LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Endgames

AT THE PRESENT point of its decline, one might have expected the Anglican Church of Australia to take seriously the heartfelt pleas of both Sydney evangelicals and Forward in Faith catholics regarding the kind of alternative episcopal oversight that will be necessary should women purportedly be consecrated to the episcopate in this country.

Sadly, this is not the case. The long awaited draft legislation for women bishops reflects the recommendations of the Working Group set up after the 1998 General Synod to advise the Standing Committee on these matters. It will be remembered that an Interim Report was published in August 1999, suggesting four "options": The first was "complete" alternative jurisdiction, with parishes being able to join another diocese - buildings and bank accounts included; the second option offered four variations of alternative episcopal oversight "working within the existing structures" of the church; the third was province based with suffragan bishops; the fourth was women bishops with no alternative episcopal oversight.

Responses to the Interim Report were invited. The background material to the draft legislation makes it clear that "the responses revealed strong support for both complete alternative episcopal jurisdiction, and for legislation for women bishops without alternative episcopal oversight. Options which offered a range of other proposals for alternative episcopal oversight received limited support."

In spite of this, the Draft Bill for women bishops that will come before General Synod in July 2001 is a "Clarification Canon" (as was the legislation for women "priests" back in 1992) "in the context of the suggested mechanism for providing diocesan-based provincially-managed" (what Dr Muriel Porter, Chair of the Working Group called "low level") alternative oversight.

It is claimed that Option One ("complete" alternative jurisdiction) was ruled out because it would have necessitated complex legislative and constitutional changes requiring a high level of consensus in the church, as well as parliamentary changes in most Australian states. Independent advice from legal experts, however, confirms that the changes, though complex, are possible. The REAL reasons for rejecting Option One are obviously:

1. THE LENGTH OF TIME THE PROCESS WOULD TAKE.

Dr Porter and her friends are characteristically impatient. Yet, surely a change of this magnitude in the church's life needs to be free of undue haste and impulsiveness. So what if it took the life of two or three General Synods? That would at least enable us to be part of the wider discernment of the whole Communion as to the way orthodox minorities are treated. The relentless determination of the liberals to introduce women bishops quickly without due regard for the orthodox is seen in the way that the background material resorts to the kind of blackmail to which we became accustomed in the years preceding 1992: "If legislation for women bishops is not enacted, however, there could be serious ramifications for unity. Even if there were inherent prohibitions against the consecration of a woman as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Australia, there may well be no bar to a diocese electing or appointing a woman already consecrated a bishop elsewhere within the Anglican Communion. If such action were taken and became the subject of legal challenge, it is the Australian Church that would be the loser."

2. THE EVOLUTION OF PARALLEL JURISDICTIONS.

With women purportedly consecrated to the episcopate, one assumes that the handful of bishops who could not in conscience recognise those women (and, indeed, the women and men ordained by them) as having valid orders would face a crisis of conscience with regard to the nature of their relationship, their "communion", with the House of Bishops. Option One would undoubtedly give rise to at least a handful of parishes from liberal dioceses clustering around the orthodox bishops. It would be the Antipodean way of achieving the goals described in the U.K. Forward in Faith Free Province document.

Archbishop Carnley's background paper outlines his theological objections to this. Readers will remember Geoffrey Kirk's answer to its basic arguments in "Convenient Inconsistencies (New Directions, December 1999). The real paradox for us is how the Primate and others think nothing of rejecting the Universal Church's teaching on the sacrament of Holy Order, while at the same time they maintain a crisis of conscience on the far lesser principle of geographical jurisdiction, which for pastoral reasons the churches of the East and West are prepared to compromise.

It is hard not to agree with Bishop Broadhurst's statement that the only real principle left for the liberals to defend is that of their own authority and monarchical power.

3. THE LEGITIMIZATION OF SYDNEY'S SPREAD INTO THE REST OF AUSTRALIA .

Church planting by Sydney Anglicans across diocesan boundaries is already a reality. The congregations in question, while being supported by Sydney clergy and lay people are technically "independent evangelical churches". The great fear in the hearts of many liberals is that Option One will allow these congregations to be "proper" Sydney churches, that their numbers will dramatically increase, and that the strong evangelical centres in liberal and catholic dioceses will become part of Sydney Diocese.

A leading liberal sought our understanding on this. He said that in principle he could "just" support Option One if it were simply a way of helping catholics and liberals to co-exist. But, he said, surely catholics can see that Sydney would use Option One for its own ends; lay presidency would then spread throughout the country. He was not amused when told that from our point of view, lay presidency already existed in most dioceses, but in the most discriminatory way, for the only lay people permitted to preside at the eucharist are women. At least Sydney was not going to be sexist about it!

Sydney will always be Sydney. To deny what is the only just and fair provision to catholics on the basis that it will help Sydney's agenda is to underestimate the conviction held by many catholics and evangelicals alike that 1992 was the shattering of Australian Anglicanism's fragile unity.

This is how the "low level alternative episcopal oversight" envisaged in the Draft Bill is designed to work: "a parish can seek alternative oversight only with a high level of support: the Incumbent, churchwardens, and a majority of parish members (voting at two specially-convened meetings) have to agree to the request. The request, once formally made, is then passed by the diocesan bishop to the Metropolitan (or, in the case of Tasmania, the Primate) who ensures provision is made in line with an arrangement made by the diocesan bishops of the province. The expectation is that a bishop within the province will be designated to care for the parish/parishes concerned. If that is not possible, a bishop from elsewhere within the Anglican Church of Australia will offer alternative oversight. In either case, the designated bishop will visit the parish with the permission of the diocesan bishop, and will report to the bishop on his ministry in the diocese."

This kind of approach was deliberately rejected at the 1999 Australian FiF conference. From our point of view, it is seven years out of date. It would have been welcomed in the case of women priests (it is not dissimilar to the arrangements that exist in England and in Wales), but it fails to express the level of impairment in communion that will exist if women bishops become a reality. It is totally unacceptable.

Three years ago it seemed as if liberals and people like ourselves could work together in the inevitable process leading to women bishops so as to avoid the destructive acrimony with which we lived in the ten years leading up to 1992. As catholics, all we want to do is to proclaim the Gospel, teach the Faith, and grow our parish communities. We don't want another battle. But we had always said that the price of women bishops was to be nothing less than the kind of provision contained in Option One.

With only "low level alternative episcopal oversight" on offer, it is now certain that at next year's General Synod, the Sydney contingent and most catholics will vote with the minority of liberals (notably from Queensland) who have already signalled that "we are not yet ready" for women bishops. Such a vote will ensure that the so-called Clarification Canon fails. "No Option One - No Women Bishops."

That will give the Standing Committee the opportunity of working out far more satisfactory legislation for the following General Synod, presumably in 2004.

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

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