Sydney Diocese has always been an important player in the Anglican Church of Australia.
It is the oldest and largest of the 23 Australian dioceses, and until its recent catastrophic financial losses, was the richest. It is also the most conservative, and is strident in defence of that conservatism.
But how could Sydney Diocese be a threat to the international Anglican Communion? After all, Australia, with just 3.7 million Anglicans according to the 2006 census – the same number as those Australians who claimed no religion – should be but a small player among the 80 million world Anglicans.
Yet in the first decade of the twenty-first century, under the leadership of Archbishop Peter Jensen, Sydney Diocese has become a force to be reckoned with in the Anglican Communion. As a leader of the alternative international Anglican movement focused in the Global Anglican Future (GAFCON) project, his diocese became what can only be described as a destabilizing influence.
This is just the public face of its international influence, however – an influence that has been steadily and quietly expanding below the radar for several decades through the leadership of key Sydney people in a range of global ministry programs.
Previously, the diocese had attracted the interest, even fascination, of well-informed Anglicans in different parts of the world because of its unique reputation as an extremely conservative, hard-line monolithic Evangelical centre.
It was not viewed with concern, however, because it seemed to inhabit an isolated, inward-looking world of its own. And it was still recognizably Anglican, requiring prayer book services, liturgical robes and the other hallmarks of traditional Anglicanism. Not any longer.
These days, it is quite rare to find Anglican church services in Sydney that follow an authorised prayer book or lectionary of the national church. Just as rare are robes. In fact, it is rare to find the services called “services” or even “worship”; they are usually now “meetings” or “gatherings.”
A radical congregationalism, coupled with a hardline conservative neo-Calvinist Evangelicalism more akin to North American Protestantism, has taken hold in most Sydney parishes.
Sydney diocesan leaders seriously began their public involvement with the wider Anglican world in the lead-up to the 1998 Lambeth Conference. At that time, they joined forces with conservative American Episcopalians (Anglicans) to draw African and Asian conservatives into a coalition designed to defeat what they saw as liberalizing tendencies in the Anglican Church, particularly in North America.
Their first major victory was the controversial decision of the 1998 Lambeth Conference to oppose the ordination of homosexual people and the blessing of gay partnerships. That decision, and its rejection by both the United States Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, has in recent years provoked the development of the alternative GAFCON movement, in which Sydney Diocese has taken a leadership role disproportionate to its size and status.
Peter Jensen, though not one of the Anglican Communion’s 38 Primates (national leading bishops), is honorary secretary of the GAFCON Primates’ Council, while his diocese provides the secretariat for the GAFCON offshoot, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA).
On his webpage, Archbishop Jensen claims he is “recognized as a key leader in the worldwide Anglican Church” and notes that he was “one of the organizers of the [GAFCON] conference in Jerusalem in 2008.” Plans for a second GAFCON meeting in 2012, announced recently, included approval for an expansion of the Sydney-based secretariat.
Sydney’s role is not just secretarial. Its diocesan budget funds provision of training programs to GAFCON-aligned national churches in Africa and Asia sourced from the diocesan training college, Moore Theological College, among other things.
Its international influence reaches beyond the churches assisted through the GAFCON/FCA network, however. Some time ago it moved into the heartland of the Church of England through its close ties with the conservative Evangelical movement, Reform.
Similarly, there are links with conservative movements in the Church of Ireland, in the New Zealand church, in South Africa, and in the US and Canada. Sydney Diocese has also been closely involved in the formation of the breakaway Anglican Church of North America, with a leading lawyer from Sydney Diocese assisting in the drafting of the ACNA constitution.
The Ministry Training Strategy program (MTS) developed in the late 1970s by Archbishop Jensen’s brother Phillip – now Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney – when he was chaplain to the University of New South Wales, has spread across the globe.
It boasts that it has been “developed, copied, refined and implemented in many parts of Australia and the world.” It claims it has reached into Britain, France, Canada, Ireland (both north and south), Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and South Africa. Effectively, over almost 20 years, it has exported a program to recruit and train ultra-conservative Protestant ministers around the world.
MTS has been the primary recruiting ground for all Sydney clergy, a pathway strengthened by Phillip Jensen’s 2003 appointment as director of Ministry, Training and Development, the diocese’s department for the training of clergy.
For the past 20 years, Phillip Jensen has had considerable influence in the selection of Sydney clergy. Through these roles and his church-planting activities, his influence is arguably more significant than his brother’s more public role. Together, the brothers have had a disproportionate impact on Australian and world Anglicanism for close to two decades.
The influence of Sydney Diocese and its leaders is felt in various parts of the Australian church in a number of ways. Until the diocese’s recent financial debacle, funding was directed to certain Sydney-friendly dioceses. There is close contact with clergy and lay leaders in the orbit of Ridley Melbourne, one of the two theological colleges in the Diocese of Melbourne.
To the distress of the bishops of yet other, mostly Anglo-Catholic, dioceses Sydney has offered a process of “affiliation” to so-called independent Evangelical churches in their territories, sometimes so placed as to be in direct competition with a bona fide parish of the diocese.
Although the diocese has not formally planted these churches outside its diocesan boundaries, they have often been seeded by individual Sydney parishes in a wave of cross-borders incursions dating from the 1990s.
