Ecclesiological Antagonisms

Recent Synod meetings in Australia’s two largest dioceses, Sydney and Melbourne, have once again highlighted the deep differences and fractures that exist within the Anglican polity “downunder”.

Delivering his sermon to the Synod Eucharist, the Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of Australia, Dr Keith Rayner, surprised many with his call for a review of the received tradition of the church as it relates to homosexuality.

Meeting just weeks later the Sydney Synod overwhelmingly voted to “express its concern about, and distances itself from, public statements by the Primate in his Synod sermon 1998 . . . to the effect that Anglicans should reconsider the received tradition of the church teaching on homosexuality and his seemingly giving to ‘so-called’ tradition a level of authority alongside that of the Scriptures”.

Even the secular media, who in Australia show little interest in the real questions confronting church life, are intrigued by the contrasting concepts of church and authority that are emerging from the utterances of Melbourne and Sydney both on this matter and other questions such as Lay Presidency at the Eucharist.

In his considered and tightly argued sermon, Archbishop Rayner arrived at his call for a review of the received teaching on homosexuality after first re-visiting the development of doctrine and practice that attended the debate over the marriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women as priests in some provinces of the Anglican Communion. Speaking about marriage after divorce, Dr Rayner argued: “. . . certain texts of scripture were traditionally understood to rule out the possibility of the church blessing the marriage of divorced persons. Why did this change? Basically it was because human experience led us to reflect more deeply on the biblical material. We recognized the trauma of marriage breakdown and saw real signs of God’s blessing of many marriages contracted after divorce. We could not deny the deep christian faith and the qualities of genuine Christian character of many who had divorced and remarried. So we had to ask the question: may it be that we have misunderstood what God was saying to us in the relevant passages of scripture?

“A similar process occurred in the decision about the ordination of women. On the face of it certain passages of scripture as understood in the mainstream tradition of the church ruled out women’s ordination. There are those who still hold this view. But as biblical scholars and theologians wrestled with the biblical evidence in the context of the radical change in women’s place in society, other elements in the Bible whose significance had not previously been focused, came to be seen in a fresh light. It was this kind of study that led the Doctrine Commission to report to the 1977 General Synod that the theological arguments which had been raised did not constitute a barrier to the ordination of women.”

Dr Rayner then outlined how developments in the area of marriage after divorce and the ordination of women had three elements in common:

“First, it was a change in the attitudes and practice of the world which set the context for the church’s rethinking. Secondly, it was the experience of people of Christian character and committed faith which raised questions about the received teaching. Most importantly, the church could not change its practice until careful study could demonstrate that the change was rooted in the received scriptural tradition and represented a proper development in the understanding of that tradition. It was not a matter of simply accepting a fashionable trend in the world. It was a matter of discerning what the Spirit was saying to the church in the face of a changing world environment.”

Evangelicals and catholics immediately raised the serious objection that Archbishop Rayner’s argument fails to locate the debate within the wider discussion of the nature of authority in the Church. It significantly distances the Archbishop from the Anglican concept of a wider and Catholic and Apostolic Church to whose shared experience, reflection on the biblical text, and cumulative discernment it has been our historic habit to defer.

Moreover, the reality of the experience of the so-called “careful study” and “discernment of what the Spirit was saying . . .” in the ordination of women campaign cannot pass without comment. Time and time again the liberal ascendancy set the agenda and dominated the debate. Working actively in concert with strident elements within the secular mass media Anglican dioceses across the Communion were and continue to be subjected to pressure and intimidation on this matter. When due process frustrated their zealous commitment to innovation and change, unilateral action was threatened or effected. Just look at what happened in Philadelphia and Perth!

The great concern with Dr Rayner’s formula for development is not his reference to study and discernment in the church, but his obviously truncated understanding of what constitutes “the church” and how authority is to be sourced – merely in the local church be it diocese or province, or, indeed the Anglican Communion as a whole – without taking into account the Church Universal.

Not surprisingly the evangelical and calvinist Diocese of Sydney did not share the Primate’s approach. In moving the motion to distance Sydney from Dr Rayner’s approach, Dr Kim Hawtrey said the “vision and rationale” of the Primate’s comments are “matters for deep and grave concern”. He argued that the Primate’s approach to the matter “contradicts our commitment stated in the 39 Articles to Scripture as the trustworthy and authoritative Word of God”.

Members of the Sydney Synod expressed concern that the Primate appeared to be heading away from the kind of biblically based view of homosexuality set out in the Kuala Lumpur Statement and the biblical approach to sexuality affirmed at the recent Lambeth Conference.

Of particular significance was a contribution made by the Principal of Moore Theological College, Dr Peter Jensen, who told the Synod that the Primate’s approach to the issue was “theologically flawed”. Dr Jensen continued “It does not give primacy to Scripture.” Dr Jensen told the Synod that “the Primate is a Scripture man, let that not be doubted, but I am talking about the relationship that he brings forth between Scripture, tradition, experience and reason”.

The number of pejorative comments made in the Sydney debate against “so-called tradition” does raise serious questions as to whether the common self-understanding of classical Anglicanism as defined by the likes of Hooker continue to carry any currency in today’s Sydney.

The divergent understanding of Anglicanism and even of Church is highlighted by the powerful push for Lay Presidency. At the same session of the Sydney Synod the Revd Philip Jensen (brother of Dr Peter and Rector of the mega parish of St Matthias Parish, Centennial Park) argued for a five year experimentation of lay and diaconal administration of the Lord’s Supper. Mr Jensen told the Synod that his motion preserved the theological principles that Sydney Synod had regularly endorsed in its voting on women’s ministry – that is argument from headship and the plain reading of 1 Timothy 2.

Again, little in this debate about a wider concept of Church and the nature of authority. Although one speaker against the motion, Mr Justice Mason, did argue that it would not “bring peace” either in Sydney Diocese or the world-wide Anglican Communion. Due to procedural matters the Jensen motion, which is supported by a very large majority of the Sydney Synod, will lie on the table until Sydney Synod meets again next year. The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Harry Goodhew, however, indicated to the Synod that even if such a measure was enacted he would not agree to license deacons and lay people as ministers of the Sacraments. Archbishop Goodhew said such a move by Sydney might inhibit positive ties between his diocese and other parts of the Anglican Communion. What will he do next year?

The debates on homosexuality and lay presidency will be features of Australian Anglicanism for some considerable time. It is critical that these issues be dealt with against the backdrop of the bigger question of the relationship of the local to the universal, of the partial to the whole in our understanding of Church and authority.

It will, therefore, be interesting to see whether the Report of the General Synod Task Group on Women and the Episcopate tackles this thorny issue or as too often the case in Anglican deliberations avoids the prickly patch.

Father David Chislett SSC is Rector of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace, Australia’s first Forward in Faith parish.