An Open Letter to the bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia with a plea to the Primate

RECONCILIATION has become a keynote Australian concern, both at a political and at an ecclesiastical level. The ‘reconciliation process’, socially and politically, is motivated by laudable aspirations and has been marked by many commendable initiatives. Yet the word has been so coloured by recent usage that we need to be clear as to its meaning. As Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us, ‘?Reconciliation is a seductive word’, and he makes an important distinction between conciliation and reconciliation. ‘Conciliation is only an episode in a continuing battle.

To speak of reconciliation, as we use the word in talking of personal relations, or even of our relations with God, normally suggests authentically fresh possibilities, new beginnings, not a temporary ceasefire in a situation that remains basically unchanged.’ The Anglican Church of Australia appears to be deeply and increasingly unreconciled and this letter is a plea for generous and genuine initiatives to provide new possibilities for the Kingdom of God to be visioned afresh by growingly diverse Anglicans in this country.

Forward in Faith Australia (FiFA) has actively sought, since last we wrote in May 1999, to work with bishops and others with whom we disagree in a spirit of reconciliation, whilst maintaining our integrity. For this reason, and with some reluctance, we have sought legal advice, consulted with others, and formally amended our Constitution to avoid any questions of ambiguity as to the position of FiFA clergy with regard to their loyalty and licensing. Please note that section IV of the Communion Statement within the Constitution now reads as follows:

‘The priests of a diocese act on behalf of its bishop, standing in his place. Every Eucharist celebrated by his authority is his Eucharist. The priests of a diocese act as alternates one of another because all act on behalf of the one bishop. It follows that if the bishop introduces into his college of priests those whose orders are in doubt, this fellowship and the guarantees it mediates are fractured. A priest who cannot in conscience recognise the orders of one ordained by his bishop cannot in conscience act on behalf of that person. He will seek fellowship with a bishop whom he can with integrity represent, and in whose college of priests he can wholeheartedly participate. A diocese is not merely an administrative territorial unit; it is also, properly and necessarily, a fellowship based on doctrinal agreement and sacramental assurance.’

Attempts have been made to engage with several bishops in dialogue over issues which divide us. However, dialogue seems to have evaporated since the FiFA Constitution was put in the dock last year by unsympathetic critics and found wanting. Thus actual initiatives in dialogue, much less initiatives in reconciliation, have been noticeable by their absence from bishops who have become our critics. Indeed, one such archbishop, we are reliably informed, has stated that an assistant bishop would ‘kick a few heads’ of people of our persuasion after having written that he wished ‘the dialogue to continue’.

For his part, the Bishop of North Queensland has said on the one hand that he wishes ‘?to go on with the dialogue’ whilst asserting to our astonishment that FiFA’s desire for some form of alternative episcopal care carries with it the corollary of the invalidity of orders of the diocesan bishop. This is simply a false claim. Even more wrong-headed is his claim that FiF espouses a ‘?tainted hands’ view of those who have ordained women, a view with obvious Donatist implications. It is wearisome indeed to continue rebutting a claim that we have consistently denied making, but is imputed to us gratuitously by others. The distancing between us due to the ordination of women is not over hands but is caused by a genuine sacramental uncertainty and absence of common convictions concerning apostolic order — neither of which have been created by us.

Most astonishing in the course of what Bishop Wood said to his last Synod in relation to FiFA is the following: ‘The notion of tainted hands is related to some ancient understandings about the uncleanness of women, especially with reference to the menstrual cycle, and it is disturbing to say the least, to see that this understanding could become a central basis on which the Australian Church might be governed in the future.’ Such remarks reflect a public misunderstanding of others unbecoming to one bearing the teaching and pastoral authority of a bishop in the Church of God. One looks in vain for the possibility of dialogue here or even a glimpse of desire to seek reconciliation. It is not our wish to embarrass Bishop Wood, but rather to seek common ground, humbly and in penitence, that will enable mutual understanding and reconciliation to become operative.


