A leading figure in global Anglicanism has warned that accommodating those who support gay marriage is an “unacceptably high” price to pay for unity in the church.
Speaking in Belfast yesterday (Friday), Peter Jensen, the retired archbishop of Sydney, said that Biblical teaching is too unambiguous to allow such “tension” to exist between the two viewpoints within the same denomination.
The retired archbishop, who is highly influential in conservative Anglican circles, was speaking at an event in Belfast’s Willowfield church.
He said: “In Scotland, the General Synod of the Episcopal Church [an Anglican church] has chosen to omit the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman from its canons, thus signalling an acceptance of so-called gay marriage.
“It is a choice to rewrite the Bible and so the Christian faith.”
He compared this with the Church of Ireland’s recent reaffirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman, adding: “The contrast could not be more stark.”
He added: “Of course there are those who argue that the two positions can be held in tension in a denomination with mutual respect, recognising that sincere people will differ over the interpretation of the Bible.
“But let me offer a very serious warning: the cost of taking such a position is unacceptably high.
“It is to say that the Biblical testimony is so unclear that it can be read in several ways, whereas in fact the Biblical position is crystal clear.
“When the testimony of the Bible is rendered so murky, the authority of the Bible is fatally compromised.
“The middle position is a vote for an unacceptable compromise.”
He was in Belfast as part of a trip to promote the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) – a network of conservative Anglicans who have an orthodox interpretation of scripture.
The retired archbishop has been an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage in the past.
In an opinion piece written for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012, he had said: “Same-sex marriage is not inevitable. It is not even possible. It would be better for us all if the law reflected the truth human beings have always known. Social engineering cannot change realities as basic as these.”
Friday’s conference was being organised by the rector of All Saints’ church in Belfast, the Rev Trevor Johnston.
It was put to him that some will interpret the archbishop’s statement as an endorsement of the idea of the Anglican church splitting.
Asked if he would interpret it this way himself, Rev Johnston said: “I suppose that would be your language.
“The movement itself [GAFCON] is keen for the renewal of and recommitment to orthodox values, Biblical values, traditional values, traditional understanding.
“That’s certainly how the movement sees itself.
“Obviously in different contexts that will mean different things, in terms of the official teaching of various provinces.”
Pressed on the idea that this will be interpreted as support for a split in the Anglican communion, he said: “I’d think I’d want to challenge that, and say these guys are committed to the Anglican faith, Anglican church, Anglican order.
“And of course being an Anglican isn’t primarily an institutional thing, more a doctrinal thing. It’s not defined by institution, more defined by belief.”
He also said that he is not a spokesman for GAFCON, but is a member of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, which was formed out of GAFCON’s initial 2008 gathering in Jerusalem.
Following the referendum which endorsed gay marriage in the Republic of Ireland in May, the archbishops and bishops of the Church of Ireland issued a statement saying that the voters had “acted fully within their rights”.
But it added: “The Church of Ireland, however, defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and the result of this referendum does not alter this.”
On June 5, in the wake of the referendum, gay Church of Ireland cleric Tom Gordon – Dean of Leighlin in Co Carlow – had said the “theological cultures” in the church in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland “are of such divergence that each must now be allowed latitude formally to develop separate theological and pastoral identities”.
In addition, at the start of May, the News Letter reported that a retired senior Church of Ireland figure has suggested the church could split within just five years, if the internal divisions on gay marriage and homosexuality were not resolved.
Speaking to the News Letter ahead of Friday’s event, Canon Ian Ellis, the editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette, said: “Opinions on this subject differ widely within the Church of Ireland but, despite that, the Church of Ireland’s teaching that Christian marriage is a heterosexual union of two people is clear, and I believe that this is also the witness of the Bible.
“While not agreeing with same-sex marriage, I do think that all Christian people should show a respectful approach to gay couples who wish to commit themselves in love to each other for the rest of their lives.”