Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Anglican lines in the sand

In the church of St Mary and the Virgin in the Saxon village of Saffron Walden in Essex, one small stained-glass window remained after Oliver Cromwell’s men invaded the sanctuary and destroyed all images.

It is a small painted portrait of a local noble lady. The soldiers left it alone, not knowing the secret. It was the lady’s portrait, but it represented St Anne, grandmother of Jesus.

True iconoclasts, Cromwell’s men were determined to destroy all ‘Catholic’ images. This Puritan movement of the 1640s was determined to cleanse and purify the Church and complete the Reformation.

However, the crowning of Charles II reinstated the monarchy, the established Church and the ‘broad-church’ diversity of the Elizabethan settlement for which the Anglican Church has been famous ever since.

According to Muriel Porter’s new book The New Puritans, this slice of history has become very important in understanding the wave of reform thrust upon the Anglican Diocese of Sydney by its archbishop, Peter Jensen.

The genius of Dr Porter’s book is that she is not your typical historian—objective and disinterested. She readily admits that she is highly critical of the Anglicans in Sydney and believes that they are an aberration in church history.

This does not make them inconsequential, for as the largest and wealthiest Anglican diocese in the world, they are seeking to influence Anglican identity and core beliefs. They are also seeking to rebadge Christianity in Australia.

‘Like the Puritans,’ Dr Porter writes, ‘Sydney Anglicans want to remove everything they believe distracts from the pure knowledge of God through God’s Word, whether it is religious ceremonial, liturgical dress, religious images or anything that appeals primarily to the senses.’

She argues that they display the key markers of fundamentalism: a rationalist mindset, a Calvinist zeal to root out error and preserve doctrinal purity, charismatic and authoritarian leadership, behavioural requirements and a tendency to separatism. She adds another identifying marker not usually listed as fundamentalist: a commitment to male headship.

Now some will say that Dr Porter is obsessed with women’s ordination. She has campaigned for this for 30 years within the Anglican Church, right up to the present when she chairs a national Anglican inquiry into women bishops. But she argues her point well, and devotes a whole chapter to what she calls ‘the great cause’ of women’s ordination, tracing the Sydney opposition to it through various legal manoeuvres and synod debates.

Dr Porter reveals, to an extent that no one else has tried to explain, the possible impact of these moves in Sydney on the national church and on the international Anglican Communion of 70 million members. The ‘Puritans’ of Sydney are funding a strong coalition of conservative national churches, many of them in Africa, to oppose ‘liberal’ tendencies such as permitting gay bishops, or blessing same sex unions.

Relations with Rome are also affected. Dr Porter argues that the common con-servative moral agenda has strengthened ties between the Anglican and Roman Catholic leadership in Sydney. She writes: ‘Although evangelical Anglicans are generally suspicious of Rome—a reflection of the Reformation confrontation between the Church of Rome and Protestants—and although relationships between Sydney’s Anglican and Catholic archbishops in the past have been distant, Peter Jensen and his Catholic counterpart, Cardinal George Pell, have forged a strong friendship.’ They are both against women clergy and gay clergy; they are both countercultural; and they are both fiercely proud of their orthodoxy.

Behind the author’s judgments is a great puzzlement: why her own brand of Anglicanism—liberal Catholic—is not thriving. She puts it down partly to Generations X and Y wanting certainty, and to the fact that conservative churches seem to connect better with young people. She does not like what is happening, and she cannot understand why her own style of churchmanship is not working.

In the end, this is a telling issue. Evangelicals in all churches have more sense of strategy, adopt outreach programs like Alpha and Encountering God which attract crowds of outsiders, and put energy and zeal into community engagement. The old idea of ‘put on a good liturgy and people will come’ simply does not work any more.

And now the Anglican Evangelicals—who have always been a ‘broad church’ themselves, including those who supported women’s ordination—are being outgunned by the new Puritans. And it seems to work. The Anglican leadership in Sydney wants to train 1000 ministers to convert as many as 10 per cent of Sydneysiders to ‘Bible-believing churches’. It’s an amazing aim, and they are on the way towards it, putting vast human resources and money into the enterprise. What if it works? What will Dr Porter do then?

