The Changing Scene

By the time this Letter is published, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia will have met, debating, among other things, women bishops, lay presidency, and a national approach to the problems of child sexual abuse by clergy and other church workers – the latter an issue that the media have held before the Australian people continuously for three years.

It is clear that in the period from the 1960s to the present, child sexual abuse in some parts of Australia approached the horrendous dimensions of that reported in the USA among Roman Catholic clergy. It is also clear that, in an alarming number of cases, known offenders were shunted sideways into new parishes and schools only to offend again and again. It turns out that there have even been ‘rings’ or ‘networks’ of paedophile clergy and lay workers, not least in children’s organizations, in particular ‘CEBS’, the Anglican Boys’ Society. Formal inquiries into child sexual abuse have been conducted in Tasmania, Brisbane and Adelaide. The Brisbane inquiry resulted in the resignation of former Archbishop Peter Hollingworth from the Governor Generalship for what was perceived as his inadequate handling of complaints, and the Adelaide inquiry resulted in the resignation, just months before he was due to retire, of Archbishop Ian George. Police investigations and prosecutions are still continuing in Tasmania, and they are gathering momentum in Adelaide where there has been talk of a class action against the Diocese on the part of so many victims claiming to have been abused by clergy that the exemplary damages being sought could well bankrupt the Diocese.

The fact that the Australian Church is really a federation of dioceses has made it easy for offenders move around the country. Indeed, until recently some bishops regarded it as a kind of sport to play ‘dead cats over the fence’, happily giving positive verbal recommendations of clergy they knew to be problematic, and in at least some instances this was a means of compounding sexual abuse. Over the last few years the bishops have been conferring much more in order to prevent this happening. The General Synod is to discuss this in depth, with the aim of ensuring that as uniform as possible a set of professional standards exists across the dioceses, as well as effective protocols for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

I think, on present numbers, it is unlikely that the Clarification Canon to enable the introduction of women bishops will get through the House of Clergy; some are even saying that it won’t get through the House of Bishops on account of the watered down proposals for alternative episcopal ministry attached to the legislation. If it does pass, it will be because some of its supporters will have persuaded a handful of others that they are not voting for women bishops as much as for the unity of the Church (a revival of the deception we witnessed in 1992 during the final women priests debate).

This does not, of course, mean that there will not be women bishops. Readers will remember how Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley, did not believe that he had to wait for the General Synod Clarification Canon to be passed before purporting to ordain Australia’s first women priests in Perth. The Synods of Melbourne and Canberra/Goulburn have said that they want women bishops regardless of what the General Synod says, and Bishop George Browning of Canberra/Goulburn is investigating the legality of going ahead.

On the issue of lay presidency, Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney has consulted widely among evangelicals in other parts of the Anglican Communion, and this, together with current uncertainty regarding the legality of lay presidency (even though the Appellate Tribunal found it not to be contrary to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia), has persuaded the Sydney Standing Committee not to put legislation for lay presidency before the Sydney Synod when it meets, also in October. The Standing Committee is, however, putting a motion to the Synod asking that, in the light of what is known to be the conviction of the Synod regarding biblical teaching and Anglican polity, any who allow lay presidency in their parishes not be penalized for doing so. Interestingly, Archbishop Jensen in his letter communicating this motion to the parishes asked that those who oppose lay presidency prepare good arguments for the synod debate. He also remarked that even if the motion is passed by the Synod it is not binding on him.

As well as these particular issues, Australian Anglicans are focussed on changes in diocesan leadership. One of the most crucial activities of this General Synod will be the election of the committee that will choose the new Primate when Peter Carnley’s retirement takes effect in mid 2005. It is now possible to elect any diocesan bishop, although most commentators believe that the next Primate will be Roger Herft, at present Bishop of Newcastle and Archbishop-elect of Perth, or Peter Jensen, with a handful surmising that Philip Aspinall, Archbishop of Brisbane, might have enough support. This will be an election to watch!

The Diocese of Riverina (in country New South Wales) and the Diocese of Adelaide both recently failed to elect bishops (that is, none of the candidates received the required majority). Both elections will take place next year, when Adelaide might well include Archdeacon Cathy Thompson among the candidates.

From our point of view the landscape is changing. As the Australian (our national newspaper) pointed out, the new maverick Bishop of Ballarat, Michael Hough, is busy making enemies of his natural supporters – Forward in Faith and the Society of the Holy Cross in particular. Wangaratta is also changing. Not only has Bishop David Farrer recently ordained a woman deacon; he introduced into his Synod legislation allowing women priests, on the basis of his local version of the ‘London plan’. Although the legislation did not succeed this time round, the liberals are now saying that it’s just a matter of time.

So, the idea that there are three ‘safe’ orthodox rural catholic dioceses, working together to resist the theological novelties engulfing most of the Australian Church, is now out of date. For all practical purposes, Bishop Ross Davies and his Diocese of The Murray is all that remains for real catholics in the Anglican Church of Australia. That helps to explain why Bishop Davies supports both Forward in Faith (he is an elected member of the National Council) and the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia (TAC). He understands that both groups seek to ensure that the ministry he provides to his diocese is available to Anglicans throughout the rest of Australia.