ARE THE “LIBERAL CATHOLIC” leaders of the Anglican Church of Australia already yesterday’s men? This question is being asked all over the country as Anglicans ponder the recent episcopal elections in Tasmania and Melbourne. For some time conservative evangelicals, traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, and some honest liberals have been drawing attention to the demise of liberal catholicism at the hands of those who, though “relevant” in their own eyes, are still trying to adapt the Church to the 1960’?s. In spite of this, few could have predicted the results in either diocese.
Tasmania is a small island state with a small church, noted for its comprehensiveness, its Englishness and its middle of the road churchmanship. The diocese has long had a moderate “Prayer Book Catholic” style episcopate. Bishop Phillip Newell, who recently retired after 18 years, saw himself very much in that tradition, though he is a catholic of what we now call the “affirming” kind.
Tasmanian Anglicans had a hard time during the second half of Newell’s episcopate. The decline experienced elsewhere in Australia was exacerbated in Tasmania by widespread allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy, homosexual scandals, a nationally publicized and lingering industrial dispute relating to the organist at S. David’s Cathedral, and the relentless persecution of those who in all conscience were unable to accept the purported ordination of women.
Eighteen months before the Tasmanian election, the Melbourne Archdeacon John Harrower, 47, an evangelical and a former missionary in South America, spoke in a number of Tasmanian parishes. An active campaign ensued, resulting in his election. Most observers see this as a radical change in direction for Tasmanian Anglicans who rejected the four “catholic style” bishops on the short list of five candidates: local boy Philip Aspinall, Assistant Bishop in Adelaide; Brian Farran, Assistant Bishop in Perth; David McCall, Bishop of Willochra (who until recent years was opposed to the ordination of women); and John Noble, Assistant Bishop in Brisbane.
Harrower’s success in Tasmania obviously gave new heart to Melbourne evangelicals approaching their own election a few weeks later. They had been encouraged by an address entitled “A moment of choice – the way of the past or the way of the future”, given by evangelical leader, the Rev’d Peter Corney at a pre-Synod meeting of the New Cranmer Society last October. Corney painted a gloomy picture of Melbourne Diocese, holding its liberal-catholic leadership responsible for the state of things. (One of his staggering statistics is the decline of Christmass communicants throughout the Diocese . . . down from 61,000 in 1991 to 39,000 in 1998!). Corney compared the growth in numerical strength of the card-carrying evangelical parishes with the decline of the Diocese as a whole. His harshest words were reserved for liberal catholics:
“The problem always with liberal theology is that it is too intellectually provincial. It constantly allows its interpretation of the faith to be overly influenced by the limited intellectual landscape it currently inhabits. It was seduced by modernity into reductionism and it is showing clear signs of being seduced by postmodernism’s pluralism into religious syncretism and radical inclusivism. Without the broad vista of historical orthodoxy we are easily taken in by the spirit of the age. There is, of course, another virus out there that can fatally weaken the body of Christ – and that is when liberal theology combines with ritual and sign. Because liberal theology tends to gut the original meaning of our Christian signs – you end up with signs without substance. Ceremony and mystery without biblical content, i.e. you end up with religion. And religion is the enemy of Christian life.”
At the conclusion of his address, Corney threw out a challenge to those who would elect the next Archbishop of Melbourne: “This is a moment of choice – will we choose the way of the immediate past or will we choose life?”
Other groups were also preparing for the Melbourne election, not least those who would describe themselves as catholics. A minority of these are Forward in Faith people; most are quite liberal, giving credence to Fr David Robarts’ remark that “the only thing which holds catholics together is wearing a chasuble and a particular view of human sexuality.” According to Robarts, Assistant Bishop Andrew Curnow’s support base included FiF catholics (of whom he has been supportive), some of the liberals and a considerable number of evangelicals. He was widely considered to have “the gifts, local experience and wide appeal to be able to carry the Diocese forward from its state of division and low morale”.
Why wasn’t Curnow elected? It seems that once again a disproportionate influence in the processes leading up to the vote was exercised by leading feminist, Dr Muriel Porter. She was determined to see Bishop Roger Herft of Newcastle elected. In terms of Australian Anglicanism Herft is on the radical edge of the liberal catholic theological spectrum, and could be depended upon to advance the kind of causes dear to Dr Porter’s heart. Those who attended pre-election meetings of the “catholics”, speak of her relentless destruction of Curnow’s candidature.
Once Curnow was eliminated in the voting process, his not inconsiderable evangelical support went to Peter Watson, the Sydney assistant bishop, the real outsider. The liberals refused to believe that in a Herft vs Watson contest the real catholics would never vote for Herft, preferring a Sydney evangelical instead! The fact is that Watson has been a kind and respected pastor to the handful of Anglo-Catholic parishes in his region of Sydney Diocese, whereas the mass migration of the really orthodox catholics from Newcastle to places like Ballarat and Wangaratta has not endeared Herft to people of our persuasion. Watson got the catholic vote, Herft’s vote bottoming out at 26%.
Watson is something of an enigma. He has obviously moved to the point where he can accept women as priests and bishops (otherwise he wouldn’t have appeared on the Melbourne list of candidates!). But he is a Sydney man, a Gospel man, who probably believes all that Peter Corney said in his important address. Watson is 64, and was looking forward to retiring at 65. He has 6 years to turn Melbourne around. Those who know him well believe that he will do just that.
The final word should be given to Father Christopher Seton, Anglo-Catholic leader, Vicar of All Saints’ Kooyong and Chairman of FiF in Victoria:
“There is a theory that Anglicanism is healthiest when it enjoys a creative tension between Protestantism, Papalism and broad ‘CofE-ism’. In the Diocese of Melbourne over the past three decades the broad Anglicans largely disappeared to be replaced by secularists of a vaguely high church flavour. This group achieved immense power. At the same time the Catholics lost their left wing to Liberalism (1992), becoming a rump of 10% or less. Recent years have seen an Evangelical resurgence which I set at 40% of the present Synod. The theory would require the re-instatement of the broad Anglicans to restore balance. Might this happen under a Watson pontificate as the Liberals decline and a more conservative generation comes of age? Time will show. What is of particular interest is the emergence of a tentative alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics. More and more these two groups are recognizing that their shared allegiance to a revealed faith distinguishes them from the Liberals. Certainly they will need to work together if the Anglican Church of Australia is to be won back to Christ.”
David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Brisbane in the Province of Queensland