1992 – The Long Goodbye

Looking back over the last nine years to the introduction of women priests in the Anglican Church of Australia, it is obvious that the orthodox have been victims of spin doctoring at the highest level. Archbishop Keith Rayner, for example, in his Presidential Address to the 1995 General Synod spoke glowingly of the acceptance of women priests in many parts of the church. He specifically referred to the fact that no mass exodus (such as the Church of England experienced) took place here.

Of course, there are three good reasons for that:

First, much Australian Anglo-catholicism converted itself into liberal catholicism during a thirty year process that began with the take-over of theological education by ‘liberal Protestants in chasubles’ (Bishop John Hazlewood’s phrase). So, in contrast to the English situation, ‘our’ constituency was (and is) very weak.

Second, because the Australian Church is really a federation of dioceses, and the women priests’ legislation is inoperative in dioceses that do not vote for it, there has been a noticeable migration of orthodox Anglo-catholic priests from liberal dioceses to the three small ‘safe’ Anglo-catholic ones.

Third, there was no financial compensation offered, making it impossible for many orthodox clergy with family responsibilities to leave. Some freely admit to shuffling out the years between now and retirement, trying hard not to be haunted by the cognitive dissonance with which they live.

Yet there has in fact been a constant haemorrhaging of godly priests and lay people to Rome, to the Anglican Catholic Church in Australia, and to Orthodox Churches. Recently, for example, Father Bill Edebohls, the well-known former Dean of Ballarat, considered by many to be one of the finest priests our Church has produced, became a Roman Catholic.

Two denominations

The gravity of 1992 for Evangelicals was expressed by the Most Reverend Donald Robinson, Archbishop of Sydney, in a speech to the 1992 General Synod just before the crucial vote:

‘I say this, standing in my own Chapter House, and I say it with portraits of six of my predecessors behind me, including the Archbishop who ordained me, that if this Clarification Canon is acted upon, and the predictions are carried out of which we have been informed today, then when I conclude my episcopate [i.e. January 1993], I will be out of communion with a certain number of my episcopal colleagues in this country, including the Primate, and including certain bishops within my own province. That’s a fact, and that’s not my fault!’

The day after the vote, Archbishop Robinson said: ‘We will not be able to live together happily; the problems are real and they will get worse, not better … Sydney would pursue a more ‘isolationist’ policy and reduce communication with dioceses where women had been ordained; Sydney already considered itself out of communion with Perth, where the ordination of eleven women went ahead earlier this year … We have worked for 30 years to maintain unity. What it means now is that Anglicanism in the classic sense is dead. We no longer have national unity and what we have done universally for centuries will end … There will be two denominations in the same Anglican Church.’

At the same time, Father Edebohls, spoke for many Anglo-catholics when in an article entitled ‘The Day My Mother – the Anglican Church – Died’ he said, ‘It was a long, slow and painful death. What made it worse was that she died at her own hands! Death by suicide in the Chapter House of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, on Saturday 21st November, 1992.’

Bishop John Hazlewood of Ballarat responded to the vote by leaving the Synod, never to return, saying to representatives from his diocese: ‘My church no longer exists.’ He retired eight months later.


Official Anglicanism had long been accustomed to boasting of its ‘comprehensiveness’. Quite clearly, though, the Anglican Church of Australia lost its historic comprehensiveness when the new ministry came into being. Until 1992 it was possible for mainstream reformed Evangelicals (who believe that women in the presbyterate flouts ‘God’s Word written’) and orthodox Anglo-catholics (who believe that we have no ministry of our own, save that of the wider Catholic Church, East and West) to see their positions comprehended by the formularies and canons of the Anglican Church of Australia. These traditions of Anglicanism were able to play a vital role in the mainstream of our Church’s life. That is now no longer possible.

Drawing on the teaching of scholars like Sykes and Avis, Bruce Wilson, the recently retired Bishop of Bathurst has severely criticised both Anglo-catholics and Evangelicals for not finding their point of definition in the ‘centre’ of Anglicanism. He implied that by finding that point somewhere else, both these traditions are being fundamentally disloyal to their own Church.

Liberal bullies

One of the problems with this is the irony that historically speaking the majority of ordinands have come from these traditions, both of which have been noted for their evangelistic zeal. What tends to happen now is that vocations are formed in our parishes, and then liberals in the theological colleges (with the stunning exception of Moore College, Sydney) see to it that candidates are remoulded into their own image. We have first-hand accounts of the enormous pressure that some of ‘our’ ordinands have come under for remaining orthodox.

It may well be that the election of Dr Peter Jensen as Archbishop of Sydney will force the Australian Church to face up to the enormity of 1992. Certainly, it is against the backdrop of 1992 that the Evangelical push for lay presidency gained momentum and has to be understood. In a recent interview with the editor of Marketplace Dr Jensen said:

‘When the national Church decided to have women as priests as a possibility in its dioceses … it committed itself to a loosening of the federation that binds us. Whether people realize it or not, that was an absolutely crucial turning point of our Anglican Church of Australia.

‘Up to that point we (Sydney) reigned ourselves in a number of areas in order to respect the whole. We still respect the whole, but the whole has shifted. It’s much more flexible than it used to be. It has led to people in Sydney saying: ‘Well, if (the ordination of women priests) is possible in some parts of the Church, surely they must give us our freedom to do similar things in our part of the Church.

‘These are family quarrels. We’re not going to have divorce, just family quarrels.’

Anglo-catholics find it difficult to get excited about this. For us, 1992 was the point at which lay presidency was officially promulgated in the majority of dioceses. Whatever Sydney does will create no new situation for us.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane in the Diocese of Brisbane. The parish website can be found at www.allsaintsbrisbane.com