Letter from Australia

Consecrated Sheilas

AS A RESULT of Forward in Faith’s ongoing dialogue with those of our opponents who want women bishops, and more publicly, the skilful presentations of Bishop David Silk (Ballarat) and the Rev’d. Dr. Robert Doyle (Moore College, Sydney), the Australian General Synod meeting last February voted overwhelmingly to set up a representative working group to present both a discussion paper and draft legislation for women bishops AND alternative episcopal oversight for release to the national church at the end of 1999. After discussion around the dioceses, this legislation will be ready to put before the next General Synod meeting in 2001.

The word is now out that we will support such legislation on condition that it provides for the kind of episcopal ministry that will guarantee us an ecclesial future.

Throughout the ordination of women debate there was a good deal of resentment at the growing respect and mutual support between evangelicals and anglo-catholics. That is nothing, however, compared with the resentment caused recently by the dialogue between us and those who, wanting to be theologically consistent and also to act justly towards the women who have been ordained, now ask for women bishops.

The motivation behind this dialogue is a genuine desire to avoid a re-run of the decade of open warfare that preceded 1992. Both sides agree that such a thing would only be destructive to the Church's life and mission.

But a good number who pushed hardest for women priests, including Archbishop Hollingworth of Brisbane, are trying to put the brakes on their becoming bishops, “for the sake of unity”?. Needless to say, this has provoked derision from feminists and traditionalists alike. The idea that you can have women priests but not women bishops is very hard to defend!

The General Synod working group is chaired by well-known feminist and historian, Dr Muriel Porter, and represents fairly both sides of the ordination of women debate. The first thing it did was to collect relevant information and opinions from Australia and overseas.

Significantly, the September report of this group to the General Synod Standing Committee says:
“The meeting . . . committed itself to working inclusively, with respect for differing viewpoints, and always towards that ‘deeper unity and communion to which we are called’. We noted that superficial management of such an important and deeply-felt issue could only be destructive.”

This is good news for us. We have sometimes felt like a hospital patient denied medication by nurses who refuse to believe that our pain is as bad as we say it is!

And yet, some of us in Forward in Faith fear that the working group will come up with a solution that is no solution at all. One view that seems to be growing in popularity is that the Welsh model ought to be adapted for Australia. That is, that a PEV be appointed who is licensed to the Primate, and who has visiting rights in all dioceses as an assistant bishop.

The problem with this is that it is six years too late! It is the kind of stopgap measure that might have been able to help us deal more creatively with the problem of women priests. But it is totally inadequate if what we are talking about is women in the “college of bishops”. A far more radical and honest approach is required that will enable our consciences to be respected.

Those who accept the ecclesiological principles underlying the FiF document “Towards a Free Province”, believe that the relative autonomy of Australian dioceses provides us with the kind of starting point that does not really exist in England. In other words, suppose that the bishops of the handful of “catholic” dioceses in Australia declare together the impossibility of their being part of an episcopal college containing women. This would automatically create a de facto network within the Anglican Church of Australia (“ACA”) which would have to work as a church in its own right, and which would relate to the wider ACA in an “ecumenical” fashion. What is so difficult about officially recognising the integrity of this at the national level?

To enable parishes outside the “safe” dioceses to link in with this network, the deceptively simple legislation put to the General Synod in 1992 by well-known lawyer Neil Cameron of Sydney should be inserted into the canon providing for women bishops. The Cameron legislation creates a process by which parishes can democratically decide to opt out of their “geographical”? diocese and become completely (i.e. buildings, bank accounts, assessments - the lot!) part of another diocese.

Immediately after the vote for women priests back in 1992, the Cameron legislation was blocked by a simple majority at the first reading stage.

In other words, debate on the matter was disallowed! This was unprecedented. But it did demonstrate that particular General Synod’s level of sincerity in relation to caring for the consciences of evangelicals and catholics now marginalised in their own church. There has been a change in mood. Many of the younger liberals now on General Synod, together with various women clergy and not a few of the assistant bishops and younger country bishops, are very open to dialogue with us. Some of them are even privately critical of the reign of terror they admit exists in certain metropolitical sees. The support of these groups was crucial in getting the Synod to include in any arrangements for women bishops that which was specifically and forcefully ruled out by the Primate six years ago - some form of alternative episcopal ministry for us.

In 1992, Father David Robarts tried to show the liberals that the ordination of women would give rise to two diverging streams of sacramental life within Australian Anglicanism. They wouldn't’?t listen.

But what Father Robarts predicted has come to pass. In the aftermath of the recent Lambeth Conference with its Eames Commission resolution, it is simply not possible to ignore this. In fact, the resolution envisages BOTH streams of sacramental life being catered for at once (by the provision of “appropriate episcopal ministry”) not only to maintain “the highest degree of communion possible”?, but also to make sure that what we are in is really an “open process of reception”. We are now asking for poor old Gamaliel to be brought out of his closet one more time. He was invoked so often by the liberals before the 1992 vote (“ . . . If it’s of God then it will last”? etc etc). The challenge for them now is to be consistent with their so-called “Gamaliel principle”? and let a few parishes go to the nearest orthodox diocese. If they are so right with regard to women's ordination, they will flourish and our stream of sacramental life will dry up in the end. But if this is really an “open process of reception”, they are obliged to at least accept the possibility (however remote it might be!) that WE might be right, and provide for our ongoing ecclesial integrity. In the Australian Church, the only satisfactory way of doing this is to have a successful re-run of the Cameron legislation or introduce something like it, requiring from both sides a high level of honesty, realism, dialogue and co-operation. Less than that will convince our constituents that they really are orphans out in the cold.

If women bishops and alternative episcopal ministry are established as part of the same package in Australia, we would all be able to concentrate on proclaiming the Gospel and nurturing our faith communities without rancour.

1999 will be a very interesting year Down Under!

 

David Chislett SSC is Parish Priest of All Saints'. Wickham Terrace in the diocese of Brisbane.

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