Book of the month

John Richardson takes issue with an analysis of the phenomenon that is Sydney Anglicanism


The Sydney Experiment Muriel Porter

Ashgate, 208pp, pbk,

978 1409420279, £19.99

Back in 1993, when I was an overseas student at the Diocese of Sydney’s Moore Theological College, I became dimly aware through the media of someone called Muriel Porter. ‘Who is this woman,’ I found myself asking, ‘and what has she got against the Diocese of Sydney?’

So regularly did she comment, I assumed she must be from that diocese. Only later did I discover that, although she was born and brought up as a Sydney Anglican, she had actually lived in Melbourne since the Seventies. Despite the distance of both space and time, however, something meantime had evidently nurtured a fierce hostility.

In a sense, then, Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism is a monument to a lifetime of dislike. Even more so is this the case when we realize that it is, in fact, a revision of her recent work on the same theme: The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church, published in 2006 (indeed, some of it is the same material).

As can be seen, Porter’s anxieties about Sydney have now gone global. The title of the latter work reflects Porter’s conviction that Sydney Anglicanism is actually a form of ‘fundamentalism’. Porter is not ashamed to admit and display her dislike of all things Sydney in general and surnamed Jensen in particular. At one stage, for example, she refers to how the ‘tentacles’ of the diocese ‘reach around the globe and throughout the Anglican church’. But it is this emotive approach which is the key weakness of the book. There are repeated references to ‘anecdotal evidence’ and the author says herself that she has avoided an ‘investigative’ approach. Furthermore, although she has often encountered Jensen at the national Synod, I find no evidence of personal acquaintance in this book.

Porter’s obsession – for such it surely is – does at least mean that there are a lot of details about the Diocese of Sydney in this book, should you wish to be acquainted with them.

If you do not relish the author’s hostility, however, this is probably not the right medium from which to learn about such matters as the ambitious diocesan Mission, or the recent problems with its finances. A more sober (though now dated) account of Sydney’s history is to be found in Ken Cable and Stephen Judd’s Sydney Anglicans. Otherwise, online resources can supply the lack.

The underlying problem with her own approach is that Porter seems to be affected by the same problem she alleges in those she opposes. An entire chapter on ‘Women: Equal but Different’ begins with the assertion, attributed to Monica Furlong, that the arguments against women’s ordination are not really as important as what the arguments hide. In other words, it is all down to psychology: ‘Is there a lingering correlation between the early assessment of Sydney’s convict women as ‘damned whores’ and the reluctance to allow women into church leadership in that city?’ Any sensible person would surely answer, ‘No’. But Porter’s quasi-Freudian approach must find unconscious motives and impulses beneath every surface. Thus Archbishop Jensen’s recent speeches are described as ‘bearing all the hallmarks of a leader fearful that he has lost his previously unassailable position.’

Yet the most casual reader will soon find that Porter’s own ‘motivation’ relies to a large extent on her views about the role of women, on which Sydney is, of course, intransigently conservative; that and a nostalgia for the lost world of her Sydney childhood. But her theology is less than ‘traditionalist’. Thus she regards the Articles of Religion as ‘merely an interesting but dated historical record’ and is openly revisionist on the subject of homosexuality.

Porter’s book actually has some important points to make, but they are hard to digest through the torrent of polemic. Sydney Anglicans do need to ask, for example, about their own ‘connectedness’ with historical Anglicanism — just as do Conservative Evangelicals in this country. And in fact such questions are being asked, not least (as it happens) by Archbishop Jensen’s son, Michael, who is now on the faculty at Moore College.

For Sydney Anglicans, then, Sydney Anglicans might actually make useful reading. For the rest of us, however, its one-sided approach and constant delighting in Sydney’s failures makes it heavy going.

Early in the book, Porter writes, ‘An Australian church without Sydney, I believe, would have released enormous energy for growth and renewal in the rest of the dioceses.’ In the final chapter she hopes that the ‘End’ of the Sydney ‘Experiment’ will bring ‘a more reasonable, generous, kindly form of Anglicanism’. Yet by her own admission, in the midst of a deeply secular and irreligious culture, Sydney Anglicanism succeeds where other Australian dioceses fail. Porter’s ‘vision’, ultimately, is for a traditional church redolent of her past. I doubt that it is what Australia needs today. ND

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