutes, president’s address and media releases can be found here.

Safe Ministry

A suite of legislation was passed to enact various recommendations from the Royal Commission. Fortunately, this was put in an omnibus Bill rather than piecemeal amendments to seven different Canons. All of these Canons are now consistent, and the work of the Safe Ministry Commission will shift to monitoring the implementation. Our own Audrey Mills has been a key figure in the Safe Ministry Commission’s work, and we thank her for her service over many years including on the GS Standing Committee.

We also adopted the Ministry Wellbeing Policy, which brings in mandatory supervision, performance appraisal and professional development for clergy. This policy will be considered for formal adoption at our own upcoming synod in June.

Family Violence

A major piece of the General Synod’s work over the last 5 years has been research on Family Violence. The Synod received the report of the family violence working group, which had some disturbing findings about the prevalence of family violence in the church. I commend the report and its recommendations to you.

The General Synod adopted Ten Commitments to prevent and respond to family violence in the church. Our own Diocesan Council has adopted these, and it is my hope that the synod in June will formally adopt them as well. We also talked about the impact of family violence on indigenous communities and the particular challenges there.

The other major piece of work in this area was to establish a Families and Culture Commission for the ACA, and to fund a worker in this area. This commission will work on resourcing and enabling the church to grapple with this serious issue. The funding of the Commission will have an impact on the Statutory Assessment (financial contribution) on the part of the Dioceses.

Ministry Support

One of the features of General Synod is to highlight various ministry endeavours, and to lend support to them. This year we affirmed Defence Force Chaplaincy (including making possible the extension of the term of the Defence Force Bishop); Mission to Seafarers; Anglican Schools; and Aged and Disability care. We also noted and gave thanks for the 30th Anniversary of the ordination of women and the contribution of ordained women to the life of the Anglican Church of Australia.

Social Issues

The Synod made various comments on social issues, mostly urging others with influence to act on rectifying them. These included action on climate change by both government and the church; raising the jobseeker allowance; raising the age of criminal responsibility; asking governments to commit to gambling reform; condemning the practice of euthanasia; noting the high levels of suicide in the defence forces; asking for increased funding for palliative care services; condemning the war in Ukraine; and calling on the government for legislation to protect religious freedom.
Same-sex Marriage

The Synod considered a number of motions related to same-sex marriage and human sexuality. No doubt you will have seen some reports of these in the press and on social media.

Since the Appellate Tribunal gave its opinion on the Wangaratta blessing service (in late 2020), the Primate has urged restraint in Dioceses with respect to allowing same-sex marriage blessings until the General Synod could meet to declare its mind on the matter. Many had been looking forward to the General Synod as the right time and forum in which to settle our views on this.

The General Synod has the capacity to make definitive statements on the doctrine of the church. Two statements, one on marriage and one of the definition of unchastity, were put before the synod. Statement 1 on marriage (which can be found in the business paper here at item 20.3) was debated extensively, and various amendments were considered. The final vote affirming the statement was carried positively in the houses of laity and clergy, but lost narrowly (10/12 votes) in the house of bishops. The statement on unchastity (found here at item 20.4) was carried in all three houses of the synod.

The Synod also considered a motion supporting same-sex marriage. Some helpful speeches were made, but the motion was eventually lost in a vote of the whole synod. A motion of apology to the LGBTIQ+ community was carried, as was a motion in support of the state of singleness. A motion on the final day acknowledging our diversity was not voted on, after an amendment to include reference to the fundamental declarations as the basis of our unity was only narrowly agreed to. It was thought by some that these references were “unnecessarily divisive”.

The majority of the Synod was clearly in support of a traditional understanding of marriage and were deeply troubled by the bishops’ failure to support Statement 1 – the church’s often stated position on marriage. The distress was so deep that in an unprecedented step, 120 members of the Synod presented a petition to the President that read as follows:

Noting with regret that on 11 May 2022, despite clear support from the majority of General Synod (including majorities in the Houses of Laity and Clergy), the majority of the House of Bishops voted against Motion 20.3 “Statements as to the Faith, Ritual, Ceremonial or Discipline of this Church made under Section 4 of the Constitution”, the petitioners humbly pray that Synod commits to praying that all Members of the House of Bishops would clearly affirm and be united in their support for the teaching of Christ concerning marriage and the principles of marriage reflected in the Book of Common Prayer.

The majority of the debate was conducted respectfully and carefully. It was clearly understood that these matters are not theoretical but involve real people who we know and love, and in some cases have been damaged by the church. There was real care in the way it was spoken about for which I am very grateful.

I was grieved by the depth of division between us, and very disappointed that the bishops could neither support the Statement that had been proposed and debated, nor had the will to propose an alternative that could be agreed to. I see this as a great failure of leadership, especially as the Primate had urged that the General Synod was the proper place to make our understanding or marriage clear. It is particularly sad that the bishops did not support the majority of the synod in giving clear direction. One bishop called for greater consultation and further discussions, which seems a little late, to my thinking.

In some ways, the General Synod’s inability to make a clear statement doesn’t change anything. The Church’s teaching on marriage has been consistent, and even in this Synod (eg in the Statement on unchastity) the biblical understanding of marriage has been upheld. The Appellate Tribunal’s majority opinion of 2020 has given a green light to allow the blessing of same-sex marriage in our church, and will no doubt now take place in some dioceses. I believe this to be contrary to the teaching of Christ, and I am grateful that it has been explicitly disallowed by the Synod of the Diocese of Tasmania.

But in other ways, the inability of the General Synod to make a clear statement makes life very difficult for faithful biblical Anglicans in many dioceses. Some are already considering their future in the Anglican Church of Australia and the strained relationships with their bishops. We are pleased to stand in support of these faithful Anglicans, and a number of us will express that by attending the Gafcon Australasia Conference in Canberra this August 15-18. I encourage you to attend.

I found this analysis by Mark Durie from Melbourne particularly helpful and commend it to you.

With warm wishes in Christ,