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Ecumenical sensitivity meets church law on women bishops

  • 03 October 2007

The last pane of the 'stained glass ceiling' was removed last week for most Australian Anglicans. Until 1986, women could be as committed Christians as their brothers in Christ, but not ordained as deacons. Until 1992 the same applied to women being ordained as priests (at least in dioceses that passed the rule change needed). Now Australian Anglican women who are priests can become bishops — and have been eligible since 1995, it turns out!

The story made media headlines. But underneath this somewhat unexpected ruling from the church's highest legal body, the Appellate Tribunal, lies a wider, richer story. A decision made for ecumenical and post-colonial reasons turns out to have enabled the change.

Tribunal members must give written reasons for their decisions. The 79-page report setting these out requires close reading, and reveals that the conclusion is more strongly based than the 4/3 vote (2/2 from the lawyers, three of them being judges, and 2/1 from the bishops) might suggest. The judges' review of the legal and historical issues is fascinating; the bishops bring a wider theological perspective.

What lay behind the Tribunal's conclusion? The Anglican Church of Australia is governed by a constitution, as one would expect. Unlike most bodies, however, it took 36 years to be agreed upon, from 1926 to 1962. The struggle revolved around the balance between local and national powers. If European Australia has multiple beginnings and is shaped by the 'tyranny of distance' and state rivalries, the Anglican story is fiercer, because the beginnings of the major dioceses were largely aligned with the emerging 'parties' of the Church of England in the 1840s.

Melbourne's first bishop was Evangelical, and Sydney, steeped in the independent tradition of two generations of chaplains, was firmly Protestant. On the other hand, the first bishops of Adelaide (then including SA and WA) and Newcastle (then including Queensland) were of more Catholic sympathy. The dioceses also have different constitutional set-ups: Melbourne (and dioceses formed from it) are based on state law, while Newcastle and Adelaide (and dioceses formed from them) are based on 'compacts' made between bishop, clergy and laity. Broadly speaking, Sydney held out for local autonomy in the constitution, while others wanted national decisions to apply across the nation. The deadlock was resolved in 1962 after the first visit by an Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher who — so the story goes — drafted the