The Presbyterian Church will halt all co-operation with the state on the matter of marriage if same-sex marriage is legalised.
It will refuse to conduct any state marriages and some of its pastors will encourage Presbyterians to live outside the legal institution of marriage. They would live in de facto relationships as far as civil law is concerned.
In one of the most radical actions taken by a mainstream Christian denomination in Australia, the Presbyterians will divorce themselves from the state, and institute ecclesiastical marriages instead, if its General Assembly accepts the recommendations of a church committee charged with reviewing the issue.
The Reverend Darren Middleton will present a report to the Presbyterian General Assembly in September.
“We will recommend to the General Assembly that no Presbyterian Church of Australia minister would solemnise any marriage under the new Marriage Act,” Mr Middleton said.
He has already had talks with the Attorney-General’s Department about the formalities of handing back the church’s official marriage licence. If the General Assembly takes that decision, it will apply to all Presbyterian ministers in Australia.
Under Mr Middleton’s proposal, the church would establish its own independent register of ecclesiastical marriages, which would have nothing to do with the state. The ecclesiastical marriages would have no legal standing but be recognised by the church itself. It would be up to individual couples whether to also to go through a registry process to have their marriage recognised by civil law.
“I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, but I can see why a lot of people would choose to do so, for social reasons or property reasons,” he said.
“The church and state have traditionally shared a common understanding of marriage so it’s been sensible to have co-operation between.”
If same-sex marriage is legalised, there will no longer be a common understanding and so co-operation no longer makes sense, he believes.
Would other churches join the Presbyterians? “We’ve had discussions with other reform churches,” Mr Middleton said. “I don’t see the Catholic and Anglican churches joining us as yet because they still see themselves as state churches for historical reasons. Perhaps when the anti-discrimination laws come into play and they are forced to solemnise homosexual marriages, they might reconsider.”
There is believed to be some sympathy for the Presbyterian position among Sydney Anglicans. Mr Middleton believes it is only a matter of time before anti-discrimination laws are wielded as a blunt club against religious freedom. “Those who seek to redefine marriage will seek to redefine freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as surely as night follows day,” he said.