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Anglican blessing of same-sex marriage of two priests delayed by legal challenge in ecclesiastical court

ABC News logo ABC News 11/09/2019
a vase of flowers on a table: The Wangaratta diocese is pushing to be allowed to bless same-sex marriages. (ABC News: Claire Moodie) © Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation The Wangaratta diocese is pushing to be allowed to bless same-sex marriages. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

A significant move by the Anglican Church to bless the marriage of two gay priests at a ceremony in north-east Victoria this week has been postponed due to a legal challenge.

The Wangaratta Anglican Diocese voted in August to bless same-sex marriages, two years after Australia legalised the union.

The move was led by Wangaratta Bishop John Parkes, who is wanting to bless the marriage of priests John Davis and Rob Whalley before he retires later this year.

He was due to carry out the blessing in a ceremony at the Saint Paul's Anglican Church at Milawa on Saturday morning, but the matter has now been referred to the church's Appellate Tribunal, which is the highest ecclesiastical court.

Bishop Parkes is a member of the Appellate Tribunal, but will not take part in relation to this matter.

The tribunal will consider whether the blessings of persons married under civil law in church compromises the Anglican Church's constitution.

The Anglican Primate of Australia, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, has asked that the Wangaratta synod does not conduct any blessings until a decision has been made by the tribunal.

"The convention is we respect the institution of the Church," Bishop Parkes said.

"The Primate has asked and we will honour his requests.

"Although, we won't wait forever.

"My advice is that this is legitimate and lawful, and unless the Appellate Tribunal finds that it isn't, then what we have at the moment is a delay rather than a backtrack."

Bishop Parkes expects the issue will create debate in the church as it is referred to a directions hearing.

"No doubt many around the church will want to seek the right to intervene and put an argument, some in favour and some not," he said.

Bishop Parkes said that the synod will not proceed with the blessing if the Church finds it doesn't adhere to church law.

"Everything we've done has been in the open and fully advising people of our intention, we're not sneaking around with this," he said.

"In the end, the people who suffer again are LGBTQI people, and that's not good enough."

Married and waiting for their blessing

Archdeacon Emeritus Dr John Davis and Father Robert Whalley have been in a relationship for two decades.

On Tuesday, they were officially married in a civil ceremony in Melbourne.

The priests have strong links to the church, and they had hoped to have had their matrimonial union blessed at the weekend.

Dr Davis said the move by the Wangaratta synod to support the blessing was important to the couple.

"What it's about is to be part of the community of faith and be part of the gathered community of our friends here and round about, and being able to do this and ask God's blessing upon us as we go forward," he said.

"We're in our 70s, we haven't got that much time left, so it is very important to us."

A long battle of love

Long distance was just the start of the many hurdles Fathers Whalley and Davis faced when they met in the United States during a seminary 20 years ago, and quickly fell in love.

In the next 20 months that followed, they wrote every day, talked at least once a week, and shared stories, dreams, delights and sorrow between their Victorian and Californian homes.

In 2001, Father Whalley moved to Australia, but the couple's relationship remained somewhat of a secret.

Father Whalley has written about that experience and shared it with the Wangaratta synod as part of the move to have same-sex marriages blessed.

"Moving to Melbourne meant feeling like I had parachuted into the past — back to a 'don't ask, don't tell' environment where a dissatisfied parishioner's blatant remarks about the unspoken relationship between a priest and 'housemate' could destroy a parish and a ministry," he wrote.

"Over the 20 years we've been together this practice ingrained itself as regular habit, the way things were.

"Some friends and parishioners offered open and straightforward support acknowledging and approving the relationship of two adults who loved one another deeply, where others simply and quietly accepted us without comment. But there were limits.

"I am not trying to draw parallels to 1930s Germany, 1950s Alabama or 1980s South Africa, but I want to share the daily experience of feeling unspoken, unsafe and unaccepted, both in the secular society and under the sacred canopy, in the world and the church."

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