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EFAC Australia

Marriage, Same Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission
The Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia,
The Anglican Church of Australia, 2019

This book review title should be The book that should be read but cannot be fully recommended.

Background

In 2017 the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, by motion, instructed its Doctrine Committee to “facilitate a respectful conversation in our church by means of a collection of essays on marriage and same sex relationships that explore scriptural and theological issues…”

To summarise the scope of the request: it sought to address Anglican Formularies, the exploration of state definitions of marriage and the church’s doctrine of marriage, our view of Scripture and the methods we use for coming to an understanding of them and the nature of our relationships where disagreement exists.

The outcome of the request was the production of the book, Marriage, Same Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission. This book was published in paperback in June and is currently free to download1.

The Relational Issue

The issues addressed in the book are not insignificant and, on paper, positions are easily expressed. However, one’s thinking on the issues cannot be divorced from all human relationships as expressed in the two great commandments, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself.” As the commands begin with an upward look to God so the outward look to others gathers importance. To neglect one is to fail the other. To miss the priority of the first unties us from a God-given accountability in our loving of others. If we are to glorify God, and if people are to enjoy him forever, then our discussion of something as close to us as our created, human sexuality requires more than human opinion or general observations, it requires God’s special revelation. As such the Scriptures are crucial to our discussion.

The Historical Issue

The problem for the Anglican Church of Australia as evidenced in the book and played out in the Anglican Communion around the world, is the disjunction between divine revelation and human opinion. Historically this problem is one of emphasis, expressed by the likes of Richard Hooker in terms of Scripture, tradition and reason, to which could be added experience. But even the history of the three – Scripture, Tradition and Reason – has suffered from the revisionists who in one breath declare Richard Hooker as their friend but in the next misrepresent the priority given by Hooker to the Scriptures over reason, tradition and experience. Bishop Michael Stead in the closing essay of the book offers an extended reflection on these four as he deals with the case against same sex marriage.

The Anglican Issue

There are eleven contributors to the book who represent divergent views on the issue of same sex marriage and blessing. The significance of these divergent views goes to the very core of a Christian Anglican identity. Most obviously, these divergent views on same sex marriage and blessings reveal divergent views on the authority of Scripture which is central to our Anglican identity. The 39 Articles of Religion highlight the place of the Scriptures as governing God’s church in all matters of faith and practice consistent with the reformation tenet of “sola Scriptura”, and most importantly, as defended by the Bible’s own internal witness to itself as God’s breathed out Word.2

Needless to say, divergent views of the Scriptures have led to divergent views on human sexuality that have inevitably caused a divide to occur across the global Anglican Communion. This divide has giving rise to the GAFCON movement and the establishment of new Anglican Dioceses, not recognised by Canterbury. These include Canada, Europe, Jamaica and most recently New Zealand and Polynesia. As the historical survey in the third essay makes clear the implications for the Australian Anglican Church are quite clear, “you can’t change the doctrine of the church and expect that people will continue to live in partnership, fellowship or communion”. It is why this book is so important. Its contributors expose the problem by their declared positions and as a result we, the readers, can reflect on the arguments presented and respond accordingly.

The Contents of the Book

After an introduction, the book has a series of essays to set the context, sketching out the history of these issues across the wider Anglican Church, and the highlighting the peculiarity of the situation of the Anglican Church of Australia, which has uniquely bound itself to the doctrine and principles of the Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and 39 Articles.

These essays are followed by paired essays which respectively examine the arguments for and against samesex marriage, exploring hermeneutics, Old Testament, New Testament, the history of marriage and friendship.

Next a series of stand-alone essays on blessing, desire and godly disagreement. The final two essays seek to sum up the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

The Key Issue

In the scope of this review, it is not possible to give a summary of all the arguments. Instead, I will focus on the one key issue which is the hinge on which the other essays turn.

One contributor to the book, the Rev. Dr Matthew Anstey, highlights what is key to the Church’s discussion of same sex marriage and blessing when he say, “that the role Scripture plays in the debate is where the most important differences lie.”3

To the uninitiated, the divergent views of Scripture may seem subtle but their outcomes are anything but subtle and the threat to the locus of authority in the church is of enormous concern.

So to the book itself. There is no substitute to reading the book for yourself and I acknowledge my subjectivity, which I hope is a Biblically informed one, in dealing with aspects of the book while hoping not to misrepresent its content.

The essays range in quality and complexity. While some papers stand alone, others provide a contributor’s view followed by another contributor’s critique. As a standalone essay, I found the Rev. Dr Rhys Bezzant’s essay on 'The Blessing of Same Sex Marriage' very instructive in offering a defence as to why we cannot bless same sex marriages. The most significant essays in the collection, however, centre on Scripture and hermeneutics. We could describe this section of the book and in particular Matthew Anstey’s essay and Mark Thompson’s response to it as the skeleton around which the discussion must be clothed. In terms of the church, the seriousness of skeletal damage will always be the bodily dysfunction that follows, so it is crucial to give the arguments our attention.

 To highlight the issue, it is worth listening to Anstey and Thompson.

The Rev Dr. Anstey, commenting on the evaluating of our doctrinal position on same sex marriage states, “The fact that such evaluation is occurring and books such as this are being written, speaks to the reality that the church is able to perceive and discern through the Spirit the work of God in the world and ‘decide for God’ in response to such discernment…”

As the essay proceeds the Rev.Dr Anstey is quite definitive, “…Let me be clear about my view from the outset, Scripture shows us how the people of God come to make moral and theological judgements rather than providing the substantive content of those judgements. Hence to be faithful to Scripture in this debate (as in all debates) does not mean we exegete Scripture and apply to living human experience a timeless moral-doctrinal precept (and such a so called ‘excavative’ approach is adopted by opponents to same sex marriage in this volume) but rather we seek to make our case for the doctrinal position we are arguing in dialogue with both Scripture and lived human experience.”

