Letter from Australia

Bishops restrained and unrestrained

Once every three or four years, at stupendous expense, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia meets. To understand this unique church on a unique continent it is necessary to embrace our basic immutable principle of ‘diocesanism’. The twenty-three dioceses are almost autonomous and canons of the General Synod only take effect when enacted at diocesan synod level. Our church is a loose co-operative of dioceses, with real limits on General Synod’s ability either to require or forbid anything.

General Synod is a seven-day long ‘endur­ance test’. We promoted national models for professional standards and child protection in the wake of the most appalling child sex abuse scandals. There was a presentation on the need for mission to reverse the dra­matic decline in our membership, which is only contra-indicated in the almost ‘mono­chrome’ evangelical Diocese of Sydney. It is difficult for Anglicans to face up to the fail­ure of the liberal churchmanship experiment. To engage in mission which will succeed, there needs to be commitment to the truth revealed in Holy Scripture and witnessed to and reflected in the catholic tradition. Unless we are faithful to that tradition I cannot see how God can ‘grow’ us again?

The liberal agenda failed, not only in the matter of the consecration of women, but also with Synod withholding approval for blessing same-sex unions and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. A Code of Pro­fessional Conduct for Clergy and Laity was adopted, setting the exclusive standard of chastity or marriage for Christians. Of note was a motion congratulating the Australian Parliament for establishing by law that mar­riage is a union of a man and women, thus precluding ‘gay marriage’. The Government

was supported by the Labor opposition! Readers of New Directions will be particularly interested in the Clarification Canon (women bishops) and the Canon to Constrain Certain Consecrations (anti FiF and TAC). Under a constitution of ‘byzantine’ complexity, the canon for women bishops required a two thirds majority in each of the three houses: The bill failed in the Clergy (59%) and the Laity (63%), but passed in the Bishops by seventeen to six. Why did it fail when the women priests’ canon had reached the necessary majority in 1992? In 1992 one diocese had already gone ahead, without a canon of General Synod, thus effectively ‘holding a gun’ to its head. More importantly, however, for the future, is the slow ‘sea change’ of power shifting to the traditional evangelicals. This General Synod reflects a greater number of repre­sentatives from Sydney, supported by two other dioceses of the same churchmanship. Adding these votes to the remaining ortho­dox catholic dioceses and some allies in the liberal dioceses — two thirds becomes impos­sible in 2004, and perhaps for a long time to come. Sydney will almost have a third of the clergy votes on its own by General Synod 2007, according to Sydney projections. Of note in the debate was the excellent speech by the Bishop of Ballarat, Michael Hough, who clearly stated the ecumenical impact, the shared nature of catholic orders, the loss of communion which would ensue from the consecration of women and the need to ‘reordain’ men ordained by women bishops. This left me with the point to make in debate that nothing had changed for us in the argu­ment since 1992 — the ordination of women is still contrary to catholic faith and order. Many Sydney representatives argued from Paul’s doctrine of the headship of men, but it was a wonder to listen to the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, speaking at length against the canon, carefully outlining catho­lic as well as evangelical objections. Immediately after the vote the ‘sabre rattling’ began. This was picked up in the national newspapers the next day. The Aus­tralian heading its article, ‘Anglicans rebel on bishop vote’. It reported the Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, George Browning, as indicating his diocese would challenge the decision and that there was a ‘strong possibility there would be a woman bishop by the next General Synod’. Canon Colleen O’Reilly stated that ‘there are bishops ready to ordain (consecrate) women.’ There were other reports of similar intentions. There are probably few in the Anglican Communion who can claim to be the object of a General Synod Canon, specifically targeted against them personally. Let me tell you of the one created to restrain me and to inhibit the possible consecration of Father David Chislett, the usual author of this column. Some background is needed.

Since 1992 no provision has been made for those who in conscience cannot accept the ordination of women to priesthood in Australia. To be outside the six ‘safe’ dio­ceses is to be in an invidious position if you are of our integrity. There has been a diverse response depending on the bishop, but, to be honest, we are largely marginalized, unwel­come and, at best, at the mercy and good­will of bishops who do not share our view of catholic order.

With no provision made for us, unlike the CofE, Forward in Faith Australia is forced to ‘think outside the square’ to provide a future. Even if the special provisions in this year’s Canon for women bishops had come into effect, they would have been next to useless. Our basic principle is just not understood by our opponents. We cannot live with alterna­tive bishops who are alternative to women bishops and in communion with them. That is a logical impossibility! So with some trepidation FiFA and Archbishop Hepworth of the Traditional Anglican Communion are trying to pioneer a way ahead, drawing the TAC back nearer to the Anglican Commun­ion and providing a ‘bridge bishop’ conse­crated for both churches. lam happy to help try to achieve this goal. Father Chislett, the proposed bishop, and Archbishop Hepworth have been in dialogue with the Primate and the Archbishop of Brisbane in whose dio­cese Chislett’s church is located. There is no ‘cloak and dagger’ approach from us.

It was quite a shock to find myself the target of a canon of General Synod to restrain me. I had already written to the Primate assuring him that I would not act outside the canons of the Anglican Church of Australia. I was also surprised at the heat and angst of the debate. Only one bishop had raised the matter with me before the Synod. I felt ambushed.

The ‘Constraining’ Canon is only a pro­visional canon, returning in 2007 when it will need a two thirds majority and then will need further enactment in each diocese. At present I remain ‘unrestrained’. Despite some attempt by the Primate to discuss the FiFA proposal, I am disappointed at the negative response in Synod to our attempt to find a way ahead for what amounts to a small number of parishes of our integrity who need another form of oversight, by way of a pasto­ral solution. We will persist.

 

Ross Davies is Bishop of The Murray and a member of FiFA National Council.

 

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