FiFA members look to the new Primate as a man with a known public passion for justice and reconciliation. His vigorous espousal of justice for women and the cause of reconciliation with Aboriginal people give us hope that in his new role he may now look closer to home and recognize the injustices experienced by so many of our constituents over recent years. FiFA members, and like-minded Anglicans in Perth, for example, have literally nowhere to go. Archbishop Carnley will no doubt recall visits from various members of the then Women Against the Ordination of Women group before and after the 1992 ordination. According to their minutes, you were ‘pleasant and accommodating’ and ‘sympathetic’. They requested the allocation of a place for worship within the diocese. It is also clear from their minutes that their petitioning, sadly, proved fruitless.

Many of us remember well your own repeated and impassioned petitions during the course of General Synods prior to 1992 that all you were arguing for with the ordination of women was ‘a tolerable pluralism’. Is there now, in fact, to be ‘a tolerable pluralism’ to include FiFA members and like-minded people in Perth, which will offer them a place in the sun, out of the cold, providing a place of worship, a priest of our persuasion, and some security of continuity? Surely common justice calls for this. A generous initiative in reconciliation towards people who feel marginalized and alienated would be a truly wonderful demonstration of goodwill and Christian encouragement. FiFA would be grateful to hear from the Primate and perhaps talk with him about this.

The two Singapore consecrations and the recent meeting of Primates in Portugal bring before us once more the increasingly fragile state of our Communion with its diversity of imperatives. Were the Singapore consecrations, as you have reportedly described them, a ‘wicked’ action and are such ‘vagrant’ bishops ‘irregular’ and ‘unlawful’ within the Anglican Communion? Perhaps so. The Bishop of Quincy, Keith Ackerman, however, raises the important question of perspective here. ‘In 1974, when eleven women were illegally ordained, some of the same people who today are calling the Singapore consecrations “illegal” called the Philadelphia ordinations “prophetic”.’ Does not the reverse also apply?

Perspective is important; so are the issues that drove the actions in Singapore. The consecrating Primates of South East Asia and Rwanda, for their part, defended the consecrations of the two Missionary Bishops to the US as an ‘interim action’ on behalf of faithful and often episcopally besieged congregations living amidst the ‘apostasy and breaches of discipline in ECUSA’.

The Singapore consecrations, as the Revd Dr Geoffrey Kirk has pointed out recently, ‘focus attention on the interconnectedness of radical departures in order, dogma and morals, whose implications for the coherence of the Communion must now, at last, be taken seriously’.

In Kirk’s view, the recent Primates’ meeting in Portugal was ‘a disaster’? in that it failed significantly to address the issues raised by Singapore. As an aside, it is something of an irony to note that the Primates met in a part of Europe where no less than three jurisdictions of Anglican bishops both overlap and are coterminous with each other.

Kirk also offers an interesting reflection on the situation in this country: ‘Other provinces, like Australia, have a federal constitution which in effect allows decisions about orders, doctrine and morals to be made at diocesan level. It is perfectly possible (likely even) that in the near future the Australian Church will be made up of dioceses which do not ordain women, dioceses with women bishops, and dioceses where celebration of the Eucharist by lay people is permitted and encouraged. In the foreseeable future, in the diocese of Sydney, it is possible that the only women authorised to celebrate Holy Communion will be lay women.’

Whether one agrees with this view or not, there is little doubt that the bonds which previously held diverse Anglicans in this country together, as elsewhere, are progressively weakening. Given what some see as cracks or fault lines of digression in our Church, there is an urgent imperative for us all — evangelicals, liberals, traditional catholics, or whatever — to seek such reconciliation in Christ as will embody and display a deeper level of unity in diversity than is currently the case.

Here the Primate must have priority in our prayers, as himself an embodiment and facilitator of reconciliation within, as well as beyond, the Anglican Church of Australia.


We conclude by drawing attention to the growth and globalization of Forward in Faith. Last year, the Episcopal Synod of America became Forward in Faith North America. Negotiations are underway in other countries, such as Japan, to become part of our international fellowship.

Bishops, along with other clergy and laity, will be travelling from many countries, including Australia, to join in the great celebration of ‘Christ Our Future’ in the London Arena on 10 June. The Archbishop of York will be presiding at a Solemn Eucharist, along with some fifty other bishops from around the world and 1000 priests.

Please remember that members of FiFA are loyal fellow Anglicans.. Seek reconciliation with us, as we seek to be faithful to Christ and find the way forward in faith for ourselves and our children today and tomorrow.

The Revd David Robarts
for and on behalf of the National Council of Forward in Faith Australia