LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

A GERIATRIC CHURCH

IN LAST MONTH’S Letter From Australia, Martin Hislop painted a gloomy picture of Anglicanism in this country. What must be emphasised about his article is that it was based, not on clever detective work, but on the published pronouncements and admissions of our liberal church leaders.

These are the same leaders who until recently would tell all and sundry that our church is doing very well, that there is no crisis in attendance, membership or vocations, and that those of us who express alarm are simply troublemakers. However, the latest census figures and other well documented research (in particular the “National Church Life Survey”) make it impossible for them to conceal the real state of things.

There is more. Paul Osborne, editor of “Focus”, the newspaper of Brisbane Diocese, recently revealed that of the 2,800 active clergy in the Anglican Church of Australia, less than 200 are under the age of forty, and more than sixty percent were over fifty. Over one third of the clergy in the large metropolitical Diocese of Brisbane will reach retirement age in the next five to seven years. The implications of this for the future relate not just to the loss of a very large number of clergy in one massive wave, or to the difficulties of budgeting for superannuation, but to the very survival of the church into the next generation.

What’s more, it is clear that a very large proportion of the 200 clergy under forty are evangelicals - mainly in Sydney, but also in Melbourne. Once that is factored into the equation, it becomes obvious that the real crisis for the Anglican Church of Australia is far worse than anyone would care to admit.

One only has to join the vast student body of Moore College in Sydney for lunch to realise that the evangelical dream of spreading beyond Sydney into the rest of the country is both practical and attainable.

Amongst these idealistic young people there is an impatience with traditional Anglican structures and diplomacy, which they see as barriers to the faithful proclamation of the Gospel in this land. There is a strong feeling amongst staff and students that the terminal decline of liberal Anglicanism presents a wonderful opportunity for evangelicals to infiltrate and eventually take over.

Every now and then those of us on the Anglo-catholic end of the spectrum with close friends in Sydney are challenged to do likewise. Indeed, since 1992 various Sydney leaders have expressed surprise at our lack of organisation and cohesiveness. But, as Anglo-Catholic visitors from other parts of the Communion often remark, our position here is far worse than almost anywhere else in the world.

Why is this so?

Until thirty years ago, Anglo-catholics were thought of as a major force in the Australian Church. In fact, a great deal of Evangelical energy and resources were concentrated on trying to wipe us out. The real irony is that Anglo-catholicism has died from within. This process began with a subtle takeover of the theological colleges (in Brisbane, Newcastle, Melbourne and Adelaide) by what the late Bishop Hazlewood once described as “liberal protestants in chasubles”. Imagine - two generations of ordinands have got through the system without ever having heard of Eric Mascall!

As the colleges lurched towards the kind of modernism one associates with ECUSA, so the bishops for catholic minded dioceses began to be elected from amongst the new breed of clergy. They, in turn, appointed their friends to senior positions, and in a very short time the catholicism of Australian Anglicanism almost disappeared.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the theology of ordained ministry. From S. Francis’? College in Brisbane, once a vital catholic seminary, various discussion papers on the nature of ordained ministry have been produced. One of them, “A Management Model of Ministry”, seems to totally desacralize what it means to be a priest.

Administration, management techniques drawn from the world of late 20th century consumerism, non-directive leadership, and a heavy dependence on the church as sociological reality rather than sacramental mystery, are at the core of this new kind of ministry. “Spirituality” is mentioned, but it feels like a kind of “add-on”; it is certainly not the priestly spirituality in which the clergy have been classically formed in the catholic tradition. What has disappeared from Australian Anglicanism is the priestliness of the ministerial priesthood.

I was inducted as Rector of my first parish at the age of 28. Now, at 47, I still find myself amongst the youngest at clergy gatherings in Australia! In fact, in some dioceses the mid-forties seems to be the average age of ordination. The ramifications for ministry with young people are enormous. Part of the problem is that the “management model of ministry” presented to the church may well appeal to spiritually minded middle aged bank managers and accountants wishing to be ordained (and I'm not knocking them!), but it is hardly the kind of vision for which an idealistic 19 year old will give up his life. At 19 a man responds to the idea of proclaiming God’s saving Word, opening the gate of heaven in the Eucharist, and leading the people to glory. Without idealistic 19 year olds going to college there are no 23 year old curates. And without at least some 23 year old curates in a diocese there is no real “bridge” ministry between a middle aged greying church and the world of young people which is surprisingly open to the Gospel.

Some liberals are beginning to admit that the church is in trouble. The theological fashions, the reductionist worship, and the forms of ministry they have developed have failed to deliver the results promised. Some leading evangelicals, such as Sydney based Philip Jensen believe that the crumbling of the Anglican Church of Australia is well under way. They speak of “a few decades” during which liberalism will completely die out, and they intend to fill the vacuum.

What can Anglo-catholics do? There are three small dioceses - Wangaratta, Ballarat and The Murray, and a handful of parishes scattered throughout the country. For some time it has been thought that those three dioceses acting together, with the support of the other parishes, could provide a form of preparation for ordination to the priesthood that would inspire young men to offer themselves for gospel and priestly ministry. Initial discussions about this took place in the early 1980’s, but nothing transpired. Some of us believe that it is the only hope for the future - a future made possible in part by the kind of demise in liberal Anglicanism that only ten years ago would have seemed improbable.

Can we invent an Anglo-catholic version of Moore College that will nurture in young men a real passion for the Gospel and the Catholic Faith? Unless this question is addressed now, it is hard to see how there can be any future for catholicism in the Anglican Church of Australia.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints', Wickham Terrace in the diocese of Brisbane.

 

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