David Robarts brings Poms up to speed

WHAT SORT of people are Australians, and how fares religion in this country, described during more than two centuries of its colonial settlement as ‘the most godless place on earth’? I begin with general social assessment, then history, before turning to matters of more specifically Anglican and contemporary concern.

Australia’s land mass is slightly greater than that of the United States, yet it is inhabited by only some 19 million people. Most of that land mass is neither sufficiently temperate in climate nor sufficiently high in rainfall to be easily inhabitable. There is a largely romantic affinity with the bush and wide open spaces, while it has been claimed that Australians are the most urbanized people in the world. The great majority live in seaboard cities, and this has helped create a highly artificial, and, indeed, superficial, society unrelated to the land and any rituals associated with it, save those of Aboriginal people.

The land itself, old and weathered, broods mysterious and animistic, beckoning yet unwelcoming and inhospitable; seemingly void and largely unpeopled; fragile yet resource-rich, harsh yet beautiful. From such a perspective there is growing interest in Aboriginal culture – the opening ceremony of the recent Olympic Games is a case in point – and this in a self-consciously nationalistic environment where Aboriginal spirituality and Australian spirituality are terms frequently bandied about. Having raped and pillaged a good deal of the land and devastated Aboriginal society, we are now on a guilt trip in which the land is sacred – and often just about everything else, except a revealed religion.

Perhaps, though, a word should be said about Australia and northern hemisphere folk religion. In the south there are no natural symbols for launching Lent and Easter – it is autumn. Nor is there a deep mid-winter, nor mithraic return of the invincible Sun to build on at Christmas. Customs are clung to nostalgically, or fiercely renounced. Christmas pudding and turkey often still hold their own at about 100 ºF.

Political correctness rules, as do free-wheeling values, as well as postmodernism and feminism within the media and universities; woe betide anyone presenting quite reasonable arguments, say, as to care in ethnic immigrant numbers. Such a person would inevitably be branded as racist, despite the fact that Australia is likely to be the least racist society in the south-east Asian region. Australia is an increasingly multicultural society and has done reasonably in absorbing migrants since the Second World War from some eighty different countries, often in large numbers. There is acceptance of diversity and an embrace of plurality, yet at the cost of a sense of coherent identity.

Ours is a society in transition within which social commentators point to confused and confusing swings of optimism and pessimism. They also indicate that Australians are becoming more self-centred, materialistic, and disengaged. Getting away from things and a diminishing sense of community participation are growing factors in this land of the long weekend. It is affirmed as an egalitarian society, yet there is a growing gulf between rich and poor: in a land of plenty there are about 2 million designated by the Australian Council of Social Services as poor.

Growth in gambling turnover outstrips economic growth. Australians lost $11 billion in gambling during 1997-98, according to a Productivity Commission report. We have the highest rate of male suicide in the world. And each year about 40 000 Australians aged 15 to 24 attempt it. Forty per cent of Australians over 14 have used illicit drugs. One million dependent children live with only one parent, while 60 per cent of pre-school children are cared for by someone other than a parent. Eight hundred thousand children are being raised in homes where neither parent has a job.

Turning to religion, there has been a significant increase since 1983 in the number of Australians describing themselves as ‘religious’. A 1999 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) reveals that 74 per cent of adults professed belief in ‘God’ (undefined); 53 per cent claimed belief in ‘Heaven’; 42 per cent in Jesus’ divinity, yet fewer than 20 per cent attend church at least monthly. Of those who claim no religion, 30 per cent grew up as Anglican. Not surprisingly, Roman Catholics have overtaken Anglicans: 4.8 million as against 3.9 million. There is still quite a good deal of residual denominationalism: many Australians like to have a church from which to stay away. There is belief in the value of belief rather than its practice. In 1950, 44 per cent of Australians attended church. By 1980, less than 25 per cent. The most recent NCLS indicates a further two per cent decline. On an average Sunday (whatever that may mean), we are told that only 25 000 Anglicans go to church. Melbourne, the second largest diocese, lists its Christmas communicants as down from 61 000 in 1991 to only 39 000 in 1998. But more of Anglican malaise in a moment.

