When Elijah comes to Synod

Bruce Ballantine-Jones tells the story of an extra-ordinary encounter

Elijah was a direct man who called it as he saw it. If the ‘great ones’ didn’t like it – too bad! He owed his allegiance to God. What he said ruffled feathers and disturbed the refined atmosphere of the court.

No doubt people hissed at his direct, honest style.

People like Elijah do not sit well with the establishment. No doubt the establishment would have been happier if he moderated his tone, been less direct, used the language of diplomacy, didn’t remind them of uncomfortable things like God’s word and their rejection of it.

As we read the stories about Elijah and his struggles no doubt we quietly cheer him on. ‘Good on you, Elijah, give it to them!’

But what if Elijah came to Synod? Would we be so enthusiastic?

An incident occurred at General Synod recently that got me thinking about this. Not a lot of publicity has been given to it but, for many who were there, it was very disturbing.

It is customary for the General Synod to allocate a place for honoured guests from other denominations. Sometimes they are invited to give a greeting to the Synod on behalf of their Church or organization. This is all very friendly, very ecumenical.

One such visitor in Brisbane was Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

For five days he sat there observing the Synod, listening to the debates. Because he had to leave on the Wednesday, he asked if he could address the gathering. ‘Of course’, was the reply. Unfortunately, for the General Synod, they did not realize that there was a bit of Elijah in Suriel!

The Speech

In his speech he took issue on the question of women bishops, which he said was contrary to the teaching of Scripture as well as the tradition of the Church.

Also, he expressed the view that the Scripture is clear in its teaching on homosexuality, that it is an abomination, something detested by God, unnatural and indeed a sin. He said that the Church should help people with homosexual orientation to repent and to seek medical and psychological help to overcome their lifestyle.

In making these comments on matters which had been debated at the Synod, he mentioned a number of the participants in the debates by name – in some cases approvingly and in one case not. His speech was received by some at the Synod with great hostility.

At the reception held by the Queensland Premier for Synod members, straight afterward, he was audibly hissed by some when the Premier welcomed him.

The ‘Apology’

The bishop left for Melbourne. The next day the Primate made a statement to the General Synod in which he said that the bishop was unfamiliar with the expectations that are part of Anglican Church life. He had been expected only to say a general short and pastorally sensitive word of encouragement.

He said that Bishop Suriel now deeply regretted he caused great hurt to many and he appreciated his words were both hurtful and profoundly unfair. Also, Archbishop Carnley said of the Bishop that he deeply regretted the hospitality of the Synod had been abused in ways both hurtful and unfair.

Nevertheless, the Primate indicated he had apologized to the Bishop for the fact that some hissed when his name was announced at the public reception.

The Fallout

The problem was that, when the Bishop heard about the Primate’s statement, he issued his own statement which said, in part –

‘I was deeply shocked and offended to hear the comments made by the Primate of The Anglican Church of Australia, His Grace Archbishop Peter Carnley, in today’s statement to the General Synod in Brisbane concerning the discussion between myself and Bishop Huggins and Bishop Herft at the Premier’s reception last night.

‘This statement made to the General Synod was both incorrect and misleading. This statement was made without my knowledge and without my consent and therefore cannot be held as a statement which I made. I did not even see this document before it was read to the Synod and do not accept it. The statement also purposely neglected to inform the Synod that I had demanded a public apology from the Synod for the humiliation I suffered when I was hissed during a public reception given by the Premier of Queensland on Wednesday night and by members of the General Synod who came to abuse me after my speech.’

And further he said:

‘I will not make any public apology as I felt justified for what I said as this is in line with the teaching of the Holy Bible and in no way did I attack anyone at the Synod. In fact I demand a public apology from the Synod for the treatment I have received from them which has been both humiliating and degrading.

‘In the statement issued by the Primate, he stated in point 3 that I abused the hospitality of the Synod in ways which were ‘hurtful and unfair’.

‘This statement is itself debased on any truth and is an attack on me personally. The comments which I made were with the permission of the Primate and, if this is what people did not want to hear, then it is time for the members of the General Synod to be receptive to other people’s opinions even if it differs from their own – this is what ecumenism is about. This is what I stated in my speech – that we should be committed to our ecumenical journey together.’

In what seemed like a well-meant attempt at damage control, the Primate successfully asked the Synod to pass a resolution of apology, and then a resolution expressing support for the Coptic Church in Egypt in their troubles was also passed. But, in my view, it was all too late – the damage had been done.

There is no doubt that this was a major embarrassment to the Anglican Church and the matter was very badly handled. However, it raised the question in my mind, what is it about gatherings like this which permits people only to use ‘church speak ’ and not to engage in frank and open exchanges?

Canon Bruce Ballantine-Jones is the Rector of Jannali in the Diocese of Sydney, and also a Vice President of the Anglican Church League. He is a longtime Sydney representative on the General Synod. A version of this article first appeared in the ACL News, October, 2001.

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