Women Bishops, Lay Celebration and AEO

ANGLICAN BISHOPS and priests feel ill-equipped to deal with the challenges facing the church in Australia, with nearly half of them reporting high to very high stress levels and more than one in ten thinking constantly about leaving the ministry.

This was the picture painted for the General Synod meeting in Adelaide from February 14-20. The findings come from analysis of the 1996 National Church Life Survey (NCLS).

The Survey discloses that more than 40 percent of Australian Anglicans are now over 60, twice the proportion in the general population. One in four Anglicans are over 70. Fewer than 20 percent of Anglicans are aged between 20 and 39 although 40 per cent of all Australians are in this age bracket.

The Synod heard that while some parishes were doing better than others, overall the Anglican Church was performing worse than all other non-Catholic Christian churches with respect to the retention of young adults, the ability of local parishes to engender a sense of belonging, and growth in attendance.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Harry Goodhew, told the Synod that “The NCLS research team has presented us with data that cannot be ignored”.

The Synod then considered a recommendation for a drastic overhaul of the General Synod’s structure of standing commissions and committees to better equip the national church to encourage mission and evangelism.

Responding to the Archbishop’s warning, the General Synod then devoted two days to arguing whether it was best to revamp the existing commissions or to opt for a range of task groups and strategy committees. The priority given to mission and evangelism in light of the reality of the NCLS findings was charcterised by the legion of purple that fought for the microphone to defend their own favourite commission or committee.

In good Anglican fashion the General Synod resolved to set up a task force to examine the survey findings and called on all church agencies to “adopt priorities that will enable us to move to more effective engagement with our fellow Australians”!

Despite various Australian prelates flirting with ‘gumnut theology’ and calling for the discarding of English colonial legacies the practices and procedures of the General Synod continues to represent a mentality that sees the Anglican Church of Australia in an Established framework.

The structure of business and parliamentary-style procedure ensures that debate proceeds at snail pace with the bulk of the daytime sessions taken up with the minutiae of domestic legislation much to the tedium of members of the Synod and the disinterest of the secular media.

Adelaide is often, if unfairly, regarded as a branch office on the Australian scene and hence the interest and attendance of the national media was less than a meeting in Sydney or Melbourne would attract.

The ruling elite of the national church, however, worked overtime to ensure that the party-line was presented to the media. Slanted media releases and orchestrated media conferences were the order of the day, to ensure that the liberal line was pushed on sensitive issues such as Confessional Secrecy, Race Relations and Women Bishops.

During the debate on a motion to bring before the Synod in 2001 legislation for the admission of women to the episcopate much was made of the need for unity and the desire to avoid the divisions and bitterness of the debates leading up to the women’s’ ordination vote of 1992.

This did not, however, prevent the General Synod Media Team from issuing a highly one-sided media release and devoting considerable resources to facilitating media interviews with the pro-bishopess lobby.

The final determination of this General Synod on the women bishops issue was highly significant in that by a large margin endorsement was given to an amendment from Bishop Silk of Ballarat and Archbishop Goodhew of Sydney that directs that any draft legislation and discussion papers for women bishops shall include provisions for alternate episcopal oversight.

The model(s) for such alternative episcopal oversight will be drawn up by the Standing Committee along with extensive consolations across the dioceses; but it is now part of the agenda despite the attempt at an ex cathedra prohibition on its consideration by the Primate, Archbishop Rayner of Melbourne, in his 1995 Presidential Address to General Synod.

By the sixth and final day of sitting the facade of unity was well and truly cracking. The results of the elections to Standing Committee affirmed the dominance of the liberal ticket and the debate on a general motion concerning Lay Presidency and the Appellate Tribunal’s recent Opinion exposed the deep divisions that exist between the Sydney Evangelicals and the wider church.

Concerted efforts were made to extend debate on various topics to avoid a further division over the Kuala Lumpa Statement.

Traditionalist Catholics can drawn some heart from the decision to include alternative episcopal oversight in any proposals for women bishops. The performances of Bishop Silk, who was elected to the Standing Committee, and Bishop David Farrar, recently enthroned at Wangaratta, were impressive.

Compared, however, to the abilities and commitment of the Sydney Evangelicals and the doctrinaire determination of the liberals to retain power, the future for the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics continues to look bleak unless and until a common front is opened that looks beyond the security of one or two safe havens in favour of an all out strategy for revival and conversion.

Martin Hislop is Anglican Chaplain at the University of Ballarat in the province of Victoria.