Leading social analyst Hugh Mackay comments, ‘People with strong religious beliefs are admired – as long as they don’t try to ram it down our throats. People are largely unwilling to articulate the nature of their belief in God. Church, though, is strongly associated with moral structure, rather than mysticism. In the current wave of interest in “spirituality”, the Church is the last place people would think to look: people’s sights are set on New Age awareness centres, or Buddhist retreats, or psychic fairs, or crystals, or aromatherapy. “Spirituality” is a code work for almost anything but religion of a traditional, conventional, kind.’

I turn now to history. The Revd Richard Johnson, the first Chaplain to Colonial Australia, was appointed by the lobbying of some influential Evangelicals. After seeing something of the future convict lot in the hulks, he arrived with the First Fleet and conducted the first Church of England service on 3 February 1788; a fortnight later, he celebrated Holy Communion in an officer’s tent. Numbers of his superiors were unsympathetic and obstructive over his responsibilities for worship and pastoral care. He did not have a satisfactory house until 1791, and after five years of unsuccessful pleading for a church to be built, he cut the timber and built the first simple church in 1793 at his own expense. It doubled as a school for up to 200 children until it was burnt down in 1798.

I mention this as something of an indicator as to difficulties always experienced, one way or another, in a largely inhospitable land and a society essentially irreligious and secular from the outset. It also points to the imported churchmanship tensions present from 1788 to the present day. On a broader canvas, it must be said that, unlike America, not many have migrated for reasons of religious liberty. Initially under compulsion, others followed for the pot of gold, or simply to escape poverty.

One historian I know also raises the question of a poor gene pool. His research examines both late eighteenth-century police and the criminals they caught. The police were not up to much and they only caught the stupid ones. Thus our convict beginnings were, to say the least, unpromising!

Another historian spells out clearly the difficulties for convict chaplains: ‘Religious ignorance and practical atheism had been well established in England, where the mass of the working class never attended Church. In New South Wales, Church services were sufficiently regular and repelling to be regarded as part of the punishment. The clergy’s identification with the ruling class, the exclusivists, the untainted, had very harmful consequences on their ministry.’ Early clergy were government officials, who also served as magistrates. Chaplain John Wittenoom, who arrived in Perth in 1830, for example, would have consigned people to the stocks and in the very location, ironically enough, where St George’s Cathedral now stands.

In early days, the Church of England was the only denomination in Australia recognized by the Crown, though some one third of the convicts were Irish Catholic. Later, one seventh of all land was reserved for use by Anglican churches and schools. It was a position which Irish Catholic and Scottish Presbyterian settlers fervently and increasingly opposed. Thus, in 1836, a Church Act was passed, which provided State aid in the form of grants for buildings and stipends to Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, along with the Church of England. In that same year, William Grant Broughton was consecrated the first, and only, Bishop of Australia. Earlier, Australia had been an archdeaconry in the Diocese of Calcutta. Broughton had but 15 clergy as an archdeacon in 1832, and he sought help from such bodies as SPCK and SPG.

The end of transportation and the extension of settlement and population increase associated with, in the first instance, the rise of the wool industry, created new opportunities and challenges. By 1839 there were 34 clergy in the various scattered settlements around Australia. These included men of all shades of theological opinion. As the population boomed in the mid-nineteenth century, especially with the advent of the gold rushes, the Church struggled to keep up. It has always had a shortage of well-trained priests and theological education has never had a high priority in practice, to this day. In many, especially rural, areas, lay readers have acted as clergy substitutes up to recent times.

In 1842, Francis Nixon was consecrated as the first Bishop of Tasmania. On 29 June 1847, the ‘birthday of the colonial Church’, Charles Perry, a very firmly convinced Evangelical, was consecrated for Melbourne. Augustus Short, a man of Catholic sympathies, was consecrated for Adelaide; and William Tyrrell, a man of similar views to Short, was consecrated Bishop of Newcastle in New South Wales. Thus, Broughton became Bishop of Sydney and first Metropolitan. It is important to stress such foundational diversity in isolation, for as new settlements and dioceses emerged during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Australian Church increasingly took on a character of its own. It was not a State Church, and decreasingly enjoyed government patronage. State aid for church schools ceased in the 1870s, but there has been a long and often bitterly sectarian struggle in which churches have gained some substantial funding for their schools since then.

