RECENT DECISIONS by Sydney Synod raise issues of significance to Anglicans beyond the confines of Australia. A proposal to permit the ordination of women as assistant priests (not as rectors) was defeated, quite narrowly, in the House of laity (200 to 210) but overwhelmingly in the House of Clergy (79 to 151), and synod also rejected a canon to authorise use of the new Prayer Book adopted at the General Synod in 1995.

In a nice balancing act, after giving the thumbs down to the Prayer Book, the synod went on to adopt a motion which enables the Archbishop of Sydney, Harry Goodhew, to give permission to parishes to use services from the book so long as they do not contradict any principle of doctrine or worship in the Book of Common Prayer or the Thirty-Nine Articles. It rejected a further proposal that would have allowed the Archbishop only to authorise those services approved by the diocesan doctrine commission.

These decisions have a number of implications. They represent a large vote of confidence in the archbishop, who, in his presidential address, signalled his own doubt about the ordination of women priests. The archbishop is also unconvinced by the case for lay presidency and my guess is that this will now move down the agenda. It will not disappear altogether but it is unlikely to be pressed as an urgent mater if the Appellate Tribunal decides against it next year.

By allowing the archbishop to authorise services from the new Prayer Book, synod indicated that it does not want to be completely out of step with the rest of the Australian Church. Many lay people in Sydney are concerned about the growing use of non-liturgical services at which the officiating minister wears a suit or casual street clothes. These began some years ago as evening services and are now replacing the Prayer Book Service of Morning Prayer in a number of parishes where the only liturgical worship available is at 8.00am on Sunday.

The new Prayer Book has services in its third order which, it is hoped, can be made attractive to churches that have moved away from the old, formal Morning Prayer.

Synod’s refusal to accept the ordination of women as priests sends a warning to the rest of the Australian Church that a decision to proceed with General Synod legislation to permit women bishops would seriously damage the already fragile unity of the Church. Australian Anglicanism is really a federation of dioceses. The national church staff amounts to no more that two or three people and almost all property is held by diocesan trustees. Mutual recognition and interchangeability of orders are big factors in keeping us together. We can just about live with our disagreements over women priests, but women bishops would be another question.

The issue of the ordination of women has been endlessly debated and the issues involved are well-known, but the reasons for dissatisfaction in Sydney with the new Prayer Book may not be as widely appreciated. A major source of disquiet is the presence in most of the Eucharistic prayers of an epiclesis or prayer to the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine, and a similar prayer over the water in all the baptismal services. Another concern is a section of the third eucharistic prayer, added during General Synod, which speaks of the offering of a spiritual sacrifice.

Both these matters touch upon questions which divide evangelicals and traditional Catholics, who often find themselves united when it comes to issues of credal orthodoxy. Why does the idea of the sanctification of matter upset evangelicals and is there any way of resolving the dispute?

Friends in Sydney tell me that what they object to is any continuation of what they describe as the medieval view of a sacramental universe. In the opinion of theologians like Dr Robert Doyle of Moore College, at the heart of the Reformation preaching lay the insight that God relates to human beings through his Word, not through material signs and symbols.

As many Catholics will admit, the great danger of the sacramental imagination is that it leads to idolatry. Signs are meant to be the vehicles of Christ’s presence come to be valued in themselves and religion easily degenerates into formalism and a concern for what John Betjeman called ‘all the inessentials of the faith’.

However a risk in Reformed thinking is that it drives such a wedge between God and the world as to lead in the end to Deism or Unitarianism. New England Puritanism began with a high view of the Word and a stress on God’s providential rule, but without the support of a sacramental vision it degenerated within two centuries to a creed that was restricted to the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighbourhood of Boston.

Catholics need to emphasise that it is Christ who has established the sacraments and Christ whom we encounter as we meet for sacramental celebrations. Natural objects possess no magical powers in themselves. Bread and wine become the vehicles of Christ’s presence because he has determined that this should be so. Material elements that can easily become the objects of human greed and acquisitiveness become channels of divine grace. Christ humbles himself and makes himself available to us under sacramental forms in order to transform us and lead us to new life.

Evangelicals enter into the presence of Christ when they open the pages of scripture; but it is the same Christ that Catholics meet when they kneel in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The evangelical emphasis warns us against idolatry and any attempt to cut ourselves off from the Christ of the Gospels. The Catholic approach underlines that Christ is concerned with the whole of our lives and anxious to relate to us, not as embodied spirits but as creatures of flesh and blood. Can we find a way to be faithful to both these insights?

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.