The Anglican Church of Australia: a future

Uniting Church relationship? Part 2

David Wetherell on the future of Australian Anglicanism in the wake of decreasing support for the traditional male priesthood

In the first part of this article, David Wetherell looked at the arguments in favour of women’s ordination advanced by Garry Weatherill, the newly installed bishop of Ballarat, a diocese that was once a bastion of conservative Anglo-Catholicism.

It is not the author of these arguments who matters but that a considerable part of the Anglican church of Australia agrees with him. Some of these arguments rest on omissions of inconvenient truths; others on questionable assertions. And, at each repetition of such arguments, many Anglo-Catholics in the church have gritted their teeth and murmured, ‘Same old story’.

Anglican-Catholic discussions

The first and greatest omission of inconvenient truths concerns ecumenical relations. Nowhere do many advocates, inside and outside Ballarat, refer to Rome and Orthodoxy. From the Sixties, Anglicans worldwide were led to believe that recognition of Anglican orders by Rome was one of the ecumenical goals of the Anglican Communion as a whole. Following visits to the Vatican by successive Archbishops of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (in 1960) and Michael Ramsey (in 1966), the two communions began to put aside centuries of isolation. One result was the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) which began discussions in 1966 on a range of issues including the validity of Anglican orders. But Anglican-Catholic discussions on holy orders, so hopefully pursued from the Seventies, have now quietly evaporated.

Priesthood of all believers

In the place of Anglican-Catholic relations, many leading Anglicans refer to the ‘priesthood of all believers’, used by fellow liberal Anglicans as a launching pad for Holy Orders. A priest is simply a pastor, a focus of the congregation’s ‘priesthood of all believers’. They overlook the ARCIC report on Ministry and Ordination (1973, especially section 2) and Elucidations 1979 (especially section 2). These contradict their arguments.

For the Bishop of Ballarat and some of his fellow bishops to ignore altogether the findings of the Commission is a pity. As with other apologists for women priests, the judgments signed by representatives of their own Communion four decades ago are forgotten. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, appointed by the highest authorities in both churches, is quite clear: the ministerial priesthood of the Catholic and Orthodox communions is ‘not an extension of the common Christian priesthood’.

(The documents of Vatican II refer to ‘the priesthood of all believers’ or the ‘common Christian priesthood’ to which both lay and ordained belong. This is by contrast with the ministerial priesthood of the ordained. In the words of ARCIC, 36, ‘particularly in presiding at the Eucharist, their ministry is...not an extension of the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit’.)

Adjectival use

Crucial to all discussions has been the word ‘Catholic’. Bishop Weatherill’s continuing use of the word is bewildering in its vagueness. Insisting that the women priests are still ‘Catholic’, he uses the expression only adjectivally: Anglicans are ‘committed to a catholic breadth of vision’. This, he continues, is based on the original Greek word: ‘according to the whole’.

On this reading, ‘a catholic breadth of vision’ might describe the Salvation Army. It might refer to the Baptists or Uniting Church. It could even refer to Buddhism. Clearly Bishop Weatherill’s use of the phrase ‘according to the whole’ cannot apply to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox 80 per cent within Christianity who continue to uphold the male priesthood. The bishop’s understanding of ‘catholic’ – according to the whole – can refer only to the Anglican two per cent.

Broad Churchmanship

So what is happening here? Why have so many Anglicans voted in favour of such arguments? Part of the answer lies in the growing influence in Australia of Broad Churchmanship (its eighteenth-century version was Latitudinarianism). Broad Churchmen have sought to emphasize the ethical component in Christianity rather than its doctrines. The original focus was largely personal and domestic, but with the passage of time Anglicans, along with Christians of all denominations, have projected ethical concerns beyond the sphere of the home to the world.

This is evinced in a preoccupation with community service and social justice. The strength of the Australian Broad Church movement is found today in such Melbourne-based welfare bodies as Anglicare, Anglicord and the Brotherhood of St Laurence. In turn, social justice concerns have developed into a desire to come to terms with a modern environment of interchanging sexual identity. Broad Churchpeople identified the call for women priests as a social justice issue by embracing a gender-free ‘ministry’ – which was equated with the ‘ordained ministerial priesthood’.