By the 1880s, bishops were appointed by the Australian Church, not the Crown. In England, Establishment was a force for compromise. No such element existed in Australia, and separate dioceses developed their own traditions. Early bishops, like Broughton (and his determinedly Evangelical successor Barker), Short, and Perry, served long episcopates formative of their dioceses’ future. Constitutionally, some dioceses, like Sydney and Melbourne, were set up by Act of Parliament; others, like Adelaide and Perth, by consensual compact.

In 1850, Broughton called a conference of the Church of England Bishops in Australia and New Zealand. This was a catalyst for Australian dioceses to legislate their own affairs by synods of bishops, clergy, and laity. The first General (or National) Synod was held in 1872. Perhaps mention should be made of a Bishops’ Conference organized by the strongly and conservatively evangelical Bishop Barker of Sydney, in 1865. According to one constitutional historian, Barker’s conference ‘laid the foundations of constitutional diocesanism which has bedevilled the Australian Church’.

The question of a constitution for the National Church is a long, frequently bitter, and convoluted one. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher gave great impetus to the establishment of a constitution, which was only approved in 1962. This produced what is really a federation in which dioceses retain a great deal of independence and autonomy, whilst checks and balances were clearly written in.

A word must be said about dioceses themselves. Currently there are 23. However, given such factors as rural recession, financial non-viability, and shortages of good clergy to work in more remote areas, there has been quite some fluidity. On a more positive note, the vast missionary Diocese of the Northern Territory was created in 1969, whilst in 1977, the missionary Diocese of New Guinea became a separate Province of the Anglican Communion. By 1973, the dioceses within each Australian State, except Tasmania, constituted a Province, headed by an archbishop. The small and struggling Diocese of the Murray was formed in 1973 and, if one might be blunt, was established so that the Bishop of Adelaide might thus have three dioceses, which enabled him to become an archbishop. On a more negative note, the Diocese of Kalgoorlie, created in 1914, was reabsorbed into Perth in 1973. That of St Arnaud, carved out in 1926, was merged again with other rural Victorian dioceses only fifty years later. Interestingly, in 1950 it had 21 clergy and 21 lay readers conducting services.

The large Queensland Diocese of Carpentaria, created in 1900, and out of which the Diocese of the Northern Territory was taken in 1969, has been itself absorbed into the Diocese of North Queensland in 1997. A great many of the rural dioceses struggle to survive, and increasingly so; they are largely dependent on the urban ones for clergy and, in various ways, financial support. The rise and fall of the Bush Brotherhoods (of a catholic persuasion) and the labours of missionary instrumentalities (generally evangelical) to lay foundations in the vast outback of Australia are chapters I can only mention in passing.

I turn to the National Church. The introduction of new liturgies combined with both national sentiment and pressure from bishops for some sort of liturgical coherence launched An Australian Prayer Book (AAPB), 1978, through General Synod on a wave of enthusiasm. There was little in it for convinced catholics, though. Sydney ensured that. Nonetheless, the book has been widely used. In National Church terms the 1978 book was the most significant achievement of the 1962 Constitution. So far as the National Church itself is concerned, it has no such thing as a Cathedral or Central Church. Dreams of a Great Church in the capital, Canberra, over a great many years are never likely to be realized. The office of Primate is something added to the life of an already busy Archbishop. The Primatial, or General Synod, Office in Sydney is staffed by only a Secretary. All General Synod meetings until the last two were held in Sydney; they are now held on a rotating capital city basis.

At that somewhat euphoric 1977 General Synod a report of the General Synod Commission on Doctrine was also received on the Ministry of Women, which followed a previous interim statement in 1973. Both of these provided the thin edge of the wedge that was to follow: recommendation of steps to admit women to the diaconate and, when practical, ordination of women to the priesthood and consecration to the episcopate.

The theological objections that were raised, concluded the report, did not constitute a barrier to the priesthood and episcopate for women. A dissenting addendum by one member of the 1977 committee, Canon D. B. Knox, Principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, was included. The stage was set for the long, bitter, and politically orchestrated debates, behind the scenes bullying, and pressure politics that were to follow in General Synods and Diocesan Synods throughout the land. Archbishop Peter Carnley, now Primate, brilliantly but uncharitably steered through the General Synod enabling legislation that led to the first ordination of women deacons in Perth in 1986. Time prevents me going into gory details. Suffice it to say that his repeated plea, ‘All I am arguing for is a tolerable pluralism,’ at General Synod, was anything but demonstrated by his behaviour in his own diocese. In any case he indicated on the floor of General Synod that those unable to accept the ordination of women had ‘psycho-spiritual’ problems.

