It was not so long ago in the Anglican Church of Australia that bishops
outside the Diocese of Sydney would boast that we had been spared the
organized ‘parties’ that dominated debate in the Church of England.
Indeed, one of the greatest compliments that could be given to a priest
or bishop upon retirement or death was that ‘he was no party man’.
The Back-room boys
Of course, like most such boasts this was only true up to a point. Every
diocese – and the General Synod itself – has back room operators who
stitch up what they see as necessary deals and compromises, and who
retain their power by encouraging devout clergy and laity to believe
that getting involved in the political processes of the diocese or the
Church is an unworthy activity for spiritually minded people. All too
often the result of this is that the very people whose doctrinal
orthodoxy and prayerful insights might make a positive difference to
church life never get to influence decisions, elections or appointments.
They are conned into saying their prayers, ‘leaving it up to the Holy
Spirit’, and then allowing the back room operators to have their way
unhindered, in spite of the biblical injunctions to be as ‘wise as
serpents and harmless as doves’, to ‘earnestly contend for the Faith
once delivered to the saints’, and to watch out for the ‘wolves in
The up-front operators
The most conspicuous exception to this has been the Diocese of Sydney.
The ‘Anglican Church League’ emerged throughout the last century as a
powerful and organized party of clergy and laity totally committed to
preserving and nurturing the Evangelical and Reformed character of that
diocese. It has usually been ‘up front’ in its activities and
politicking, and unashamedly skilful in publicly using (opponents say
‘manipulating’) the synodical processes to achieve its own ends. It has
tried to be godly and principled and at the same time politically
astute. The Anglican Church League’s ability to network among both
clergy and laity over an eight year period was one of the chief factors
in the election of Dr Peter Jensen as Archbishop of Sydney.
There was also a short period in the life of the ‘Prayer Book Catholic’
Diocese of Adelaide when an organized party tried to prevent the growth
of the reductionist liberalism for which that diocese is now well known.
The ‘Union of Anglican Catholic Priests’, under the indefatigable
leadership of Father John Fleming was a force to be reckoned with from
the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, the first ten years of Dr Keith
Rayner’s episcopate. The Union, while not containing an absolute
majority of the Adelaide clergy, exercised an influence far wider than
its membership, so that for some years its support was needed for any
substantial measure to pass in the Adelaide Synod. Understandably,
Rayner was ruthless in his dealings with members of the Union, many of
whom came to see clearly that one way or another it would become
impossible for orthodox Catholics to survive in the Diocese of Adelaide.
Some, like Father Fleming, became Roman Catholics, some became
Continuing Anglicans, some managed to find work in other dioceses, and
not a few of those who remained and made the necessary compromises are
broken men today.
The Non-Party Party
In Australia as in other parts of the Anglican world those liberals who
publicly eschewed parties in the church networked themselves in such a
way as to function in as co-ordinated a manner as any party had ever
done. In retrospect it is easy to identify two official arms of
Australian Anglicanism that over the last thirty years became crucial to
this process. One was the General Board of Religious Education (‘GBRE’)
and the other was the Australian Board of Missions (‘ABM’). The
‘non-party’ liberals gradually took over these networks and used them to
advance their causes. GBRE infiltrated most dioceses with its education
programs borrowed from the liberal end of ECUSA, and ABM increasingly
reinterpreted the missionary task of the Church so as to downplay the
significance of evangelism and gospel ministry as understood by
Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. Both these agencies enabled future
leaders (including some bishops) to gain vital exposure at the national
level; and both used their publications to soften up church members to
accept the novelty of women’ ordination. Frequent articles on women
priests in the Australian Mothers’ Union magazine and the now defunct
privately-owned weekly Anglican newspaper Church Scene, were also used
by the same crowd to influence Australian Anglicans to support the
Movement for the Ordination of Women.
It is now recognized that leading up to 1992, the Association for the
Apostolic Ministry (‘AAM’), and the Association of Traditional Anglicans
in Queensland came onto the scene too late to have any real effect in
the ordination debates.
Begbie in Bribane
In 1999 those organizations joined up so as to become ‘Forward in Faith
Australia’. From the first we have had to suffer widespread accusations
of politicking – and not just from our enemies! The same is now true of
the Alliance of Orthodox Anglicans in the Diocese of Brisbane, which
came into existence sixteen months ago as a result of Dr Bill Atwood’s
visit. The Alliance consists of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics working
together for a more Christ-centred and gospel-focused Diocese. It
unashamedly seeks to influence appointments and elections in the
Diocese, and is not frightened of the slurs that are cast its way by the
In a recent address to the Alliance, the Reverend Hugh Begbie made the
point. that Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics had come together because
of a common concern to see God’s work done in Brisbane Diocese.
Referring to John 6, he emphasized that doing God’s work means to
believe in God and Jesus whom he has sent. So, our concern is to try and
re-focus our church on Christ. This is, he said, a noble aim, and it
does involve political activity, for politics is just the name given to
the way we organize our lives and relationships. Individually and as a
group we have the right, in a free society and in an ‘open’ Church, to
try and persuade others that we are right, that what we believe is true.
Hugh spoke of pitfalls that face people involved in church politics: the
temptation to play down the claims of Jesus’ in order to be respected by
others; being driven by false motives – wanting revenge on those who
have hurt us in the past – or even because we find pleasure in the
political process itself; being provocative every time we open our
mouths. The nature of the battle often makes us do this. We must be
provocative and challenging, but only on the things that really matter.
Wise counsel indeed. Groups like FiF and the Alliance need to heed
Begbie’s advice if we are to take on the ‘non-party’ party effectively
and with integrity.
David Chislett is the Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.