How Far Can Bishops Fly?

‘It will never happen.’ ‘You'll never get what you want; the bishops will never allow it.’

So say well-meaning friends and even supporters of Forward in Faith Australia when the question of ‘Extended Episcopal Care’ arises. Of course, the system of ‘flying bishops’ as practised in England is not dissimilar to the protocols proposed in the women bishops legislation that was withdrawn from last year's General Synod. Forward in Faith has consistently pointed out that these protocols would do us nicely if all we were talking about was the need to exist in an ecclesial environment in which women are purportedly ordained to the priesthood; in the case of women bishops, however, they would be totally inadequate. Unfortunately, even this ‘low level’ alternative care was too much for some of the liberals to contemplate!

Politically Correct Pastors

A previous Letter (January 2002) outlined the woes of ex-Archbishop of Brisbane, now Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth. Readers will remember that in a recent court case the Diocese of Brisbane was ordered to pay $435,000 damages to a victim of sexual abuse that took place in an Anglican school eleven years ago. This amount is covered by insurance. But the Diocese was also ordered to pay a further $400,000 (not covered by insurance) as ‘exemplary damages’ to the victim. The court made it crystal clear that this unprecedented amount is really a ‘fine’ levied in recognition of the conspicuous failure of Hollingworth (and therefore the Diocese), upon being informed of the abuse, to provide appropriate pastoral care and support to the victim and her family.

It is clear that some victims of child abuse in church schools and the significant minority of Anglican women and men who still accept the universal Church's teaching and practice with regard to the Sacrament of Order share a fundamental experience. Both groups have come up against episcopal authorities who seem incapable of exercising real pastoral care. It's not just Hollingworth. There is a growing feeling throughout the Australian Church that, more often than not, the pastoral ministry of bishops is limited to repeating politically correct slogans about how Governments should be doing this that or the other to support disadvantaged minorities while they themselves ignore the pain of those they promised to care for in the months leading up to the 1992 vote.

Seeking Asylum

The bishops have (rightly in my opinion) spoken out about the inhumane treatment of a handful of asylum seekers who have made it to Australia from Afghanistan and other troubled places. The bishops have joined those who point out that the kind of pressure placed on these people actually creates the violence and antisocial behaviour for which they are being blamed. In other words, if you take away the dreams and aspirations of a people, if you deprive them of their present and their future, and the possibility of a future for their children, then they are going to do desperate things in order to be heard. A large number will require psychiatric help for their depression, and at least some will eventually commit suicide.

Most of the bishops have spoken out. But are their pastoral sounding words more than platitudes? Australian Anglicans might be more impressed if the bishops showed generosity and pastoral care in areas more directly under their control .

Those women and men in the Anglican Church of Australia who still conscientiously believe that the ordination of women is not of God – a view specifically permitted in 1992 and also by the Lambeth Conference in 1998 – have become ecclesial asylum seekers in our own Church. While friends have left for other communions, we have desperately tried to stay, but in a way that satisfies our consciences. Our plight is exactly parallel to that of the Afghans. The events of 1992 deprived us of our present, our future, and a future for our children. Many of our constituents are permanently depressed already; many clergy, for the sake of their families, outwardly compromise with a system they have stopped believing in, and the credibility of the bishops is at an all time low. It is a sorry state of affairs. It is a crisis on the bishops' own doorsteps that they refuse to acknowledge.

Fore-warned but not fore-armed

This crisis ought not to have taken them by surprise. In the decade leading up to 1992 we repeatedly told the liberal bishops that if women priests became a reality in our Church we would end up living in a kind of ecclesial limbo. That was the reason for our opposition. The bishops responded that the consciences of minorities would be protected, yet they subsequently set themselves firmly against the only logical and acceptable means of doing so. And they justified this by appealing to ‘principles of Catholic order’ (to quote the then Primate, Keith Rayner). Robert Tong, Evangelical Sydney lawyer and member of the Anglican Consultative Council, was as astonished by this as we Anglo-Catholics were, and wrote in a letter to Church Scene that in his view, following the ordination of women, ‘this Church no longer has the capacity to pontificate on principles of Catholic order’!

But what exactly are they defending? Certainly not the essence of episcopal ministry as understood in the tradition, that is, the bishop as an apostolic minister to a community of the faithful. Rayner et al defend something entirely secondary – the bishop as the sole monarch of a geographical area controlling all the Christians (and their real estate and investments!) within it. It has been of no consequence to the Australian bishops that what we seek exists elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, or that the various jurisdictions of the wider Catholic Church dispensed with a purely geographically defined notion of episcopal ministry long ago in order to relate to widespread migration of peoples with differing cultures.

Primates across the pond

It is against this backdrop that Australia's Forward in Faith National Council unanimously voted last year that in the event of women bishops becoming a reality in the Anglican Church of Australia without ‘complete alternative oversight’ being provided for us, we would ask an overseas primate to consecrate one of our parish priests as a bishop to provide episcopal ministry to our clergy and people. With the withdrawal of the women bishops’ legislation from last year's General Synod, we have another three years to try and be heard by the Australian bishops. In the meantime, it seems that Forward in Faith America is moving towards the kind of episcopal consecration we envisaged. We will be watching with interest. When their bishop is in place, we will certainly pay for him to fly as far as Australia from time to time.

We know that these are desperate measures. But, like others who have been denied appropriate pastoral care by the bishops of this Church, we have to take the only options still open to us for the sake of passing on to generations to come the best of what we have known as Catholic Anglicans.

David Chislett is the Rector of All Saints’ Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane

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