Letter from Australia

Fathers in Law

Not long after the ordination of women began in the majority of Australian dioceses, a friend of mine, wanting to be kind and conciliatory, and trying to maintain the ‘highest level of communion possible’, invited the diocesan bishop to preach at the Sunday Eucharist, though not to be the celebrant. The Bishop was pleased, for he had not expected the invitation, and parishioners were surprised at their priest’s initiative. However, when he arrived at the church, the bishop virtually insisted that he be the celebrant, and backed down only when my friend, echoing the principles that were to be enshrined in the FiF Communion Statement, told him that because of what he had done, the parish could no longer in conscience recognize him as their ‘Father-in-God’, although they would give him courtesy and respect as their ‘Father-in-Law’!

My friend’s quip was not original, but it did clearly set out the dilemma for those Catholics who have remained within official Anglican structures since 1992. The theological position it summed up was held by most Anglo-Catholic opponents of women priests in the early days. Those who have managed to maintain that position since have done so at great personal cost and without the support given to our numerically more significant constituency in England by the Act of Synod, the PEVs, the FiF secretariat and the regional meetings that are so easily had on a small island.

In Australia, apart from occasional grudging permission or turning of blind eyes to the use of retired orthodox bishops, there has been no real provision of alternative episcopal oversight (or even the kind of ‘extended episcopal care’ given by the PEVs in England). Indeed, it is not uncommon for both ‘liberal Evangelical’ and ‘liberal Catholic’ bishops to treat our position with contempt, in spite of assurances of proper pastoral care made by the Primate and others in 1992.

Readers of New Directions will remember that the process leading up to the debate on women bishops in the 2001 General Synod included discussion of different models of alternative episcopal ministry, the most minimalist of which was eventually attached to the women bishops legislation. In the end this was withdrawn by the mover and seconder because conservatives were going to vote against the bill on the basis that the alternative oversight provisions were not strong enough, while many in favour of women bishops planned to vote against the bill because they were against any form of alternative oversight.

Since then a new committee, chaired by Bishop Jeff Driver of Gippsland, has been at work devising fresh legislation for the October 2004 General Synod. In a recent interview with the newspaper Marketplace, Bishop Driver said that the ‘improved’ legislation would provide parishes under a woman bishop with the episcopal ministry of a ‘visiting bishop’ (who isn’t a woman) in such a way as to make it clear that women bishops do not have less authority than their male colleagues, and also to ensure that dissident parishes cannot simply ‘choose their leadership’. ‘They’ll go through a process with the diocesan bishop and the diocese will decide how the alternative ministry is provided.’ ‘They’re not opting out from the oversight of the diocesan bishop; the diocesan bishop provides for them an episcopal ministry that provides for their deeply-held principles.’

At the 2001 General Synod, Forward in Faith members and our sympathizers rejected what even the other side referred to as the ‘low level alternative episcopal oversight’ on offer. We said then that it was nine years out of date. It would have done quite nicely if all we were talking about were women priests (it is not dissimilar to the arrangements that exist in England and in Wales); but we rejected it because of its failure to express the break in communion that will come about with the advent of women bishops and its irreversible effects on the sacramental economy of the Australian Church.

Because the legislation prepared by Bishop Driver’s committee has watered down even further the miserable level of so-called ‘protection’ offered to orthodox minorities, it is unlikely to pass. In fact, we are cautiously optimistic that there will be enough Evangelicals and ‘real’ Anglo-Catholics in General Synod to vote it down.

This process has been valuable, however, for it demonstrates that even good-natured liberals like Bishop Driver still fail to understand our position – that for us the crisis of conscience arises, not at the point when we personally have a woman bishop set over us, but at the point when women are purportedly ‘consecrated’ as bishops of our church. That’s why English Forward in Faith is preparing for the eventuality of women bishops with its plans for a ‘Free Province’, the logic of which is accepted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s why for us in Australia the only acceptable model of alternative episcopal ministry is that which is capable of nurturing a new ecclesial structure in which, in the words of the Forward in Faith Mission Statement, ‘our children and grandchildren can grow in faith; which will continue the orders of bishop, and priest as the Church has received them; and which can guarantee a true sacramental life.’

Last month, Bishop Ross Davies, a member of the National Council of Forward in Faith Australia, spoke about women bishops in his Presidential Address to the Synod of The Murray: ‘As I cannot see how the ordination of women is consonant with the Church’s Order, a new problem will emerge if there are women bishops on the bench in the Anglican Church of Australia. Ordinations of men by women bishops creates, at best, a question of ‘doubt in Holy Order’ and all I can do is put on the record that I would need to re-ordain any man purportedly ordained by a woman bishop before I could license him.’

What will happen if General Synod fails to pass the women bishops’ legislation in October? There is growing support among liberal bishops for the idea that they don’t really need General Synod’s approval. Would the Primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley of Perth. go ahead, anyway, as he did with the ordination of women to the priesthood? Time will tell.

One thing is certain. Sooner or later there will be women bishops in the Anglican Church of Australia, with or without General Synod’s approval. Surely it is time that the liberal bishops realized the folly of acting towards the small orthodox catholic minority as if we are to blame for the ecclesial situation that is emerging, when both it and women bishops are the logical consequence of the 1992 vote for women priests. Surely it is time that they worked with us to find the least disruptive way of ‘loosening the knot’ so as to allow at least two Anglican ‘clusters’, churches, provinces (or whatever the new reality turns out to be), thereby respecting the consciences of all concerned.

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