Senior Anglican leaders have responded to a move by the Presbyterian Church in NSW to consider ministers handing back their marriage licences if marriage is redefined to include same-sex couples.

Kevin Murray, the moderator of the NSW Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, wrote to churches about debate at the annual assembly in Sydney last week.

“The Assembly considered what the church should do if marriage is redefined in Australia. It decided to ask the General Assembly of Australia to withdraw the whole church from the Marriage Act, so that our ministers could no longer solemnise marriages under the Marriage Act.” Mr Murray said. “The report which recommended this decision argued that if the Federal Government were to redefine marriage to include same-sex marriage then it would corrupt a good gift of God into a wrong. That would mean that ministers would then be acting for the government in a system which did not reflect the biblical view of marriage. In this case the positive reason for our co-operation with the Marriage Act would have been removed, and we would be better to avoid association with evil by no longer acting as celebrants.”

The Moderator said there had been a great deal of debate but “with no rancour or ill-feeling.” The proposal was approved by a vote of 140 to 62.

Mr Murray stressed this was not a final decision and the General Assembly of Australia would be asked to consider the issue, either at the next regular meeting or at an emergency meeting.

 “It is possible that we may introduce a form of ‘church marriage’ which is not recognised by the Marriage Act, so Presbyterian churches would still be able to be involved in celebrating marriages but these would be ‘religious marriages’ recognized by God but not by the Government. It is envisaged that couples could participate in that religious service and that they may also choose to have a civil marriage. However, there is no detailed proposal about this at present.” the statement said.

“At present we have no such plans” says senior Anglican bishop Robert Forsyth, who is chairman of a diocesan Religious Freedom reference group, which is producing a report on the issue.  “It is difficult for people who believe what God has said about marriage. Their views, and the view of the state, would be deeply different if there is a change (in the Marriage Act).  Some may say we shouldn’t be involved if it is different. I think we are heading towards the view that if we still have the freedom to teach and deal with marriage as we believe God’s word allows, then we see no reason to pull out, but it is early days yet.”

At the same time, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has written in the Australian newspaper that current legislative proposals to redefine marriage do not protect religious freedom.

“If people of faith are forced to act against their conscience, their human rights will also be breached.” Mr Wilson wrote. “This problem can be resolved. The proposition is simple: we separate the civil and religious traditions of marriage, but treat them equally in law.”

In practice it works along these lines. The Marriage Act would recognise civil marriages. A civil marriage is defined as a union between two people voluntarily entered into for life and can be solemnised by a licensed civil celebrant. The act will also recognise religious marriages in different religious traditions in a different section of the text.” Mr Wilson wrote.

 Bishop Forsyth believes the suggestion has merit.

“Mr Wilson has recognised the religious freedom issue in a way no-one else has, and I welcome this recognition of the problem from a man who, I believe, is in favour of gay marriage. I hope his proposal gets considerable thought if, and I don’t want this to happen, there is to be a change in the law.” the bishop told SBS television news.

The presbyterian vote reflects a feeling that if the law changes, then just acting for the state as a celebrant is in some way an endorsement. I understand that view, it is not mine at the moment, but Mr Wilson’s proposal would make it easier and you would not have the sense that you have compromised (your conscience).”

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