Evangelicals and anglo-catholics, who learnt to co-operate in the struggle over the ordination of women have found themselves at loggerheads again in recent months in Australia over a proposed new prayer book. The much vaunted re-alignment of Christendom seems closer when doctrinal matters are under discussion than it does when the focus is on liturgy. However when the prayer book came to be debated during the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia held in Melbourne early in July, there were intriguing signs that the two sides may be learning to respect each other even when they are debating matters that have been at the heart of their differences ever since the Reformation.

To a large extent the new prayer book, which was adopted with some significant amendments, reflects the views of the liberal ascendancy in the Australian church. Inclusive language is used where the reference is to human beings but an attempt on the floor of synod by Dr Muriel Porter to extend it to the persons of the Trinity failed to gain enough votes for discussion. A variety of forms of address for God are employed in the collects but a canticle based on Julian of Norwich which talked of God as a mother was removed by the delegates.

The arrival of Bishop David Silk has given Catholics in the Australian church a spokesman who is both knowledgeable about liturgy and also skilled in the ways of synodical debate. Chiefly as a result of his efforts the synod voted to add a eucharistic prayer he had proposed which contains both an epiclesis and clear sacrificial reference. This represents an unprecedented development in the Australian church – one which other bishops have been telling me since I got here five months ago could never happen.

Many evangelicals would have liked to block Bishop Silk’s proposals but he had skilfully prepared the way by holding talks with a group from Sydney which included both the present Archbishop, Harry Goodhew, and his predecessor, Donald Robinson. Meetings also took place behind the scenes during the synod to try to produce an acceptable compromise. In the event David Silk’s eucharistic prayer was accepted in the face of opposition from only a section of the evangelical group.

For their part, the evangelicals were successful in their bid to amend one of the two marriage services so that in the first rite the vows taken by bride and groom are not identical – upholding the opinion widely held in the Sydney diocese and elsewhere that while men and women are equal, their roles in marriage are different. Women in Australia can now undertake to honour their husbands while the husbands must promise to love their wives. The second marriage rite contains identical vows for both man and wife.

Evangelicals also secured the passage of an amendment which will ensure the new prayer book carries a subtitle describing it as an “authorized liturgical resource” for use with the Book of Common Prayer and An Australian Prayer Book of 1978.

BCP remains the norm for doctrine in the Australian church.

Even with these amendments, it remains open to question whether the new book will be authorized for use in the Sydney diocese. Many people there hope that it will be if only because it contains services of prayer and praise of a simpler nature than have formerly been available to Anglicans. These contributions were largely the work of Dr David Peterson of Moore College who has just been appointed Principal of Oak Hill Theological College and could prove popular in congregations in the Western suburb of Sydney that contain many new members from a non-Anglican background.

Despite the intense nature of much of the debate, seasoned synod watchers thought the 1995 session was on the whole good-tempered. It may mark the arrival of a new, conciliatory mood in the Australian church. The issues of women bishops and lay presidency loom on the horizon as future causes of division but the latter question has been referred to the appellate tribunal. If this body judges such a move to be constitutional (an outcome that is far from certain), Sydney could go ahead without reference to the General synod, although any action would depend upon Archbishop Goodhew signifying his assent.

I went away from the synod convinced of the need for Evangelicals and Catholics to remain in dialogue about the issues that divide them. We hold so much in common that it seems a pity we cannot get behind Reformation disputes to unite in the defence of Christianity as a revealed religion. After all, both sides do believe that the Lord’s sacrifice of Calvary marks the inauguration of a new relationship between human beings and their creator. It is not just a sign of God’s love or an inspiring example for us to follow.

Catholics and evangelicals, can they ever get together? I hope so – for the sake of the gospel.

Paul Richardson, the author of this letter is Bishop of Wangaratta