He and other leading liberal bishops, and their supporters, who berated and sometimes vilified conservatives at General Synods – especially those of Sydney, which is by far the largest, wealthiest, and most actively growing diocese in Australia – were warned that the price attached to pushing through the ordination of women would be the tenuous unity of the National Church.

Failure to secure the necessary majorities in a succession of General Synods, including one specially called to do so, led the Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn to advertise unilateral action to ordain women as priests in February 1992. This was publicly opposed by his Metropolitan, Archbishop Robinson of Sydney. An interim injunction, served through the Supreme Court of New South Wales, prevented this at the last hour. Great was the wrath, especially against the three of us whose names were attached to the injunction. Archbishop Carnley then advertised at short notice his intention of doing what Bishop Dowling had been unable to do. An attempt was made to extend the interim injunction to Perth, but for various reasons, including a very different constitutional basis for the Diocese of Perth, the attempt failed. In March 1992, Carnley purportedly ordained ten women as priests in Perth. When asked by a journalist what he would do if the forthcoming General Synod in November failed to pass legislation that would ratify his actions, he replied that he would license the women as deacons. So much for the ambiguous situation in which the women themselves were placed. By a handful of votes, General Synod passed the enabling legislation on 21 November. There were no legislative or other provisions made for the consciences of those unable to accept women as priests. Inevitably, the ordination of women has taken place in a piecemeal diocesan fashion. No enabling legislation has been passed in Sydney, Ballarat, Wangaratta, or The Murray.

From one viewpoint, the chief casualty has been the 1962 Constitution. Looking back, though, who could have foreseen in the 1950s the widespread liturgical experimentation of the 1960s with the considerable abandonment of the BCP – or the ordination of women debates of the 80s and early 90s, nor the weight placed upon the Appellate Tribunal, the highest court of appeal and umpire of disputes. It was this body, comprising lay lawyers and bishops – scarcely an impartial group – and whose behaviour Archbishop Robinson of Sydney was to describe as ‘unconscionable’, which provided an ‘opinion’ giving the green light for women’s ordination so far as any perceived constitutional obstacles were concerned. This ‘opinion’ became a ‘ruling’, even a ‘determinative judgment’ in the campaign conducted by Archbishops Carnley and Rayner (a member of the Tribunal), and other advocates of women’s ordination. I find it interesting to reflect that shortly after arriving in Perth in 1980, Archbishop Carnley said of the ordination of women to me, that ‘Sydney would never allow it’.

Manipulation of the Constitution and its instrumentalities to achieve this end and overriding constitutional checks and balances in the totalitarian liberal world of winners take all was to have serious consequences. If women’s ordination can be engineered in this way, then so can other possibilities such as lay presidency. The use of the Appellate Tribunal to sanction the cause of women’s ordination has boomeranged on the liberals. For the Appellate Tribunal, with a somewhat different membership, has more recently seen no constitutional impediment to lay presidency, providing it is a practice approved by General Synod – which it won’t be. However, if Perth can proceed to ordain women as priests without General Synod’s concurrence, under its own diocesan statutes, so can the Diocese of Sydney with lay presidency. Its synod has already approved this, but the present Archbishop, Harry Goodhew, has refused his imprimatur. He, however, retires next year, and given Sydney’s climate, it is extremely likely his successor will support this innovation. For people like myself there is a certain sense of déjà vu here. We already have lay presidency in Australia, but it discriminates against men. Yet if one says this to liberals, they are deeply shocked, for they cannot believe we are still really unable to accept women as priests. For that mindset, the Appellate Tribunal’s former ‘determination’ or ‘authoritative judgment’ has, in the second instance, been reduced to a mere ‘advisory opinion’. We are in the all-too-familiar world of revolving goalposts.

