Since the Reformation we have been used to disunity in the Church being demonstrated through denominational loyalty around historical theological dispute and response. This is no longer the primary case. In the Church, as in politics, the deepening rift is between those who, for the sake of simplicity, insist truth is conveyed through fixed dogmatic assertion, usually on social issues, “conservatives”, and those who believe truth is encountered at the crossroads of faith and life, or to put it more piously, at the point where heaven and earth meet. The latter are commonly called “progressives¨ which, like woke, has become a weaponised term seldom owned by those to whom it is ascribed. (Neither adjective is absolute, relationships are invariably more complex). Both progressive and conservative leanings are present in every denomination. Christians often find more in common across denominational lines with those who share their views, conservative or progressive, than they do within their own denominational membership.
In the Anglican Church of Australia, the largest and most well-resourced Diocese is Sydney. Here conservatism is a badge of honour and its expectations a pre-condition of licence. The recent requirement of Sydney Anglican school principals to declare marriage between a man and a woman to be the only legitimate marriage is the latest example of controlled conformity. Another well-known example is the denial of ordination to women as priests or bishops, on grounds that a woman may not hold oversight of a man. It appears the judgment of Lord Matthew Hale, a seventeenth century English judge still carries weight: a wife is contractually obligated to her husband.
Anglicans deal with differences, sometimes quite substantive, through a polity of checks and balances, that requires attentive listening and good intentions for the whole Body of Christ; not protection of tribal rules.
The Anglican Church is a Communion of Provinces (national churches) and dioceses throughout the world in 164 countries with over 85million adherents. It has no equivalent to papal authority, nor is it a confessional Church with a dogma defining statement like the Westminster Confession in the Presbyterian Church.
Every Diocese has a large degree of autonomy within what is known as the Lambeth quadrilateral – allegiance to four fundamental principles:
Holding and giving expression to:
- The Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation;
- The creeds (specifically, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), as the sufficient statement of Christian faith;
- The dominical sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion;
- The historic episcopate, locally adapted.
Every Province and Diocese accepts and works with four instruments of unity in any interpretation of these fundamentals:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury
- The Lambeth Conference
- The Anglican Consultative Council
- The Meeting of Primates (Heads of Provinces)
As an example, the ordination of women could only proceed as an ordinance of a national Church, when supported by the Lambeth Conference of Bishops.
For those who uphold equality between men and women in ministry on the one hand, or marriage equality on the other, there is no conflict in their doing so with the fundamentals of the Lambeth quadrilateral. Nor do they believe they are out of step with one or more of the instruments of unity.
The Diocese of Sydney, however, strongly disagrees. It claims both the ordination of women and the blessing of same sex marriages to conflict with the first fundamental principle – plain scriptural truth. Its position is well known. It contributed $1 million to the “no” campaign in the national same-sex marriage plebiscite.
Here is not the place to develop a serious biblical hermeneutic, but conservatives are accustomed to take single verses of scripture and apply them literally without adequate reference to context. To do less, they claim, is to undermine the authority of scripture. I argue that using individual verses as proof texts does the opposite, it undermines the authenticity and authority of scripture. What is required is the hard work of reading individual verses in a much wider scriptural context. Every biblical text must come under the bar of love revealed to us in Christ who said, “You search the scriptures believing that in them you find truth, but it is they that bear testimony to me.”
For example, in reference to marriage equality, I argue the starting scriptural injunction is: “it is not good for man (human) to live alone”. As social beings we all long for intimacy. Given we now know intimacy with a person of opposite gender is not possible for a relatively small minority, it is cruel, not to say dangerous, for life-time intimacy to be denied, or its blessing withheld.
At the recent General Synod of the National Church, the Diocese of Sydney moved a resolution, which if passed, intended to prohibit the blessing of same sex couples. To be passed, a matter of this weight requires a majority in the three houses of bishops, clergy, and laity. While it received a majority in the latter two, it failed in the house of bishops.
The Sydney contingent at the synod was clearly unhappy. Archbishop, Kanishka Raffel, told the synod the church was “in a perilous position, and no one should be mistaken about that”.
What he meant by that is far less clear. The General synod normally meets every three years. It is well within the bounds of possibility that in three years a conservative vote on all matters will safely pass all three houses, such is the growing influence of Sydney Diocese nationally.
If this eventuality is realised, three serious outcomes will need to be faced.
First, the Church will sound and feel increasingly cult-like and irrelevant to the majority of Australians. Most will feel intrusion into their personal lives offensive. Worse, the conservative obsession with sex and gender on the one hand and male headship on the other is proving to be part of the problem in a country where abuse and the exercise of unequal power is endemic. A recent poll has shown domestic violence to be more prevalent in the Anglican community than in the wider population.
Second, if the Church is to retain any public interface, it will be perceived to be the spiritual guardian of the political right, a position already held by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). This is a bizarre situation for the Church, committed as it is to Gospel imperatives for justice, and a bias towards the voiceless and powerless. Advocacy for social justice and cohesion is the more natural place for Christian alignment. While the Diocese of Sydney has used a megaphone to declare its position on gender and sexuality, its voice on the ethics of climate change, indigenous rights, asylum seekers and refugees, transparency in politics, social housing, homelessness, etc has not simply been muted, it has been silent.
Third, those Anglicans who believe the Church should be immersed in the world for its justice and transformation, and who hone their theology at the coal-face will feel they have nowhere to go, the Church of their heritage will feel a foreign place. It is unlikely such people will start another Church, it is more likely they will exercise the ministry and love of Christ outside such confining, and in truth unscriptural, boundaries.
It is a sad indictment on a world that increasingly longs for certainty (political, economic, and religious) that what we end up experiencing is arrogance, narrowness, and meanness of spirit.
George Browning was Anglican Bishop of Canberra Goulburn 1993 -2008 and is President of Australia Palestine Advocacy Network