LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Mounting Pressures

 

"Anglicans mourn synod’s ‘no women bishops’ vote" is the front page headline in the current Market-Place, Australia’s privately owned monthly Anglican newspaper. It is accompanied by a colour photograph captioned "Grief", showing supporters of women bishops in prayer and lighting candles. The accompanying article bemoans the fact that even with "the scaling down of measures designed to protect the consciences of parishes and clergy opposed to women bishops" the legislation "failed to clear the required hurdle" of two thirds in the house of clergy and the house of laity. Feminist Muriel Porter refers to those in favour of women bishops as "the oppressed majority."

The other front page story, "Pressure grows on bishops to go it alone," discusses the possibility that it may be legal already for dioceses such as Adelaide, Perth and Canberra-Goulburn to consecrate women as "assistant bishops" without General Synod legislation. This, of course, is highly provocative, as was the Primate’s remark that women bishops are "inevitable, one way or another." There is a lot of anger in the shrinking Anglican Church here that the growing Diocese of Sydney with the support of the Catholic minority was able to prevent women becoming bishops through the General Synod route, especially as it now seems impossible that the pro women bishops forces will ever be able to increase their proportion of General Synod membership.

It was partly to avoid the kind of acrimony we experienced in the ten years leading up to the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1992 that some catholics and evangelicals have been suggesting the kind of dialogue that would have resulted in legislation for women bishops containing, as a right, complete alternative episcopal oversight for conscientious objectors. It is likely that if such legislation had been presented, containing adequate "sacramental distance" from the new ministry, together with "non-contiguous" diocesan arrangements, it would have gained considerable support from the orthodox, and the liberals would now be planning for their first women bishops.

Since the advent of women priests in 1992 we have pleaded for a "loosening of the knot" so that the constituent traditions of the Anglican Church of Australia can move towards their goals without violating each other’s consciences. There can be no other way, and the sooner those whose victoy shattered the fragile unity of this church understand that, the sooner we can all move forward. These sentiments have been echoed in the English context by Bishop John Broadhurst in his Preface to "Consecrated Women?":

"The choice facing us all is stark: are we to engage upon an endless war of attrition which harms the gospel . . . or do we have the generosity and charity to give each other the space we all need?"

In Australia this becomes a constitutional question, and takes us to Dr John Davis’ conclusion on page 188 of his magisterial "Australian Anglicans and their Constitution" (1993) that "while the Constitution as agreed to and put into effect may have been the only combination of compromises possible in the late 1950s, it is not able to meet the needs and pressures of the 1990s."

Dr Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney, referred to this matter in a press conference following the women bishops’ vote. He asked whether the Constitution is "sufficiently flexible for the twenty-first century." He went on to say, "If we are going to change the Constitution, it won’t be just about women bishops; a great deal else will be affected as well." He spoke about changing "the way we relate to one another", and hoped that "if parts of this church want to have, in this case, women bishops, I trust that they’ll be equally accommodating with other things that other parts of the church want to have as well."

While denying that he was necessarily referring to lay presidency, Dr Jensen went on to describe the need to grapple with our mission to 21st century Australians. He said "The Constitution is a very difficult document to change, and I suspect there’ll be events and occurrences which are in a sense outside the Constitution which will bring new life to the Church, and new ways of being the Anglican Church of Australia."

To many of us, there are worse things than the Anglican Church OF Australia devolving in practice into a kind of "Council of Anglican Churches IN Australia." Of course, this would mean at least three clusters: the "Sydney" evangelicals and their followers, the liberals, and a smaller stream of catholics. If present trends continue, the liberals will die out in 20 years; the evangelicals will continue to spread and fill the vacuum created by the demise of the liberals; and the catholics, too, have a future if they can recruit a new generation of clergy who are not only orthodox in the credal sense, not only pastoral in their parishes, but also evangelistic in their orientation. This scenario is no tragedy for those of us who for most of our lives have regarded intra-Anglican relationships in Australia as ecumenical relationships, anyway. It is a kind of "free market economy" – the so-called "Gamaliel principle" writ large, applied in this instance across the board and not only in the selective manner of the recent past.

Extending this line of thinking to the issues addressed in the Windsor Report, we come up with a scenario different to that of either the American liberals on the one hand, and most of the Global South primates on the other. Leaving aside the Report’s elastic view of Scripture, its apparent assumption that the "unity" of the Anglican Communion is more important than believing God’s truth, its replacement of the whole Catholic Church with the Anglican Communion as the arbiter of "reception", its scandalous rhetoric about the ordination of women being a thing done well in the Communion, and its unhistorical assertion of the moral equivalence of those who consecrated Gene Robinson with the overseas bishops who have come to the rescue of orthodox ECUSA and Canadian parishes, it is clear that the way that the orthodox are most likely to flourish and grow is, again, by loosening the knot rather than tightening it.

I am persuaded that this minority view – again put by Peter Jensen in his response to the Windsor Report – is the right one. He said: "I do not think that expulsion is the way ahead. I favour the acknowledgement that we are living in a looser relationship, and the development of recognised bilateral relationships to hold as many as possible in communion. I am not persuaded that the proposed strengthening of the so-called ‘instruments of unity’ is either prudent or useful."

A "looser" relationship which includes parallel jurisdictions would be a step of faith for all; but it would allow the orthodox to flourish and grow unimpeded by the brutality of liberal bishops.

 

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.

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