One must read all that the Rev Anstey writes to be fully cognizant of his position but to any exegete of the Scriptures who believes in the absolutes of God as set down, for example, in the Decalogue, his words are concerning.

In his response to the Rev. Dr Anstey’s essay, the Rev. Dr Mark Thompson takes quite a different theological stance when it comes to the Scriptures and I quote, “The 39 Articles, which include an endorsement of the Book of Homilies (Article XXXV) remains the confessional document of Anglicanism and so is included in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. The Articles provide us with a strong statement of the identity of Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’, the final authority of biblical teaching, the boundary condition of recognising and honouring the coherence and unity of biblical teaching and the stance of the reader: humility, prayerfulness, a concern for the glory of God and restraint in exposition.”

The outworking of Anstey’s hermeneutic is consistent with his revisionist view of the place of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, just as the outworking of Thompson’s hermeneutic is demonstrated by sitting under the Bible’s authority not over it.  Anstey elevates the “Spirit”-led discernment of the individual above that of the Scriptures, and Thompson prioritises the Scriptures over the individual, who must sit under the Scriptures and surrender to them.

Anstey’s words, “…that the church is able to perceive and discern through the Spirit ‘the work of God in the world and “decide for God”…” are concerning in both what is said and not said. He separates Word and Spirit thus removing the objective basis on which to test the “spirit” of such discernment. By contrast Thompson sees the authority of the Spirit as expressed in the Word, thus holding the two together which is consistent with Christian Anglicanism as expressed in our Anglican formularies.

On personal reflection, a fallen humanity to “decide for God” under a spirit that cannot be tested seems like foolishness. The Rev. Dr Anstey’s essay could be accused of suggesting that God has inadequately communicated his will to us. It is no surprise that when we sit over God’s word and “decide for God” that humanity seeks to become a permission giver to things contrary to God’s will and not a servant of God’s will in calling people to repentance and faith. But equally when people begin to “decide for God” it is crucial to recognise that authority has moved from God to those who think they should decide. That would seem a recipe for authoritarian disaster that does not end in permissions but rule of law by the fallen.

Reflecting on both positions I see the distinctions best expressed by the words “interpret” and “understand.” The difference may be subtle but not unimportant.

Understanding the Scriptures requires you listen to what God has said and sit under his authority which requires the most careful exegesis of the texts of Scripture. Where a part of the Bible is unclear we do not ignore it but we look to the rest of the Bible to offer us further understanding. By contrast, interpreting the Scriptures makes you the authority over what God has said allowing outside influences such as tradition, reason and experience to determine your thoughts.

This is not just semantics. When we seek to understand, understanding submits our reason, tradition, and experience to God’s Word. When we seek to interpret, interpreting submits God’s word to our reason, traditions and experience. The outcomes can be significantly different when it comes to faith and practice.

Start with God and you start with the Almighty, the Sovereign, the Holy and Perfect. Start with humanity and every effort is flawed from the start by our creatureliness, weakness, and fallen nature. It is hardly surprising that when we get God wrong we get ourselves wrong. It is hardly surprising when we put ourselves in God’s place that we will compromise God’s absolutes.

Given that contrast, it can only be the sin of hubris that would have us pursuing interpretations that offer permissions to things God has spoken against rather than encouraging repentance and faith that comes with understanding God’s word.

Such hubris will heal no ills, trivialise sin, reduce Christ, profit no salvation and consign people to hell.

What a difference the truth understood makes. It puts God on his throne and straight-talks the problem of sin and the fallen nature of our humanity. By way of encouragement, the heavens proclaim his glory and his Word reveals the inspirational love of our maker and redeemer. It speaks to our reconciliation with God and offers the restoration of one’s person. In a lost and confused age the Christian gospel offers the repentant: new birth, justification by faith, atonement through propitiation and the substitutionary death of Christ and resurrection to eternal life. The Christian gospel does not offer permission to sin and warns of the judgement to come. For the repentant, God grants us the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to comfort and sustain us amidst the myriad temptations we face.

I would not normally recommend some of the essays in this book but they are educative in understanding why there are divisions in the Anglican Communion. Those divisions will inevitably impact the General Synod of our church in 2020 and our churches beyond. It is important for all God’s people to be informed and prepared should those who depart from the Scriptures force upon themselves their departure from the Christian Anglican Communion. Let us all pray for the humility to sit under God’s Word and repent such that the unity of God’s church would advance the mission of God for the salvation of the lost. Let us pray that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and then rightly love our neighbours as ourselves.

An encouragement

“Last eve I paused beside the blacksmith’s door,
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
Then looking in, I saw upon the floor,
Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
“‘How many anvils have you had,’ said I,
To wear and batter all these hammers so?’
‘Just one,’ said he, and then with twinkling eye,
‘The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.’
“And so, I thought, the Anvil of God’s Word
For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The Anvil is unharmed, the hammers gone.”

—Attributed to John Clifford

REFERENCES

1.https://www.broughtonpublishing.com.au/marriagedoctrineessays/
https://www.broughtonpublishing.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/marriagedoctrineessays.pdf

2. Articles of Religion 6, 19-22; 2 Timothy 3:16-17

3. Book p. 59

Bishop Rick Lewers, NSW

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