THE congregation of a small Anglican church is in open revolt after the church organist, a married gay man, claims he was sacked for living in an "unbiblical way" and told to separate from his partner.
Peter Sanders married his partner last year. Since 2018 he had been a paid organist and a beloved member of St Mary's West Armidale Anglican Church and later became the church musical director.
On May 16, a senior church committee member called a meeting with Mr Sanders and his husband, who doesn't want to be named, under advice from Dean of the Parish of St Peter's Cathedral Reverend Chris Brennan.
Mr Sanders was told that the way he lived was "unbiblical" and that he could not continue to play the organ or hold other leadership roles until he and his husband agreed to separate, "be celibate" and "learn how to live in a biblical way". He was told he could remain friends with his husband.
He was told he could remain a member of the church.
Mr Sanders called the church's mentality draconian and said he couldn't believe he had been discriminated against.
"[The church clerics] don't care about what they've done to me, and they don't care about what it's done to my relationship, and they don't care about what it's done to every member in the congregation that thought this was a piece of paradise," he said.
"The thing is, they also didn't realise how many people sit in the pews at St Peter's [Cathedral] and probably have a similar view to St Mary's."
In a statement, Bishop of Armidale Rod Chiswell claimed not to have dismissed Mr Sanders from his "paid, honorary role".
Mr Sanders "voluntarily withdrew" from attending at St Mary's, he said, and from his role as organist.
"The Anglican church in the Armidale Diocese, like the Lord Jesus, welcomes all who choose to come to church regardless of sexual orientation," Bishop Chiswell said.
"Involvement in positions of ministry or other leadership, like in many other Dioceses, is conditional upon church governance and agreeing to the Faithfulness In Service code."
Mr Sanders rejected the idea he had left the organ position voluntarily, though he acknowledged he did choose not to return to church.
He said the church had put conditions on his return as an organist that he could not meet without compromising his relationship.
"Why would I withdraw from my cherished role as an organist when I was happy?" he said.
"If I had withdrawn voluntarily from my role as organist, why won't the church allow me to come back without conditions being put on my relationship?"
'Standing up for a mate'
Long-time parishioners told the Leader that the 125-year-old church had long been a "paradise" of liberal Anglicanism in an otherwise politically conservative diocese.
Mr Sanders said he'd picked the parish for that exact reason, because he felt like his relationship would be accepted.
Parishioners said everything changed in February after the installation of a new bishop, Rod Chiswell, who slammed gender fluidity and homosexuality in his first Armidale sermon on Anzac Day.
Many in the congregation saw Mr Sanders sacking as part of a campaign to bring the smaller church into line with the more conservative theological position of the diocese - and responded with fury.
At the end of a Sunday church service in May, long-time parishioner Dr Thomas Fudge challenged the church Dean and demanded a vote.
Parishioners voted 31 to two to condemn the view that homosexuality is a sin, and to oppose the treatment of Mr Sanders and his husband.
Dr Fudge said that Mr Sanders and his partner were much-loved members of the church, but the battle was about more than standing up for a mate, it was about theology.
"We're going into bat for two people who we think have been unnecessarily excluded. We're also going into bat for the inclusive message of Christ, which is love," he said.
"I don't believe they're homophobes. I believe they're closely wedded to a particular view of scripture that they feel obligated to take the stand that they've done. And on one level I can respect that, though I disagree with it profoundly."
A petition calling on the church to reverse the decision has been started by six people elected by the congregation to act on their behalf. The group is also considering a donations' strike or outright walkout from church services and the church management committee has resigned.
Long-time parishioners called Mr Sanders a warm and loving member of the church who had volunteered his time to help a widow and spearheaded the church's CRASH (Christians Relaxing in Someone's House) - a bi-monthly religious dinner party.
Mr Sanders said not going to church in months has left a "sort of empty void".
"It was more like family," he said.
"We look out for one another and we care for one another.
"It's just a huge part of my life. Since the age of 15 I was playing for services on a regular basis. Going back beyond that, from the age of 13, and probably 12, I was an altar boy. Our whole family life was around the church [as a child]."
Mr Sanders said he felt like a scapegoat in a much larger battle over gender, pointing to a religious freedom law likely to be put to parliament later this year.
"I don't know if bigotry is the right word. I think they're trying to protect their stance on same-sex marriage at all costs to the point that they can't even understand that they've discriminated," he said.
"When you look at the gospels of the New Testament, that's what life's all about, to love one another and to love without judgement."
Mr Sanders was paid about $100 a month as an organist.
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