LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

New Patterns of Oversight

In his interview with the Sydney Morning Herald following the narrow vote approving legislation that would result in the ordination of women, the Most Revd Donald Robinson made it clear that the Evangelical Diocese of Sydney was ‘out of communion’ with dioceses that ordained women. ‘Anglicanism in the classic sense is dead’, he continued. ‘We no longer have national unity and what we have done universally for centuries will end … There will be two denominations in the same Anglican Church.’ Robinson was not alone. Just before the General Synod met, Bishop John Hazlewood spelt out how as an Anglo-catholic he saw what would happen between his diocese and those in which women are ordained: ‘Courtesy, common concern and personal friendship will enable this bishop to enjoy conversations relating to the Province and the National Church, but there will be no participation in Holy Communion.’

To the liberals the spoils

Robinson and Hazlewood retired soon after that fateful General Synod. Because their successors were less clear in their public utterances about the logical consequences of the ordination of women, the Primate and others were able to boast a liberal victory without the collapse of unity many had feared. So, oblivious to the continuing pain and haemorrhaging of the Anglo-catholic remnant, and at the same time totally underestimating the long-term accuracy of Donald Robinson’s prediction vis-à-vis Evangelical Sydney, the victors turned to the next item on their agenda: the consecration of women as bishops.

Not wanting to re-live the soul-destroying open warfare that characterized Australian Anglicanism in the ten years leading up to 1992, mainstream Evangelicals and Forward-in-Faith Anglo-Catholics indicated that they would not block women bishops provided that legislation to provide ‘complete alternative episcopal oversight’ for conscientious objectors came as part of the package, making it possible for parishes to opt out of their ‘geographical’ diocese and join another (taking property and trust funds with them). In the context of the diocesanism of Australian Anglicanism, the end result of this process would undoubtedly be the evolution of a parallel ‘province’ (or two).

Complete alternative oversight

‘Complete’ alternative oversight, had been foreshadowed by legislation that failed at the first reading stage in the 1992 General Synod. It was seriously promoted in the General Synod Commission on Women Bishops by Dr Robert Doyle from Sydney in the lead-up to the 2001 General Synod. But it has been constantly opposed by the liberals and even by some well-meaning Anglo-Catholics who cannot bring themselves to believe that 1992 changed everything.

Indeed, at the 2001 General Synod Dr Muriel Porter and her allies pulled the plug on the women bishops’ legislation rather than have it fail. The problem was really three-fold: (1) A significant number of members had come to believe that the legislation should provide some kind of alternative oversight – hence its inclusion in the first place. (2) Our people refused to support the legislation because the model of alternative episcopal oversight on offer was ‘low level’ (Porter’s own phrase) rather than ‘complete’. (3) Many synod representatives refused to support the legislation because it contained proposals for alternative episcopal oversight!

A new committee, chaired by the Bishop of Gippsland, is working on recommendations for the 2004 General Synod. This time round there seems to be even less genuine consultation with ‘our’ side than last time.

Additional factors

But 2004 cannot be a simple re-run of 2001. There are some new factors which strengthen the orthodox:

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ willingness to at least consider a ‘free province’ arrangement, should women become bishops becoming in the Church of England.

Developments in the USA that have been widely reported since the last General Synod – Jane Dixon and Charles Bennison persecuting godly priests and effective parishes, the formation of the AMIA and the internationalization of Forward in Faith.

The watchfulness of offshore bishops and even primates who have begun to support orthodox minorities in liberal Anglican provinces.

The rapid polarization of Anglicanism along ‘global south’ versus ‘global north’ lines, with the future of the Anglican Communion destined to be more dependent on Africa and Asia than on the UK and the USA.

The decline of theological liberalism. The liberals look back on a decade of shrinking congregations, diminishing finances, and a rapid decline in vocations to the priesthood.

Archbishop Peter Jensen’s leadership and the growth of his influence.

Jensen vs Carnley

In fact, the recent emergence of Dr Jensen onto the world stage has taken some Australian Anglicans by surprise. In the wake of international media reports of Jensen’s recent visit to England, the Primate – Archbishop Peter Carnley of Perth – publicly accused him of ‘arrogance and divisiveness’. To Jensen’s assertion that ‘the time has come to relax church practices and actively encourage church leaders to have non-territorial episcopal oversight’, Carnley replied: ‘It will be resisted by the majority of the Anglican community. People of goodwill take the meaning of communion very seriously. Sharing a common life in unity and peace informed by the love of God – this is what we should be about. Not encroaching on each other's jurisdictions.’

Prophetic Porter

But the most bizarre response to Jensen’s ministry came from Muriel Porter, who seems to have done a complete back flip on alternative oversight. Only the power, wealth and Evangelical conviction of Sydney could have caused her to write in the Melbourne Age on 6th January:

‘The problem facing the Anglican Church internationally is significant. The conservative forces in Christianity are growing, boosted by the power of the fundamentalist right in the United States and the reactionary papacy of John Paul II. What Australian Anglicans have to face is how to deal with the division created. The prospect of more decades of internal squabbling over women clergy, lay presidency and homosexuality is alarming. It would leave the church too debilitated to offer real spiritual leadership for the grave issues tearing the world apart, such as war, terrorism and refugees.

‘Perhaps it is time to look carefully and dispassionately at a new church structure, one that can somehow keep Sydney and Melbourne and other parts of Australia still Anglican, but free to follow their own consciences. But how would you protect the interests of mainstream Anglicans inside the borders of Sydney, for instance? Or the concerns of conservatives in more liberal dioceses?

‘Satellite parishes, on both sides of the ideological divide, would be one answer. Sydney's size, wealth and single-mindedness make other dioceses fear their capacity to proselytize, once allowed inside their territory. In the long term, however, it could be in their interests, as much as Sydney's, to create a future free of the divisions that have plagued their every attempt to move forward over the past 20 years.’

 

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.

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