There can now be no doubt that the Anglican Church of Australia is headed towards a crisis moment. Some might argue it has been a long time coming but recent events have catalyzed the sense that we are rapidly arriving at a moment of decision.
So what has brought us to the edge of this cliff?
It can’t be denied that Australian Anglicans have struggled with exactly the same liberalising factions that have blighted much of the Western hemisphere. The same tensions we struggle with are seen in many other places. The question in each Province (national Anglican church or equivalent) has really been when they would come to the surface. For the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada that moment was 2003 with the election of a man in an active homosexual relationship as bishop in New Hampshire and the approval of a blessing for same-sex relationships in New Westminster. But even before then there had been a growing crisis with more and more liberal bishops allowing heteropraxy locally and so permitting the establishment of “facts on the ground”. The consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003 was not a surprise to anyone, even if the eventual timing of such an event was uncertain.
The same turning a blind eye and then sometime open endorsement of false teaching and actions has also been growing in Australia. Nevertheless an uneasy truce was established between the bishops with a concern shared by many (orthodox and revisionist alike) to maintain unity. Yet under the surface there has been a growing pressure for change. This gradual drift has been in the context of a unique mix of factors peculiar to Australia:
- Legislation for same-sex marriage came late compared to other Western democracies. A spurt of same-sex marriages brings with it a request by some of those couples for some form of religious observation which only increases the pressure in the denomination. The later Australian start for this has contributed to the delay in the crisis compared to other countries. The change in the Marriage Act in Australia has now catalyzed a renewal of conflict.
- The constitution and polity of the Anglican Church of Australia is more conservative than other Provinces. It declares the 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer to be our standard of doctrine and worship, not just historical documents to be acknowledged. Bishops promise to uphold the constitution in their consecration vows and can be held to account on that basis. Further, the federal-type nature of our national church means that doctrinal and liturgical changes can only be made with the approval of General Synod and the individual dioceses. This prevents more extreme decisions being taken and has, in the past, encouraged a more collaborative approach to making big decisions. A good example of that process would be the publishing of An Australian Prayer Book (AAPB) in 1978 – a far more restrained revision than in other Provinces.
- The growth more recently of evangelical belief and political strength across the Australian church. Theological liberalism is, by nature, not life giving. Evangelicals and other orthodox believers have been active in their work and one fruit is the growth of political power of conservatives. Examples of this rising power would be the vote at the 2017 General Synod to censure the Scottish Episcopal Church for permitting same-sex marriage, the election of a majority of evangelicals on the General Synod standing committee and the passing of a motion at the recent Melbourne synod that expressed sorrow at the actions of the Diocese of Wangaratta in approving a liturgy for the blessing of the parties in a same-sex marriage.
- A recent aversion to actually dealing with these issues. This can be seen in a number of ways. The Primate, Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier, has chosen not to act in his own diocese when clear breaches have occurred. He has also been restrained in his language about recent events in Wangaratta (a notable contrast from his open criticism of GAFCON on occasion). The standing committee of the General Synod also chose to replace next year’s General Synod with a far more constrained “special session” dealing only with limited items of legislation. There are arrangements to have a “discussion” alongside this meeting but not the opportunity for motions on the topic.
These factors have meant that liberals have been increasingly unable to achieve their objectives through constitutional means. Revisionist practice has, of course, always been to consistently sidestep such structures if they are deemed unsuitable. That was the modus operandi for both the ordination of women (the first being ordained irregularly prior to any actual legislation by General Synod) and the approval of the consecration of women obtained by means of a question to the Appellate Tribunal rather than through the appropriate vehicle of the General Synod. It is notable that the current crisis happens in the context of an agreement by all the bishops not to act outside the constitutional structures and mechanisms.
Nevertheless Bishop John Parkes promoted a same-sex blessing liturgy in Wangaratta, claiming that he had received advice that it was not contrary to the constitution. For conservatives this was a breach not just of the letter of their agreement (which Parkes disputed) but, more importantly, the spirit of that agreement. It was, in every way, a breach of collegiality.
That breach of collegiality is indicative of the breaking of already strained relationships, something that has previously been described as a “tear in the fabric of the Communion”. When Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney recently asked those who want to change Anglican doctrine to “please leave” he was, in part, asking them to formalize a departure from the fellowship of the Anglican Church of Australia that has already happened as bishops walk away from a common purpose and fellowship.
And so we stand at the precipice of a formalized split.
Or do we? The future is still somewhat uncertain although I will venture to suggest what it might look like. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet but in 20 years of reporting on these events I have seen little new under the sun in the Anglican Communion when it comes to the progress of theological liberalism. With that background I want to suggest the next few months will look like this…
- One or more other dioceses will seek to pass “Wangaratta” liturgies, as did Newcastle this past weekend. Those decisions, like Wangaratta before them, will be referred to the Appellate Tribunal. Bishops will exercise varying levels of restraint in implementation prior to any final decision by the Tribunal.
- The Appellate Tribunal will not provide an opinion before the General Synod meets in June 2020.
- General Synod will be made out of two distinct “special sessions”. The first is that called by the Standing Committee as outlined above. The second will be called by conservatives who have now garnered sufficient votes to make such a request.
- General Synod 2020, in which conservatives have a majority, will pass further clarifying motions on the topic of marriage and human sexuality that recommit to the orthodox biblical position and call for a halt to all actions contrary.
- Revisionist leaders will carry on regardless and eventually have disciplinary charges laid against them. Whether found to have acted wrongly or not they will not quit.
- Conservatives will not quit but pursue the same strategy that has worked across the global Anglican Communion. We will see an effective “church within the church” as GAFCON-affiliated dioceses and parishes continue to meet together but refuse to meet with any leaders that endorse false teaching. The Primate will be left in charge of a dwindling body, chairing meetings that contain mostly revisionists. The similarities between him and the Archbishop of Canterbury, both in cause and effect, will be obvious.
So what future the Anglican Church of Australia? The same as the Anglican Communion of which it is part! Spiritual life and vibrancy will be clearly seen in an orthodox portion, continuing to meet in genuine fellowship with each other and using their money in far more effective ways.
We are not leaving. Why should we? Birds ought not to abandon their nest when cuckoos are there and shepherds ought not to abandon their flocks when wolves roam. Christian believers own the title deeds to the Anglican Church of Australia and even if we can’t get evict all of the squatters, the building is our home and will be for years to come.