The first congregation of Australia’s breakaway Anglican church was about to meet in a suburban RSL, and the man who was supposed to be leading the service was worried.
Ten minutes before the Rev Peter Palmer was due to start, there were less than a dozen people at the Beenleigh RSL and golf club in south-east Queensland.
“Then all of a sudden all these people walked in … and we started to worship God together, in a whole new style of Anglican worship,” Palmer said at a conference on Monday.
The stakes were high: Palmer had previously given notice as the parish priest of St George’s Anglican Church Beenleigh, telling an “envoy” of the archbishop of Brisbane he was leaving to join Gafcon, a breakaway group that is dividing the Anglican church across the world.
Gafcon, the Global Anglican Future Conference, says it’s fighting back against a “revisionist” interpretation of the Bible by the leadership of the Anglican church which has allowed the ordination of women, the blessing of same-sex marriages and more relaxed views regarding divorce.
Palmer said when he was asked by the envoy why he was leaving to join Gafcon, he responded: “I cannot go along with same-sex blessings, I will not allow that to happen, and I’ve got to stand up to this”.
Rather than serving his customary three months leave, Palmer said he was told that his service the following Sunday would be his last with the Anglican church.
He said he negotiated to get an extra week of service – to allow his parishioners to “grieve” – given he had been at the church for more than six years.
Palmer then told his parishioners he was leaving to join a diocese that explicitly forbids same-sex marriage.
“Many of them were shocked … and they actually asked me ‘What do we do?’
“So I thought about it, and I prayed about it, and I decided that there was only one way to do it, which was to stand up against it, and call it out for what it is: God says that it’s a sin.”
Palmer’s service last weekend was the first held by the Diocese of the Southern Cross, the only Australian affiliate of Gafcon.
The diocese was officially launched this week at a Gafcon conference in Canberra by its new bishop, Glenn Davies, the Anglican church’s former archbishop of Sydney.
“This is a sad day, in many ways,” he told the Guardian.
“If the leadership would repent and turn back to the teachings of the bible, we wouldn’t need the Diocese of Southern Cross. I’d shut it down and come back.”
It is the latest expansion of a movement that is dividing the church across the world, with similar dioceses in North America, South America, Africa and Europe.
“I’m not procuring people, I’m not luring people in, I’m not recruiting, I’m providing a safe haven, and they can come to me,” Davies said.
The Anglican church was the main denomination in Australia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But according to the latest census, Anglican affiliation dropped more than any other religion in the past five years, from 3.1 million to 2.5 million people – a decrease of nearly one in five, from 13.3% to 9.8% of the population.
Brian Douglas, an Anglican priest and adjunct research professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra, said he expected the split in the church to widen.
“There are effectively two Anglican churches in North America now, and I suspect that’s what will happen here,” he said.
Those divisions in the US had led to legal disputes over whether parishes that had broken away from the Anglican church were able to still hold services in their local churches, but Douglas said similar issues may be avoided in Australia, as the Anglican church held its property in trust, meaning none was owned by parishes.
As the dust settles, Palmer is preparing for his next service.
“I don’t think it’ll [just] be me for long,” he says.