The fact is that the fragile 1962 Constitution has suffered rape and pillage. Sydney now feels itself no longer constrained; it exercised restraint until 1992, but others abandoned such a principle in order to get what they wanted. Thus, in the view of one constitutional historian, I think accurately:

‘The 1962 Constitution has failed for two apparently contradictory reasons: its rigidity of structure and therefore inability to deal with unforeseen circumstances, and secondly, its provisions were not sufficiently watertight to deal with major innovations.’

A daunting but seemingly almost impossible task lies before the current General Synod Constitutional Commission.

Another perceived element in the disintegration of Australian Anglicanism has been the second Australian prayer book – A Prayer Book for Australia (APBA) – which was passed through the last General Synod in 1998. Significantly, it is styled ‘Liturgical Resources Authorized by the General Synod’ and is for use together with the BCP and AAPB. It is sometimes nicknamed, ‘The Prayer Brick’, because of its size; it offers a smorgasbord of liturgical possibilities. One Eucharistic Prayer, the so-called ‘Silk Canon’, offers some consolation to catholics. However, it is this canon’s doctrinal deviation from acceptability to Sydney that means the book itself will never be approved for use by a Sydney synod. Unlike the 1978 book, this one is not an instrument of national unity. Increasingly, in any case, do-it-yourself liturgies abound. I had cause recently to take issue with a regional bishop, reminding him that some twenty parishes in his region used no recognisable Anglican liturgy at all, while in a similar number, clergy led services in street clothes. Charity forbade me reminding him that he had reportedly been known to take a parish Confirmation in street clothes.

What holds the Anglican Church of Australia together? The recently retired primate, Keith Rayner, believed the Annual Bishops’ Meeting at Gilbulla did so. He is politically astute, if schoolmasterly and somewhat overbearing. One can believe that under his leadership, he was in a limited sense correct. It remains to be seen whether the new Primate is able to maintain an appearance of following suit.

I turn to Forward in Faith Australia and our survival. Given regional and often diocesan isolation, episcopal pressure tactics and harassment, rallying often apathetic and ill-informed Australians to mount any organized alternative has been extremely difficult. A huge debt is owed to Dr Ian Spry, QC, who spent three years at enormous personal and financial cost to trailblaze and network with frequently beleaguered traditionalists around the country in the setting-up of the Association for the Apostolic Ministry, Australia. This was something of a shadow organization elsewhere, but the then Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, and Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson, were co-Chairmen. The organization survived the defeat of 1992 and became Forward in Faith Australia officially in 1998.

This was done at a very successful National Conference in Brisbane during Eastertide. At that conference, we espoused a slightly modified form of the English Forward in Faith Communion Statement and Code of Practice. Not sufficiently modified, however, to escape the immediate censure of our liberal hierarchy, who believe accepting the Code of Practice expressed disloyalty by clergy to the diocesan bishop. A copy of our document was in the hands of bishops at their annual meeting within a week of the conference. As a consequence, a recently retired Assistant Bishop of Adelaide, an FiFA member who attended our conference, was rung on his archbishop’s return to tell him that the archbishop did not believe he could have his licence and also be a member of FiFA. The bishop resigned instantly from FiFA rather than toughing it out. Two consequences followed. Firstly, Adelaide FiFA has ceased to exist, though we have a small number of individual members there. The group there reverted in isolation to being AAM Australia.

Adelaide is Australia’s fifth largest capital city. Its very beginnings and subsequent history have been soundly orthodox catholic. Up until the mid-80s, an organization called the Union of Anglican Catholic Priests, ably led by Fr John Fleming – probably our best and toughest debater on the floor of General Synod until he went to Rome – could command the numbers to defeat moves for the ordination of women in Adelaide. That organization quietly died in a corner last year. Of the eighty-six parishes in that diocese, not one would fly the flag for FiF. The second consequence is that we have warned liberal bishops of possible legal action if our members are harassed and also slightly modified our constitution to keep them at bay.

How fares FiFA elsewhere? Readers of New Directions will be aware that there is not one place in the Diocese of Perth, for example, where FiF members can have a home. Two former members of the Cathedral Chapter when I was Dean of Perth are now priests with the Continuum. Such strength as we have is largely in Brisbane and Melbourne. Our membership would be approximately 800; there would be some sixty clerical members, and only twenty SSC clergy, a third of the numbers in Australia, are members of FiFA. We do not have one bishop who is a paid-up member. In the three so-called ‘safe’ dioceses, we have few lay, and even fewer clerical members. The bishops do not encourage people to join us.

