Letter from Australia

From Church to Denomination

IN AUGUST 1982, the Dean of Adelaide, the Rt. Rev’d. Lionel Renfrey, released the second edition of his well known mass book. In the preface he referred to the fact that “on 24th August 1981 the General Synod adopted a denominational title, the Anglican Church of Australia, to replace the territorial title of the Church of England in Australia.”

In 1962, after literally decades of acrimonious debate, Australian Anglicans gained their Constitution. The church’s name change took a further twenty years to achieve.

A federation of dioceses

Unlike other parts of the Anglican Communion, the individual diocese emphatically remained the fundamental unit of the Church for Australian Anglicans. This was partly because of the enormous distances between colonial settlements, and partly due to the development of strong differences in matters of churchmanship between dioceses. Contrasting ecclesial traditions were transplanted from the Church of England to different parts of Australia, giving rise, for example, to the conspicuous reformation evangelicalism of Sydney, the prayer-book catholicism of Adelaide, and the differently nuanced catholicism of rural New South Wales, Victoria and the Province of Queensland.

In 1901 the separate Australian colonies became a Federation whilst retaining very strong state governments with jurisdiction over important areas of life. It is an interesting parallel that for all intents and purposes, the “National Anglican Church” even after 1962 remained a “?federation of dioceses”. To this day, no legislation of the General Synod can apply in a particular diocese until that Diocesan Synod has incorporated it into its own canons.

This provision gives rise to certain anomalies. For example, because the Melbourne Synod has adopted the “Reception Canon” of General Synod, Presbyterians, Baptists, members of the Uniting Church and other protestants are able to become fully fledged Anglicans through a simple rite of “reception” without being confirmed. If the same people live a hundred kilometres down the Western Highway in Ballarat Diocese, the only way they can become communicant Anglicans is to be confirmed!

The same is true with regard to the purported ordination of women. The Diocese of Adelaide has incorporated into its canons legislation for creating women priests. When women who have been ordained in Adelaide journey fifty kilometres east along the Western Highway into the Diocese of The Murray, they are, according to the canon law of the Anglican Church of Australia in that place, laywomen.

It was predominately catholics and central churchmen who strove for a constitutionally autonomous Anglican Church of Australia. Evangelicals in the Diocese of Sydney feared that the whole process would mean a watering down of the reformation settlement. Indeed, many aspects of the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia developed from the need to satisfy Sydney that no alliance of catholic and central church dioceses could impose the kind of changes of which Sydney would not approve on the whole Church.

Denominational Preference

A radical change in self perception has taken place among Australian Anglicans since the 1962 Constitution came into force. “Denominationalism” has become an interpretative framework at the heart of almost everyone’s ecclesiology. It is, for example, common to hear Australian Anglicans (even our bishops) refer to Roman Catholics simply as “the Catholics”. This might be a matter of courtesy, but it also serves to diminish the claims we make for ourselves in our historical formularies. (It is a matter of history that at least two colonial Anglican Bishops objected to the arrival of their Roman Catholic counterparts on the basis that because the Church of England got there first, there was already a Catholic bishop in place!)

Being an Anglican, a Baptist, “a Catholic” etc. has become a matter of mere denominational preference. The most bizarre example of this was an ecumenical gathering I attended a couple of years ago when a very godly and well meaning Roman Catholic priest referred to his Church as “the Catholic denomination”!

Bishop Renfrey’s wry observation is most astute, for it reflects a change of thinking that has seeped through nearly every layer of Australian Anglicanism whose members no longer see themselves as a geographical aspect of a small part of the Catholic Church; they are now a “denomination”? - and psychologically that makes them feel little obligation to take into account the thinking of the wider Catholic Church when making important decisions.

This is in spite of the Fundamental Declarations at the beginning of the 1962 Constitution which appear to commit us for ever to the Faith and Order of the universal church. The former Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson, maintained his objection to the purported ordination of women precisely on the basis of these declarations. He was the only member of the Appellate Tribunal to take them at face value.

What exactly is
an Australian Anglican?

In the year leading up to the 1988 Lambeth Conference, each Diocese of the Anglican Communion was asked to form a group of clergy and lay people to produce a statement reflecting on what it meant to be an Anglican today. The answer given by the group from the Diocese of Ballarat is significant, for it runs counter to the development I have just outlined. And if it is not precisely what Anglicans of all kinds would want to say, it is demonstrably more agreeable to our historical formularies than are the ideas of Avis and Sykes (or, here in Australia, Kaye and Wilson). The Ballarat group said that to be an Anglican was to be a tiny part of the Catholic Church which is temporarily and unfortunately out of full communion with the wider Catholic Church.

The Ballarat group wanted to maintain that while there may be an Anglican "ethos" of worship and spirituality, an Anglican way of dealing with moral issues, and even an Anglican theological method, there is no such thing as "the Anglican Faith", that our own formularies commit us to the ancient Catholic Faith, and that, far from being a mere “denomination”, we are an integral part of the Catholic Church whose sacraments and orders we share.

The vote for the ordination of women in 1992 was a victory not just for the kind of diocesanism in our Constitution that was supposed to protect significant minorities in the church; it was in the end a victory for denominationalism.

I belong to the diminishing minority who still claim never to have been ordained to the "Anglican Priesthood", who point out that according to Anglican formularies there is no such thing! We were ordained to the ministerial priesthood of the Church of God, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. What's more, we were ordained in a tiny part of the Catholic Church that had already committed itself to full ecclesial reunion with the rest of the Catholic Church. Now, however, we struggle to be faithful priests in a church whose bishops act in fundamental matters of holy order in a way that is totally inconsistent with our historic claim to share the sacrament of order with the wider Catholic Church.

Can Catholics still be
Australian Anglicans?

Is it possible to live the catholic life in the Anglican Church of Australia? The answer to this is obviously "yes", but with a qualification. The circles in which the full catholic life can be lived in this church are getting smaller by the day. Fortunately they still include some whole dioceses. We look to the bishops of those dioceses for leadership at the national level.

The establishment of Forward in Faith Australia is a crucial aspect of ensuring some kind of future. Furthermore, the dialogue about women bishops and alternative episcopal oversight that is taking place at the present time provides us with a unique opportunity to work for a “way of being church”? that gets behind some of our inherited problems.

If (and it’s a very big “if”) opponents of the ordination of women can work together cohesively in spite of the tyranny of distance we face, we may be able to achieve an end result centred on the remaining orthodox dioceses that will be the envy of people like us throughout the world. This would involve a gathering together and inspiring of orthodox clergy, lay people and parishes for mission; spiritual and numerical growth, a renewed teaching of the Faith, and a reaching out to new people with the love of God and the sacraments. Such a regrouping of the orthodox within the Church would even enable us to reactivate our ecumenical journey, and facilitate the passing on to new generations the best of what we have known and loved as Catholic Anglicans.

This kind of realignment would mean for many a happy deliverance from the denominationalism that has made it so easy for this church to forsake the ancient ways.

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

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