Letter from Australia

 

A RECENT Four Corners documentary on Australian national television examined what it described as a "power battle" between liberal theologians and evangelicals that threatens > to break apart the Anglican Church" in this country. (A transcript of the program can be found on the web at:
http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/s141770.htm)

This series of interviews with many of the key figures of Australian Anglicanism (although no Anglo-Catholic was asked to take part) confirmed what many of us in Forward in Faith have been saying about the Anglican Church of Australia for some time.

Near the end of the program, leading Sydney priest, the Rev'd Bruce Ballantine-Jones, opined: "I think what will happen is that the dioceses of the Anglican Church in Australia will tend to drift apart and become more independent of each other, so that the Anglican Church looks more like a loose federation rather than a tight-knit national body." Andrew Fowler, the presenter, summed up by asking, "how many realize that the comfortable old institution they might only visit for weddings and funerals is in fact a church full of bitterness? At best, it faces prolonged internal turmoil and at worst, disintegration."

One of the fascinating things about the program was the lifting of the lid on church plants by Sydney Anglicans outside the geographical boundaries of their Diocese. Although these "independent evangelical churches" are not "officially" part of the Diocese of Sydney, they are clearly supported by prominent Sydney Anglicans. Indeed, many Sydney Anglicans speak openly of this as the beginning of a new proclamation of the Gospel to Australians, freed from the shackles of liberal religion dressed up in ritualistic Anglican garb.

The Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev'd Harry Goodhew, is to retire early next year. He is often seen as a "moderate", holding firm to evangelicalism, while not wanting Sydney to alienate itself from evangelicals elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. Those other evangelicals have been looking to Sydney for leadership and support against liberals in their own provinces, especially since the Lambeth Conference. And so Harry Goodhew refused to sign the Canon authorizing lay presidency of the Eucharist, even though that Canon received the support of an overwhelming majority of the Sydney Synod. This has given rise to a high level of frustration among ordinary Sydney church people, and most commentators believe that no serious candidate will get the necessary numbers in the forthcoming archiepiscopal election without guaranteeing support for lay presidency. It is well known that the "pro-lay-presidency" forces have strengthened their numbers in the Synod that will elect the new Archbishop. It seems that the only way they could be defeated is if their vote becomes divided between two candidates. If that happens, it is just possible that a "Goodhew" man might come through the middle with the support of the liberal and anglo-catholic votes, someone who is in all senses a true blue Sydney evangelical, but who will respect "Anglican order". The new Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, is sometimes spoken of in these terms.

We wait with bated breath. Certainly a recent editorial in The Australian Church Record speaks for many Sydney clergy and lay people as the election draws near. It outlines four barriers that need to be removed if the Gospel is to be effectively proclaimed in our land.

1. Episcopal territorialism: The writer refers to the Singapore consecrations before concluding that in contrast to the notion of maintaining "Anglican order", "to nurture the evangelical church wherever it may be found to be under pressure will not be an easy option, but it is part of an evangelical vision."

2. Limitations of our present parish system: Within the Diocese of Sydney, about 20 parishes already meet who do not own property; but as a result they live outside "the supportive fellowship of Synod"

3. Ongoing clericalism: "The belief that God permanently restricts certain ways of working in the world to episcopally ordained clergy is a concession to Roman Catholic views of ministerial order and of the Holy Communion as a sacrifice. Synod has already determined that if we are to bear transparent witness to Jesus Christ in the national context, then we must allow lay people to administer Holy Communion" (i.e. to "preside").

4. Diocesism: "The Gospel compels us to offer official encouragement, support and nurture to those planting evangelical churches outside the diocese, wherever such church plants are needed. In turn we must bear the cost, not only of accepting scorn and threat, but also, in fairness, of allowing alternative episcopal oversight for (Sydney) congregations who do not want to be part of an evangelical diocese."

Naturally, the non-Sydney bishops have reacted strongly to these sentiments. The Primate and the Archbishop of Brisbane, for example, have both been using the most impeccably orthodox "catholic" arguments against lay presidency in their public statements, often the very arguments which they chose to ignore back in 1992 during the debate on women priests.

One liberal bishop privately sought support from a Forward in Faith priest against lay presidency. When the priest told him that FiF people weren't interested in helping, that from their point of view lay presidency of the Eucharist already existed in his diocese (i.e. the women he had purportedly ordained), he gasped with disbelief and anger. "You don't REALLY believe that?" he said. He and most of his colleagues continue to miss the very simple point we have consistently made . . . that most of us do not believe those women to be priests at all, and the rest of us seriously doubt that they are priests.

These same bishops speak against all forms of alternative episcopal oversight in terms of "guarding the boundaries" of their dioceses, as if the defining essence of the episcopal ministry is territorial jurisdiction rather than being the apostolic minister to a particular faith community. >

Some of them are committed to opposing legislation for women bishops, even though they championed the ordination of women to the priesthood. This has, of course, brought derision from conservatives and feminists alike, for it is not a position that can be theologically defended.

All we have asked for over the last few years is a cessation of the open warfare that has been a feature of Anglican life in this country for too long. From the point of view of basic rights, it would seem fair, since the fragile unity of our church was destroyed by the liberals in 1992 over the ordination of women:

1. that the evangelicals should be able to follow their > convictions on lay presidency of the Eucharist; and
2. that catholics should be able to have bishops whom they can with clear conscience represent at the altar of God.

Why cannot our leaders see that an official loosening of the knot in a non-acrimonious manner is the most Christian way ahead. Why do they react to honest constructive thinking about our future with a policy of crushing all who ask for reasonable concessions.

Do they really want to destroy the little bit of spiritual morale left in Australian Anglicanism with a re-run of the ten years conflict leading up to 1992. Are they really so out of touch with grass-roots feeling among their people that they imagine no crisis is up ahead for them?

Canon Peter Jensen, Principal of Sydney's theological college said on the Four Corners program, "I do think that some sort of restructuring of the Church is most likely in the next five to ten years."

The Sydney challenge will come. The pressure from Forward in Faith for some realistic form of alternative episcopal oversight will not go away. The challenge to our leaders is to respond in an honest and fair way with a loosening of the knot. Have they the spiritual courage to do it?

David Chislett is National Secretary of Forward in Faith Australia.

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