'Divided' Anglicans dodge conflict

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Anglican General Synod MelbourneDiversity is all-too-familiar in the wider Anglican Communion. The Australian Anglican Church is itself an uneasy alliance of dioceses and provinces formed in the colonial era, with distinctive histories and identities whose compatibility has always been limited.

The fragility of these arrangements is never more in evidence than at its General Synods (assemblies). In the relatively recent past, debates over women's ordination in particular, but also over human sexuality, lay presidency and liturgical texts, have seen a specific division emerge between the distinctive form of conservative evangelicalism associated with the Diocese of Sydney, and a broad but vague 'mainstream'.

The 2010 Synod met at Melbourne Grammar School, an establishment bastion every bit as solid as its Tudor Gothic bluestone walls.  Those inside sensed and responded to the frailty of the Church itself. Archbishop Philip Aspinall of Brisbane, the Primate, made a heartfelt call to the Synod to exercise a generosity of spirit, which may often have been in evidence; but it is at times hard to distinguish such generosity from caution or fear.

The question of Sydney's relationship with the rest was never far from the surface, but only once or twice did it breach it in threatening ways. There was predictable posturing about the divisions in the wider Anglican Communion, but overall a curious sense of avoiding conflict prevailed: a motion 'welcoming' the proposed Anglican Covenant was met with ambivalence at both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum. Both were satisfied with a motion referring it for further and wider study.

When the 'Jerusalem Declaration' from the gathering of conservative Anglicans held there last year came up for consideration, Perth Archbishop Roger Herft, who has been a frank critic of the conservative forces, made the generous response of seeking and gaining an amendment that encouraged study of the document and its context.

The most contentious issue at the Synod was one that actually created, at least in passing, alliances across the usual boundaries. This was Sydney bishop Glenn Davies' pursuit of an amendment to the Canons concerning Matrimony, removing any baptismal qualification for marriage in the Anglican Church.

The amendment drew support from evangelicals who want to remove any implication that marriage is a sacrament (allowing as they do only for the two biblically-mandated sacraments of baptism and eucharist), but also from a pastorally and perhaps missionally-motivated group of others who saw the move as welcoming and inclusive.

The most difficult aspects of this issue however were procedural: the first time voted on, this was lost but the mover subsequently shared his belief that one of his Episcopal colleagues from northern Australia had been confused, and a recommittal was agreed to. There was some unhappiness with the claims and the process, and when after a day the vote was put again, it lost more clearly. This messy set of events was an indication that generosity was not infinite, and trust not deep.

The Diocese of Sydney's position was subjected to scrutiny in discussions of the finances. Sydney does not contribute, on principle, to the national funds that support the national Church's engagement with the wider Anglican Communion and ecumenical bodies. Moves to enforce change were headed off by the interventions of the other bishops who spoke critically of Sydney's position, but opposed compulsion in changing it. Again there was a sense that the relationship could not be put to certain tests.

Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney spoke rarely, but at one point made a strong affirmation of his Diocese's commitment to the national Church. Clearly that commitment was and is to a weak national Church by most standards, and gives primacy to strong local actions and initiatives, at least by conservatives.

Meanwhile Sydney's Synod will soon consider moves to seek to change the 1918 Church Property Trust Act, under which they (and others) have financial obligations to the national Church. The seriousness and the shape of that commitment thus remain uncertain.

Interviewed at the end of the Synod, Jensen described the event as a lost opportunity, and superficial. He may have been right on both counts, but the superficiality means the avoidance of depths where radically different cultures and theologies hold sway. Their exposure and discussion would underscore the idiosyncratic place of the Diocese of Sydney, within the Australian Church and otherwise.

So generosity of spirit, or deference to fragility, maintains the unity of the national body for the present. Still, Anglicans should not take the choice of such speech or silence for granted. One ecumenical observer from a Church less used to such frank disagreement in public described the scenes of open debate as 'wonderful'. 

Andrew McGowanAssociate Professor Andrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary. Photo: Roland Ashby, Anglican Media Melbourne 

Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, Australian Anglican Church, Peter Jensen, Diocese of Sydney



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Thanks Andrew - as a former member of GS I got the flavour without the heartburn.

Leigh Mackay | 30 September 2010  

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