Shrugging aside objections

A concern for social justice is a mark of Christianity as a whole and is not the monopoly of Broad Church Anglicans. The Christian religion demands a commitment from its adherents for social equity and justice for all human beings. What makes Broad Churchpeople’s understanding distinctive is that to judge (they imply) by the teachings of Jesus and the example of his conduct with women, the ethical imperatives for women priests over-rides historic claims that ordained Anglican pastors are part of the priesthood of the Universal Church. Little thought was ever given to the possibility of empowering women to perform an ordained ministry as permanent deacons or archdeacons.

It is easy to understand the impatience of the Broad Church majority in Melbourne with ‘quibbles’, as they see it, about women priests. The ancestors of the Broad Church school had said, in effect, ‘the history of Christian theology is littered with insoluble problems, no matter how many scriptural quotations are piled up, some things can never be decided one way or the other’. Second, this did not much matter since the heart of Christianity was, in any case, action and practice and morality, not belief in doctrine. Good manners, tolerance – and the desire to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ – prevailed until the Seventies, when ambiguities in understandings of the Anglican ‘priesthood’ finally became irreconcilable. The general response among Broad Church people was a shrugging aside of Catholic objections: What do such things matter?

Anglican leaders lack the institutional clarity about the priesthood belonging to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions, and the weakness of Broad Church Latitudinarianism lies its doctrinal vagueness, not only about things of Faith but also about things of Order. Broad Churchpeople are marginalized in the Universal Church by their weak ecclesial sense of kinship with the great and ancient Orthodox and Catholic worlds.

Papering over the cracks

What is the future of Anglicanism in Australia, in particular as an ecumenical partner in the aftermath of women’s ordination as priests and bishops? In a recent book Jonathan Holland, assistant bishop of Brisbane, has commented on the value of liberal Anglicanism as an energizing force:

‘Whereas Anglo Catholicism had something distinctive about its theology and liturgical practice...liberal-Catholicism seems to have no strong theological theme around which it is shaped. It has more to do with gentle scepticism about some biblical truths, a readiness to embrace theological diversity and a desire to be tolerant of other opinions. ‘Gentle scepticism’, ‘theological ambiguity’ and ‘toleration’ hardly inspire young men and women to pledge their lives sacrificially...’

More than half of the world’s Anglican churches have decided to ordain women as priests. This has meant a breach not only with minority Anglicans (up to 30 per cent in the UK) but also with the Universal Church, notably with churches in communion with Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Speaking during the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 2008, the cardinal president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity warned the Lambeth fathers of the consequences of ordaining women bishops. The ordination of women to the episcopate, Cardinal Walter Kasper stated, ‘effectively and definitively blocks’ a possible recognition of Anglican orders by the Catholic Church. Since then, the Anglican Centre in Rome has continued to be the focus of ecumenical talk, and there has been a flurry of visits to Rome by successive archbishops of Canterbury. These visits have been useful in papering over structural cracks when these had to be concealed for a time, but in the long term, facts cannot be talked away.

Future possibilities

The future of the Anglican Church of Australia possibly lies with the Uniting Church which was formed in 1977 by Australian Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Such a combined church would command the membership of nearly 20 per cent of the Australian population. Relying on a shared British Protestant background, and with a common belief in the ordained ministry as the focus of the congregation’s ‘priesthood of all believers’, they are virtually identical in ecclesiology and culture.

A precedent already exists in the church of South India, a post-World War II amalgam of Anglican and other Protestant churches. Anglican–Uniting Church negotiations in Australia are also served with a good working model in the British Methodist–Church of England reunion scheme devised during the Sixties which failed to eventuate. As for bishops, not at present officiating in the Uniting Church of Australia, a sister communion of one of the Uniting Church’s constituents already has bishops – the Episcopal Methodist Church of the United States.

Quo vadis?

Along with much of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Church of Australia’s future business lies within international Protestantism, not in a Quixotic search for acceptance of its orders by Pope or Eastern Patriarch. The quest for definition of Anglican orders as ‘Catholic’ belongs to a vanished age, and Anglo-Catholic claims about a shared heritage from ancient Catholicism and Orthodoxy will fade into memory. In its orders Anglicanism in Australia and elsewhere remains Protestant, as Catholics and the Orthodox have traditionally regarded it. The question now is – quo vadis? – where do we go from here?

Dr Wetherell is Honorary Fellow in History at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. He is author of a history of the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea, Reluctant Mission (1977) and editor of The New Guinea Diaries of Philip Strong (1986). Bishop Strong served as Bishop of New Guinea for 26 years and later became Archbishop of Brisbane and Primate of Australia. A longer version of this article, with footnotes and bibliography, will be available from the writer in March 2015. ND

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