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AUSTRALIA: Gay married couple told to separate, be celibate to keep job in church

AUSTRALIA: Gay married couple told to separate, be celibate to keep job in church

By Nicole Precel
July 8, 2021

A same-sex married couple claims they were discriminated against and had to leave their leadership roles and a paid job at a small church in northern NSW.

Organist and church musical director Peter Sanders, 57, and his husband Peter Grace, 61, who held an unpaid leadership role at St Mary's Anglican Church, were told they would need to separate, be celibate and receive religious counselling if they were to continue in their positions in the West Armidale church.

The congregation is rallying around the couple, with members launching an online petition calling for the clergy to reinstate them in their roles, be inclusive and reject discrimination. Some members have stopped taking communion, attending services and fundraising.

"This is an important issue for every Australian who has gay children or are gay themselves," Mr Sanders said.

"We are being discriminated against by the church for being who we were born to be."

Mr Sanders, originally from north Queensland, started playing services in mid-2018 and became a regular before he was made musical director.

"When I came here I was a single man. I didn't think there would be anyone in my life again. But, by chance, I met this beautiful person and wanted to make the best of it," he said.

Mr Sanders met his husband in early 2019. By Valentine's Day 2020, the two were married in Coffs Harbour.

In May this year, the church told the couple they would have to separate because they were not living a "biblical life".

"There is no way I'd ever want the Peters to leave. They are a part of the heartbeat of the church. This is not something any of us wanted at all," one of the congregants said.

It was with "great grief" that Mr Sanders took the news.

"When the church is such a big part of your life, and part of your tradition, to find that you're not wanted because of your sexuality, it's threatening and it's hard," Mr Sanders said.

But a spokesperson for the church said it did not ask anyone to leave the church and the couple left their positions voluntarily.

"To the extent that any such comments were made to Mr Sanders (which I cannot confirm), they were certainly not made with the authority or consent of the Dean (or the church)," the spokesperson said.

"The Anglican church in the Armidale Diocese, like the Lord Jesus, welcomes all who choose to come to church regardless of sexual orientation," he said.

"Involvement in positions of ministry or other leadership, like in many other Dioceses, is conditional upon church governance and agreeing to and complying with the Faithfulness In Service code."

Mr Sanders said he believed this was a bigger issue than what was happening to them. "It's how the church speaks from the pulpit about people such as myself," he said.

The Morrison government has released two drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill, which aims to stop discrimination based on religious belief or activity but there are concerns to what extent religious groups will be able to hire and fire staff based on their values, including gay employees. Attorney General Michaelia Cash is set to bring the bill to parliament by the end of the year.

Mr Sanders felt they were being made an example of and was concerned the bill could give the church the right to behave exactly in the way they have done.

"If that bill was to be accepted by the parliament we would never have [spoken out], we would be forced into a position."

Mr Sanders said the church was a "wonderful institution" full of far more progressive views than what had been experienced in the Armidale diocese.

He said the congregation wanted change; "if we stay silent we cannot achieve that. By speaking up that's what we are hoping to do - to change for the good of all."

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Nicole Precel is a journalist and audio video producer at The Age. She is also a documentary maker.

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