Wangaratta couple John Davis and Rob Whalley to be blessed by church after marriage

MEN OF FAITH: John Davis and Rob Whalley outside Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday. A Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta vote means they will be blessed by the Anglican church after getting married. Pictures: JAMES WILTSHIRE
MEN OF FAITH: John Davis and Rob Whalley outside Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday. A Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta vote means they will be blessed by the Anglican church after getting married. Pictures: JAMES WILTSHIRE

Two priests from Wangaratta, who have been in a relationship for more than 20 years, will be the first same-sex couple in Australia blessed by the Anglican church, following a momentous vote on Saturday.

There were hugs and tears of joy after the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta - made up of members from Albury and the North East - voted 67-18 to allow blessings for those who have been married in a civil ceremony.

Former archdeacon of Albury John Davis stood before more than 90 people at the meeting and in an emotional speech, told them of his intention to marry his partner and fellow priest Rob Whalley in September.

"At a time such as this, we can choose to stand up to be counted," he said.

"In so doing we are offering an example, a model, even a hope, in the face of so much ongoing dismissive criticism from some within the church.

"We do so confident that this action speaks to the fundamental values of love, compassion and care that are at the heart of the Christian gospel."

Wangaratta Bishop John Parkes

Wangaratta Bishop John Parkes

"I think this is a very significant moment for the Australian church," he said.

"My LGBTQIA friends will probably tell me this is but crumbs from the table and in a sense it is, but it is the only crumbs we have to distribute.

"Pray for the unity of the church, pray for wise heads to understand precisely what we have done."

The vote in Wangaratta on Saturday was confined to blessing same-sex relationships; the Anglican church can still only conduct marriages between a man and a woman.

"This country has decided and decided overwhelmingly that the Marriage Act 1961 should be extended to include persons of same sex. We don't live in a vacuum, we live in that context," Bishop Parkes said.

"I thank in particular archdeacon Davis for his willingness to be massively vulnerable.

"Know that he will receive and I will receive criticism from elsewhere because of the honesty."

Trinity College canon theologian Dorothy Lee brought on the vote, saying the bible states that blessings "should flow to all people and indeed to all living creatures". The vote was conducted by secret ballot and the result was met by a big round of applause.

But there were two speakers during the meeting who spoke against same-sex blessings, including Corryong and Tallangatta reverend Mitch Porter.

He said the proposal did not measure up to the Anglican church's standards of scripture, tradition and reason, and has led to the decline of church attendance and its moral authority in North America.

"Simply because the state authorises something, does not means we should find a way to include it as well," he said.

"This is not about excluding a certain groups of people simply because of their sexuality, this is not about bigotry or hatred, if it's about anything it's about duty ... your duty to uphold God's commandments and his instructions."

But these views were of the minority, with many people in the synod wearing rainbow scarfs and badges to clearly state their position.

Love no longer kept secret

John Davis and Rob Whalley, as two gay men in a loving relationship, do not want to be invisible anymore.

In the next two weeks, they will be firstly be married in a civil ceremony then blessed by Wangaratta Bishop John Parkes - their union accepted by the Anglican church that means so much to both of them as priests.

Saturday's synod meeting was the first time many within the church learned of the couple's plan to marry.

Father Davis teared up on stage as he shared the news, and was met with a big round of applause.

His hope is they can be accepted for all the parts that make up who they are, including being both men of faith and part of the LGBTQIA community.

"For over 40 years of ordained ministry I have given the church my dedicated and committed service, both in Melbourne and in the North East and Border region. There have been many differences of opinion and approach over those years. Now another issue is sharply focused: finding room for LGBTIQA people in the church - named, acknowledged, respected," he said.

"We hope to be asking the God we honour, and those who care for us, to continue to bless us in our ongoing life together."

They met in the late 1990s when Father Davis visited Father Whalley's home country of the US and they fell in love.

The decision to speak out on the issues of blessings was considered, but Father Whalley said he wanted young gay people in country towns to see that they could be accepted.

In reflecting on his life ahead of Saturday's vote, he said he had felt safe as a gay man in the church in the US, but found society was different when he moved to Australia which still had a "don't ask, don't tell" approach in 2001.

They moved to the North East 10 years ago, "keeping separate bedrooms, appropriate distance, the relationship unspoken, and that seemed good enough".

But the 2017 plebiscite on same-sex marriage changed things for Father Whalley.

"As the conversation proceeded I realised how angry I was," he said.

"First, for the dehumanising experience of having a primary relationship unrecognised and deemed unfit for open discussion, second for the fact of a kind of apartheid, not by the civic culture, which voted for inclusion, but by my own church.

"And that finally struck me, more than ever, as a crime against my neighbour and a deep sin against the love of God."

He said he had been saddened that the church previously resisted "sharing the gift of blessing", but there was joy on Saturday as he and Father Davis embraced each other, and friends in the church following the historic vote.

This story Gay couple to be the first blessed by church after marriage first appeared on The Border Mail.