READERS OF “The Panther and the Hind”, Aidan Nicholls’ outline history of the Church of England, will be familiar with the notion of Anglicanism as a political coalition of at least three different religions which is now rapidly disintegrating. Nicholls believes that in the late twentieth century we are witnessing the devolution of Anglicanism into its broad constituent traditions, the catholic, the liberal and the evangelical. Nowhere is this more true than in the Anglican Church of Australia.
The strongest and, many would say, the most spiritually vital body within Australian Anglicanism, is the Diocese of Sydney. Overwhelmingly and uniquely Calvinist and Reformed, mainstream Sydney Anglicanism is passionately evangelical, though not, as some suppose, fundamentalist. It is inherently suspicious of those who seem less biblical in their priorities. In past decades, Sydney Anglicans tended to see Anglo-Catholicism as the great enemy.
Today, however, Sydney and the Anglo-Catholics (the Dioceses of Ballarat, Wangaratta, The Murray, and a small sprinkling of priests and lay people from other places) join forces on an increasing number of issues. It is becoming clear that despite their very real differences, the so-called extremes of Anglicanism have more in common than either has with the liberals in the middle. Most importantly, they contrast their adherence to a revealed religion with the modernist idea of contemporary culture as the ultimate authority in matters of faith.
THE RECENT GENERAL SYNOD
The Australian General Synod met in Adelaide during the third week of February this year. Much time was spent on the relationship of indigenous Australians – Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – in the life of the church. Members of Synod were presented with the devastating results of the National Church Life Survey, indicating that only eight per cent of churchgoers were in the 20 to 29 age group, that most were already at least middle aged, and that the majority of church attenders ‘do not value reaching the unchurched, wider community care, or specific ministry to youth and children’. Bishop Bruce Wilson of Bathurst described the Anglican Church as a ‘Royal family church in a Princess Di world’.
In the context of a debate looking at how bishops responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities might belong “by right” to the House of Bishops, David Silk, Bishop of Ballarat, opened up the idea of non-territorial episcopal ministry. Discussion of this has until now been conspicuously off limits in Australian Anglicanism. But Bishop Silk gained considerable support from both liberals and evangelicals as he unravelled the essence of episcopacy, showing that in the pre-Constantinian church, bishops were apostolic ministers to communities rather than “feudal barons” over geographical territories.
Over the last decade there have been consistent attempts at persuading the liberals that some form of alternative episcopal oversight is necessary in Australia. In spite of provisions made in England and Wales, even discussion of the subject has been gagged in Australia.
The Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, George Browning, obviously wanted it to stay that way. Last year his Diocesan Synod approved the formation of a “parallel” diocese for the defence forces. According to an interview he gave at the time, he was worried about the precedent this would give for “other groups” to seek their own arrangements, and signalled his intention to oppose the idea in General Synod. He even announced that he would resign if the kind of alternative episcopal ministry that prevails in England became a reality in Australia!
And so it was that the sensible idea of turning the network of defence force chaplains and their constituents into a diocese with its own full-time bishop was sunk. Compelling arguments were mounted by those with chaplaincy experience and by the part time Bishop to the Forces, Brian King of Parramatta, but to no avail.
When, however, Synod got around to debating a motion on women bishops, it was really forced to consider alternative episcopal oversight again. Bishop David Silk proposed that any draft legislation for women bishops include provision for alternative episcopal oversight After a good natured debate, this was accepted by a large majority of the Synod, thus putting well on the agenda something specifically ruled out by the Primate in 1992.
Of course, many desperate Anglo-Catholics are saying that such an alternative episcopate should be a reality now as it is in England. But they are happy on two counts: first, there is now official recognition that sacramental communion within the Anglican Church of Australia has been impaired at the very heart of its life; second, there seems to be a determination at the grassroots not to discriminate against and unchurch the traditionalists.
For quite some time, a number of conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have agreed to support legislation for women bishops, on condition that the legislation includes the provisions necessary for alternative episcopal oversight. They support the idea that if women can be priests, women must also be able to become bishops. They also agree that the majority view of the Australian bishops (that you can have women priests but not women bishops) while politically useful, is the least tenable position of all.
Everyone seemed to agree that to go through another ten years like the decade of open warfare that preceded the 1992 vote for women priests would be a disaster. Anglo-Catholics are now moderately hopeful that their concerns are at least being listened to by the General Synod as a whole.
Towards the end of General Synod, a motion was moved to affirm that only a bishop or an episcopally ordained priest could be the celebrant of the Eucharist. This was in response to the Appellate Tribunal’s surprising opinion that nothing in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia precludes the possibility of deacons or lay people presiding at the Eucharist.
This has greatly displeased the liberal bishops who back in 1992 forced through the purported ordination of women. Many of these same bishops now invoke “catholic” arguments against lay presidency, arguments which many feel are simply not available to them now. Indeed, in the eyes of those who believe the mainstream Christian teaching that women are not able to become Catholic priests, lay presidency already exists in the majority of Anglican Dioceses in Australia.
Because this debate threatened to open a can of worms, Synod voted that the motion not be put. But all can rest assured that the matter will not go away.
Until 1992, most Anglicans thought that the Fundamental Declarations at the beginning of the Constitution committed them to the Faith and Order of the Catholic Church. In 1992 when the liberals narrowly won the ordination of women to the priesthood, the local vaunted itself against the universal. Back then, many evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics pleaded for the Synod to legislatively “loosen the knot” that binds Australian Anglicans together. That was not allowed to happen, with the result that the consciences of many continue to be stretched to breaking point.
Since the victory of the liberals amounted to the shattering of Australian Anglicanism’s fragile unity, it is perfectly understandable that many mainstream Sydney evangelicals now want to move forward into lay presidency of the eucharist – an area where they feel “the Gospel gives them liberty”. It is also easy to see why Anglo-Catholics and an increasing number of evangelicals are more determined than ever to achieve a workable form of alternative episcopal oversight.
The logical result of these processes over the next decade is for the Anglican Church of Australia to devolve into a kind of “Council of Anglican Churches in Australia”, functioning in practice as three denominations. It is obviously not what anyone really wanted to happen. But would it be so bad? At least the consciences of all would be respected.
The evangelicals could plant their new churches around the country, and the liberals might converge with the Uniting Church. Meanwhile, Anglo-Catholics would be able to reclaim lost ground (perhaps planting new parishes of their own), deepen their relationships with Continuing Anglican Churches and even resume the ecumenical journey to full communion with the wider Catholic Church, “united but not absorbed” in the words of Pope Paul VI, a journey to which the whole Anglican Communion once claimed to be committed.
This scenario is similar to what Aidan Nicholls envisages in the last chapter of his book. It is also fits in with William Oddie’s projection in his recently published “The Roman Option”.
Indeed, I find myself in agreement with the Sydney evangelical leader, Canon Robert Forsyth, who in 1992 said that the disintegration of Australian Anglicanism is inevitable. “The only question”, wrote Forsyth, “is whether the disintegration will be chaotic or managed”.
That will undoubtedly be the business of the next General Synod in 2001.
David Chislett is Vicar of All Saints’ Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane, Province of Queensland.