In human terms our future is bleak. Parishes which traditionally produced a large number of orthodox vocations in the capital cities have undergone crises and become liberalized. Role models that would attract, inspire, and foster vocations are not evident, with rare exceptions. Theological colleges, with the exception of Moore in Sydney, are in liberal hands, and while it is averred that there is no discrimination against a traditional student, the odd one that does exist may well be made to feel uncomfortable. What student of our persuasion would happily choose to be trained in these places: perhaps having to sit alongside middle-aged women, soaking up dodgy theology, and participating in ‘experimental’ worship of many and varied kinds. Money for training is at a premium. Ballarat can afford to train only one student at a time. Wangaratta is engaged in an interesting DIY programme without a formal college at all. Orthodox clergy that have taken flight from previously catholic dioceses gone liberal, such as Newcastle, may have shored up ‘safe dioceses’ on a short-term basis, but they will not be replaced. In spite of impassioned pleas before 1992 as to such prospects, our traditional bishops did nothing and at General Synod said nothing.

At the 1998 General Synod the issue of women bishops was raised. Thanks to an amendment from Bishop Silk and Archbishop Goodhew, any draft legislation and discussion papers for women bishops were to include provisions for alternative episcopal oversight. A working party was consequently set up, and models of alternative oversight have been circulated around the country.

The working party itself, needless to say, does not contain a member of our constituency, though it does include opponents of women priests and bishops. It is chaired by the most aggressively feminist and powerful woman in the Australian Church, Dr Muriel Porter. FiFA supports the most radical of the suggested models, called ‘Complete Alternative Episcopal Oversight’. This would allow for parishes to join up and become part of any diocese in the country. If this model ever reaches General Synod, it is very likely to be thrown out. Bishop Silk is in favour of a Provincial model, which, while it might supply relief in some parts of Australia, would not provide a comprehensive ecclesial solution. I am led to believe that, at ‘crunch time’, proposals for alternative oversight will be separated from the issue of women bishops and we will receive nothing. It is difficult to forecast which way the women bishops proposal will go at next year’s General Synod.

In spite of the fluidity of some diocesan boundaries, as mentioned earlier, monarchical territorialism is largely the episcopal mentality in Australia. It has been virtually impossible for bishops to see their office beyond this as the practical bottom line. The Realpolitik of power, control, and money – what there is of it – seem to be the overriding realities – issues alien to Gospel imperatives. With the exception of Sydney, the Australian Church is declining and ageing rapidly. Of the some 3000 so-called ‘active’ clergy, less than 200 are under 40, more than 60 per cent over 50. Sydney, for its part, strongly into growing new churches, has already, if unofficially, planted evangelical congregations over the border in two adjacent NSW dioceses.

Will orthodox Anglicanism survive? In moments of desperation, one may think of some sort of ‘Singapore’ solution; that would be no solution in Australia. I do not believe any of our traditional bishops would provide support for an extra-provincially consecrated bishop of such a kind. However, another chapter needs to be added here regarding the Continuum in Australia, as to which there have been some interesting recent developments.

A final, but to me, key, issue: if, in our various ways, we find ecclesial solutions to our difficulties, and if the liberals were all defeated tomorrow – would we have won the war? I think not. Important as the reasons for our presence here undoubtedly are, I fear they could be largely distractions from the war that really matters. This war includes dealing with our anger, defeat, weariness, and fear of ultimate failure. Unless, and until, we deal with the enemy within and without in terms of our hopes, our sufferings, and fears, and find them in the heart of the Crucified, we are lost. Have we yet really embraced the cross, shared Jesus’ wounds, and thereby experienced the power of his victory in our present struggles and conflict?

Please do not dismiss me as a pious old fool. The situation in Australia seems hopeless, but I am neither depressed nor hopeless. For I am utterly convinced that Jesus is Lord of his Church – which has always been in a mess – and that he is the Way: the Way Forward in Faith for all of us, and our children.

David Robarts is National Chairman of Forward in Faith Australia