LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

David Chislett surveys the gathering realignment

Over the last two months there has been a lot of discussion about the joint alternative episcopal oversight plans of Forward in Faith Australia (FiFA) and the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia (ACCA), with some commentators seeing them as a way of putting safeguards in place ahead of the advent of women bishops. We have had to make it clear that they are in fact our response to the purported ordination of women to the priesthood in 1992 when there began to develop within Australian Anglicanism two divergent streams of sacramental life. Back then the Primate (Archbishop Keith Rayner) had said that impairment of communion at the very heart of church life was a tolerable price to pay for women priests.

The Church of England realized that in order to be consistent with its own theology of ‘reception’ it had to accept that either side of the women’s ordination debate could turn out to be right at the end of the day. And so both had to be cared for and nurtured. Hence the Act of Synod and the so-called ‘flying bishops.’

For twelve years we in Australia have been pleading for the same provision, only to be slapped down every time, or offered such a watered down version as to be of no use. Horror stories abound of relentless persecution, crushed spirits and broken lives. That is no exaggeration. We believe it is high time, after twelve years, that this came to an end.

Our involvement with the ACCA has raised eyebrows, largely because of the consistently extreme statements of some Anglican bishops. From the reaction in some quarters a few years ago when FiF made it clear that we regarded ourselves as ‘in communion’ with the ACCA, you would think we had entered into a communion relationship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses!

To put things in perspective, it is important to realize that in the 1980s the ‘non-Sydney’ opposition to the ordination of women constituted one community. Towards the end of the 1980s there was a difference of opinion as to the best way forward. In desperation some went ‘just outside’ official Anglican structures and formed the ACCA, while others managed to remain ‘just inside’ – those who eventually constituted FiF. But in reality both groups together have always been one community of Anglicans … colleagues, relatives and close friends.

Moreover, the ACCA people never claimed to be out of communion with all dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia … just those with women priests. And then there was Bishop Hazlewood’s famous declaration of communion with ACCA and his support of them until his death in 1998, including his participation in the consecration of John Hepworth.

When the ordination of women began in England, and the PEV system developed, it became clear that full and unimpaired communion with Canterbury was no longer the test of being an Anglican. Indeed, the bishops of the ‘Traditional Anglican Communion’ (‘TAC’) – the international body to which ACCA belongs – recognized this in 2002, pointing out in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury that in reality their communion with him was only impaired to the same degree and for exactly the same reasons as the English ‘A, B and C parishes’.

The TAC has formal Communion Concordats with FiF in the USA, in Australia and in the UK. Furthermore, the TAC alone has provided lifelines of support to many persecuted and marginalized Anglicans in Australia and other parts of the world.

Not all the liberal Australian bishops have been hostile. Some are tolerant, others even supportive. And there does seem to be a new desire for co-operation where that is possible. For example, the Bishop of Bathurst has recently made one of his churches available for the Bathurst congregation of the ACCA. And there have been other gestures of goodwill over the last couple of years, not least on the part of Archbishop Carnley.

At the ACCA’s National Synod in 2003 it became clear that with Archbishop Hepworth’s new international responsibilities they would need an assistant bishop. The Synod decided to offer a name to the TAC’s International College of Bishops for that role. Because of the communion relationship between the ACCA and FiF, this coalesced with discussions about the possibility of ‘sharing’ at least one bishop, who would remain Rector of his parish.

By the time the National Council of FiF met, we came to see that what we are moving towards exactly fulfills the Mission Statement to which FiF has been committed from the beginning: ‘We seek an ecclesial structure in which 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’.

If FiF Australia and the ACCA succeed in doing this together, we will end up with an arrangement similar in principle to the ‘Free Province’ towards which FiF in England are working.

The boundaries between the TAC and ‘official’ Anglicanism are considerably blurred. It is a fact that a number of orthodox Anglican Communion bishops throughout the world act as if they are in full communion with the TAC. It is a fact that there have been exchanges of clergy and even joint licensing. Furthermore, liberal bishops have been powerless to stop large numbers of ordinary lay people cris-crossing from FiF parishes to TAC ones, depending on where they find themselves on Sundays.

Of course, the question that really matters to many people is the TAC’s relationship with the ‘official’ Anglican Communion. But ‘who really belongs’ to the Anglican Communion in the context of its new and evolving diversity on ecclesial, theological and moral issues? This is the very question before the Eames Commission.

Until recently, ‘full communion with Canterbury’ seemed to be the basis of belonging. However, while the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to go on using the term ‘Anglican Communion’ (as opposed to ‘Anglican Federation’ or some other term), it is clear that unimpaired eucharistic communion does not exist even within the Church of England – witness the ‘A, B, and C’ parishes. (The new difficulties over sexual morality also mean that the majority of Anglicans in the world – the so-called ‘global south’ – are no longer in full communion with the Episcopal Church of the USA.)

If, in order to accommodate a wider range of theologies and practice than once thought possible, ‘recognition by Canterbury’ that a particular church belongs to the Anglican family or tradition is what counts, then there appears to be no difficulty in Canterbury’s ‘recognition’ of the TAC as an authentic member of the Anglican family of churches. Nor is there any compromise required on the part of TAC members in belonging.

It is against this backdrop that an equal number of Anglican Communion diocesan bishops and TAC bishops will participate in consecrating the FiF/TAC bishop, making it quite clear to all and sundry that the joint entity is authentically Anglican.

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