‘The Line in the Sand’ Author Interview: Bishop Michael Stead

Posted on May 3, 2022 
Filed under Anglican Church of Australia, General Synod

The following is an interview with Bishop of South Sydney Dr. Michael Stead, one of the authors of a newly published book, The Line in the Sand.

This book is a joint initiative of the Australian Church Record and the Anglican Church League. It’s available for download here.

ACL Podcast Author interview.

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Welcome to the Anglican Church League Podcast. I’m Lionel Windsor, the ACL’s Communications Secretary. I’m conducting a series of author interviews that will be of special interest to members of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia.

In this episode I’m joined by The Rt Rev Dr Michael Stead, Bishop of South Sydney, biblical scholar, and member of the General Synod Doctrine Commission and Standing Committee.

Michael is an author in a recently published book The Line in the Sand. The book is addressed to General Synod members, and speaks about a turning point in the history of the Anglican Church of Australia. In November 2020, the Appellate Tribunal released a Majority Opinion that gave legal validation to a liturgy which can be used to bless a same-sex marriage for the first time in the Church’s history. This is a deeply concerning move, because it effects a fundamental change in the nature of the Church’s doctrine relating to issues of salvation, and so it threatens the Church’s unity.

The book, The Line in the Sand, is designed to help General Synod members to see the issues clearly and address them decisively in their upcoming session in May 2022.

Michael has written two chapters in the book: ‘Homosexuality in the Bible’ and ‘Doctrine and the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia’.

Michael, thanks for joining us.

Michael: A pleasure.

L: What’s your particular interest in these issues?

M: Come to the first chapter. As biblical scholar, my expertise is in the Old Testament. I’ve done a PhD in the very obscure book of Zechariah – which has nothing to do with the topic! – but generally speaking I’ve been interested in the Old Testament for a long time, and how the Old Testament is picked up and used in the New Testament. And particularly the issue of homosexuality is a good example of that question of the interrelationship between the Old and New Testament. So it’s part of my particular interest in biblical studies.

And my interest in the doctrine of the Anglican Church, which is the subject of my second chapter, arises out of a long-term engagement with the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church. I’ve been involved with that since 2005, for most of that time as the Secretary, and thinking about how the doctrine of our Church is formed and what does it mean for us as a national Church to talk about doctrine. So I have a particular interest in both of those questions.

L: Thanks very much. And just to say, as a New Testament scholar, with a particular interest in Romans, as I read your chapter on Romans I didn’t get any feel that this was a person who only had an interest in Zechariah! It was very well done and well argued! We can span the Testaments, can’t we? It’s all the Bible. Can you summarise the key points, firstly, in your first chapter on the Bible?

M: The chapter on homosexuality in the Bible is intended to give an even-handed examination of a couple of key passages in the New Testament which speak about homosexual activity and homosexual lust. It’s important to do that because there’s a lot of confusion out there at the moment. There’s a lot of half-claims and half-truths about what these passages might or might not say; a lot of qualifications, where they’ll say, ‘Oh well, it does condemn forms of homosexual behaviour … but only aberrant forms’. And so this is designed to take us to those chapters and to look at those claims and show that there’s really no substance to those claims. That it’s pretty clear from the Bible, and I’d say, incontrovertible, that the Bible does not endorse same-sex sexual activity. The Bible does not endorse same-sex lust. To put it in other terms, the Bible says that these things are sins from which we must repent. At the same time, I want to be clear that that’s what the Bible is talking about: same sex-lust, same-sex activity. The Bible doesn’t have explicit condemnation for people who feel same-sex attracted. So I want to help people who are same-sex attracted to realise that the Bible does not condemn them for that orientation but it’s encouraging them to not engage in the desires that come from that orientation or indeed the sexual acts that flow from it. So it’s primarily helping us to understand what the Bible says about homosexuality, but there’s also a pastoral aim there for people who are same-sex attracted.

L: That’s very helpful, and just for those who are listening and haven’t heard the interview with Claire Smith, there’s actually two chapters in the book. Claire Smith sets all of these issues in the wider context of the broader doctrine of marriage in the Bible and so this particular focus is not because of just a narrow focus; it’s actually in the sweep of the entire Bible, and so your chapter is really zeroing in on these particular passages, and it’s a very helpful take on them and an interaction with a wide range of scholarship too – so I really appreciate that.

What about the key points in your second chapter on ‘Doctrine and the Constitution of the Anglican Church [of Australia]’?