Dr Porter has a curious thesis about fundamental religion—that their leaders develop strong male headship doctrines because they themselves had ‘missing fathers’. She writes:

Regardless of whether any or all of the men involved had fathers away at a war at a crucial time in their childhood, there is documented evidence that fundamentalist church leaders—who share opposition to women in leadership with conservative evangelicals—had largely absent fathers.
The evidence is from the United States. Is it as true in Australia?

Two more insights make this book worth buying and reading. In the first, Dr Porter takes us into the doctrine of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and traces heated debates between recently retired Primate Peter Carnley, theologian Kevin Giles and the Sydney leadership. The subordination of women to men is a corollary of the Son’s subordination to the Father. Male headship is thus justified. The public policy consequences follow: homosexuality is outside God’s moral law; women should not teach men; de facto relationships are disapproved of; sex outside marriage is a sin; divorce is not an option.

In the second, the question is: why make homosexuality, rather than the ordination of women, or divorce, the test of orthodoxy? Dr Porter makes another of her political judgments: ‘Biblical authority alone seems unlikely to be the reason why homosexuality has become the “line in the sand” in world Anglicanism. I suspect it is respectable window-dressing for the exercise of blatant power politics.’ There was not the same evangelical unity on women’s ordination or divorce, and ‘in any case, there are rather too many women and too many divorces, both in the Church and in the wider community, for either issue to have gained the necessary traction.’

The ultimate goal in the Puritan campaign is winning approval for lay presidency—authorising lay people to conduct the Holy Communion service. They easily won the vote in the Sydney synod, but have so far failed in the national synod. Pure Puritanism, says Muriel Porter. And very unnerving for the rest of the Anglican world.

Now let me confess. I trained for the Anglican ministry at Moore College, Sydney, at the crossover between principals Marcus Loane and Broughton Knox. I just cannot remember Dr Knox as the divisive ideologue that Dr Porter describes.

To me, then vice-principal (later Archbishop) Donald Robinson’s view were much more radical. He seriously believed that ekklesia (church) was only ever real when the local church gathered for worship. Later, as archbishop, he had a lot of trouble exercising diocesan discipline over clergy whom he had trained to believe that only the local manifestation of church mattered.

Jumping forward to 2006, it is becoming evident that there are many sides to Peter Jensen. His ABC Boyer Lectures surprised people with their eirenic language and persuasive style. He wants a genuinely Australian Church which produces a more compassionate and just Australian way of life. And some media profiles of him, such as that by Andrew West in the December–January 2006 issue of The Monthly, depict him as generally more a friend of Labor politically. With Cardinal Pell, he challenged the Howard Government on its industrial relations reforms. He meets with ALP frontbencher Lindsay Tanner and with preselected Labor candidate Bill Shorten, and forges new alliances. He is not so easy to pigeonhole.

And while Dr Porter focuses entirely on Sydney’s leadership, there is a vast rank and file of about 100,000 regular churchgoing Anglicans there who probably don’t know whether they are evangelicals or liberals, let alone Puritans. Some of my best friends live in Sydney, and they are diverse, God-fearing and committed to living out their Christian faith in work, home and community. They probably support Peter Jensen’s goal of a manifold increase in church membership and they will put their energy into accomplishing the dream. And why not?

The implications are far-reaching for the national Anglican Church and the international Anglican Communion. How much diversity will be tolerated in the future? Is it conceivable that even the ordination of women could be reversed, as has happened with the Presbyterians in Victoria? And is the hope fading for mutual recognition of ministries with Rome, let alone eventual union? 

The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church
Muriel Porter.  Melbourne University Press, 2006. ISBN 0 522 85184 3, RRP $29.95

Alan Nichols is a consultant in church strategy, health ethics and refugee policy. He worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific from 1991 to 1993, and is a Canon of St John’s Cathedral, Gahini, in Rwanda.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Writing the bloody things

  • Brian Matthews
  • 14 May 2006

We met as usual ... and some half hour or so into our conversation I said that while travelling into town I’d had a ‘terrific idea’ for a short story.  


Film reviews

  • Siobhan Jackson, Gil Maclean
  • 14 May 2006

Reviews  of  the  films  Inside  Man,  V  for  Vendetta,  Capote,  and  The  March  of  the  Penguins.