M: That chapter is designed to help people, particularly members of the General Synod, who are coming to this as a result of the Appellate Tribunal decision back at the end of 2020, as you mentioned in your introduction. The decision of the Appellate Tribunal has changed our understanding of what the word ‘doctrine’ means, at least in the sense of the constitutional meaning of that term. They have picked up a minority view from a judgment from twenty years ago and made that the majority view: that ‘doctrine’ is limited to those things which are ‘necessary for salvation’. That is, something you have to believe in order to be saved, and if it’s not in that category, then it’s not doctrine. The Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church has been meeting and talking about doctrine for a long time, and we’ve been talking about all kinds of things which are much broader than that! But the particular issue we’re dealing with at the moment is that that narrow definition of ‘doctrine’ means that marriage – anything to do with marriage – is not in that category. There isn’t anybody who says you have to believe particular things about marriage in order to be saved. They’re not up there with believing that Jesus is the Son of God or that he died and rose again for us – died for our sins and rose again for our salvation. If marriage isn’t in that category – if it’s not ‘doctrine’ according to the Appellate Tribunal – then what is it? For a long time, the General Synod has been affirming that – and I’m quoting here: ‘The doctrine of our Church is that marriage is between a man and a woman’. We’ve passed resolutions to that effect several times over the last couple of decades. The Appellate Tribunal have said, ‘Well, that’s not right, because that’s not a doctrine’. And so coming to the General Synod this time we need a new way of affirming the centrality of that – we need a new way of saying that the teaching of Jesus that marriage is between a man and a woman is a core thing, a fundamental thing, something that we want to say, ‘This is what we believe as the Anglican Church of Australia’. We’ve got to do that without using the word ‘doctrine’, because the Appellate Tribunal has basically made that word out of bounds for us. And so one of the things we’ll be doing at the General Synod is considering making statements as to the ‘Faith ritual ceremonial and discipline of the Church’ which is just another way of saying, ‘This is something that is actually a shared and core belief for us as we are as Anglicans’.

L: So, to clarify there, it seems that pretty much almost everybody in the Anglican Church of Australia, indeed everybody in the church for last two millennia, has understood the word ‘doctrine’ in one way, but the Appellate Tribunal has changed that definition, and because they happen to be the Appellate Tribunal of the Anglican Church of Australia, that actually has done something to the Constitution.

M: That’s right. To be fair, what they would say would be, ‘We’re not changing the meaning of the word “doctrine” in common parlance. We’re changing it specifically for the purposes of the Constitution’. So they acknowledge that we’ve used the word much more widely in General Synod and every other context, but they’re saying ‘Doctrine’ for the purposes of our Constitution is this narrow concept. That inevitably has a flow-on effect for how we use the word. So yes, it’s a radical redefinition of the scope of that word.

L: And partly, it really is a question of is it the General Synod’s understanding or is it the Appellate Tribunal’s understanding that’s okay? So that’s helpful for members of the General Synod to hear and to understand what these issues are – when this word ‘doctrine’ pops up, what those issues are.

Why do you think these issues are important, then?

M: At a fundamental level, what unites us as an Anglican Church of Australia is that we actually share common core beliefs. I would ordinarily have said ‘doctrines’, but I can’t that use that word any more, because of the Appellate Tribunal! It’s not just that we happen to share a heritage or we derive from a Prayer Book. The thing that actually unites us is that we believe what the Bible says and we believe it in a way that is – I keep on going to use the word ‘doctrine’ and I’m stuck! We have these shared core beliefs as Anglicans, and the problem is, if the things that bind us together as a national Church, if they are limited to those things which are necessary to salvation and those things are a relatively small subset, it means that we will no longer have very much in common. We’re likely to have much more in common with other denominations than we have with the people who bear the ‘Anglican’ name in other places, if the only thing that unites us is effectively the things that you might find in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Pretty much, almost by definition, everybody in Christendom believes in what’s in the Nicene Creed. If that’s all that unites us together and there’s nothing distinctive about who we are as an Anglican Church – I think there is a lot more that we have in common as an Anglican Church which derives from our understanding of the Bible, our Reformation heritage that’s been reflected at least initially in the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-nine Articles and the Ordinal – they’re the things that historically we’ve said, yes, they’re the things that bind us together as an Anglican Church in Australia, and I’m hoping that one of the outcomes of the General Synod is it will continue to affirm that. That the doctrines and the principles that come out of the Book of Common Prayer continue to be those things which bind us together; the teaching of Jesus contained within the Scriptures continues to be the thing that binds us together; that we want to live in accordance with what Jesus says, whether or not it fits within that narrow definition of the word ‘doctrine’.

L: So it’s about the Church’s unity and it’s about our understanding of the Bible. Thank you very much for writing on both of those issues and spanning both of those issues which do very much come together here. Michael, thanks very much for joining us. That’s very helpful and I hope that’s shown people why they should pick up the book and read those chapters.

Please do pray for all the members of the upcoming General Synod.

You can get a copy of the book The Line in the Sand by heading to the Australian Church Record website, that’s www.australianchurchrecord.net/lits or by the link on the Anglican Church League website, www.acl.asn.au.