Perhaps even more troubling is the close Sydney link with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES), now the predominant student Christian organization across Australian universities since the demise of the once-dominant Student Christian Movement and the decline of diocesan-funded university chaplaincies.
AFES claims to employ more than 100 people in campus ministries in every Australian state and territory. Linked with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, it is supposedly independent of denominational affiliation. However, it would seem to be an outreach of Sydney Diocese in all but name.
Its headquarters are in the same building complex as Matthias Media, the publishing arm of Phillip Jensen’s former parish, St Matthias’, Centennial Park. The current AFES director, Richard Chin, is a graduate of Moore College; his immediate predecessors were Sydney Anglican clergy.
There are close links with the Phillip Jensen creation, MTS, with both organisations sharing the same doctrinal statement. Observers outside the Sydney-Evangelical orbit are only now beginning to recognize that AFES seems to have become, in many respects, a Trojan horse for Sydney Anglican teaching around the country.
There is some evidence of increasing Sydney influence against the ordination of women infiltrating Anglican dioceses that support women in church leadership, most notably Melbourne Diocese, and AFES is part of that.
AFES is also believed to be part of the spread of Sydney-style opposition to women in church leadership in Protestant churches such as the Churches of Christ as well. Parishes near university campuses are, according to anecdotal reports, particularly vulnerable to influxes of students converted by AFES who bring their newly-acquired conservative stance into parish life.
Tension levels, historically always simmering between the oldest Australian diocese and the rest of the national church, have recently increased markedly for reasons other than the Sydney church-planting and infiltration activities.
The ordination of women to the priesthood in the early 1990s in the vast majority of Australian dioceses, but not Sydney, caused inevitable strains, but the consecration of women bishops in Perth and Melbourne in 2008 ramped up the tension significantly.
This is mainly because of the means by which women bishops became possible. The previous year, the highest Anglican church court, the Appellate Tribunal, cleared the way for women bishops through a definitive interpretation of the church’s constitution.
The constitution’s basic qualifications for bishops (“canonical fitness”) applied equally to women priests as to male priests, the Tribunal said. Sydney Diocese strongly resisted this interpretation, and complained bitterly when the Tribunal decision was announced. Its leaders, it seems, are still smarting.
More serious has been Sydney Diocese’s recent introduction of diaconal presidency, and its Synod’s overt support – some say, permission – for lay presidency. (Diaconal presidency means clergy ordained as deacons but not as priests can preside at Holy Communion, the central Christian worship rite; lay presidency extends that permission to lay people as well. In longstanding church law and tradition in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches, priests and bishops are the only persons authorized to preside at Holy Communion.)
The decision by the 2008 Sydney Synod to claim legitimacy for diaconal presidency – the culmination of many years of promotion of diaconal and lay presidency by Sydney Synod – created considerable concern among the Australian House of Bishops, as well as internationally.
The Archbishop of Canterbury expressed his disapproval in strong terms. This move was of such concern that it prompted a challenge to the Appellate Tribunal, which declared diaconal and lay presidency under the terms of the 2008 motion to be unconstitutional.
The subsequent 2010 decision by Sydney Synod to defy the Tribunal on the matter is unprecedented, indeed provocative, and has created consternation around the national church.
No one from Sydney Diocese has denied that the intention is to continue allowing deacons to preside at Holy Communion despite the Tribunal decision. On the contrary, the heading on the report of the debate at Sydney Synod in the diocesan newspaper was “Deacons can keep celebrating.” Anecdotal evidence suggests deacons are continuing to preside at some Sydney Holy Communion services.
As news of this decision by Sydney Synod filters through the national church, there is both shock and disbelief. Senior bishops and lay leaders around the country are deeply disturbed and troubled. Some fear it may cause problems for the Anglican Church of Australia within the Anglican Communion.
Of greater concern is the notion that a diocese would publicly declare that the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal is merely “advisory” and able to be ignored. This undermines the church constitution and such goodwill as continues to exist between the dioceses.
The Tribunal is the body that interprets the constitution; it is the final arbiter. If it is to be ignored, then the constitution itself is being ignored. It is a throwing down of the gauntlet that cannot be ignored.
The Australian church is facing a real crisis that may yet prove to be the “bridge too far.” How the national church will be able to handle this situation and prevent possible repercussions both nationally and internationally is as yet unclear.
For all these reasons, Sydney Diocese can be seen to pose a threat to the stability of the Anglican Communion, to the cohesion of the Australian Anglican Church, and also to other Anglican churches such as those in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in Canada, and New Zealand.
It is also potentially a danger to those third world Anglican churches that are part of the GAFCON organization, because it claims its involvement is in response to Gospel truth. Sydney and its friends are the true believers.
Churches not aligned with it, taking a different view principally on the issue of homosexuality but also on women in ordained ministry, are portrayed as deniers of the Gospel. These claims, from determined, persuasive, well-resourced church leaders bearing gifts of support for, and assistance to, emerging churches, are hard to resist.
Overall, Sydney’s influence is of real concern for the future of world Anglicanism.
Dr Muriel Porter, a journalist and author, is an Anglican laywoman, and among other things a representative of the Melbourne Anglican Diocese on the national General Synod. She is formerly a member of the General Synod Doctrine Commission. This article is an edited extract from her latest book, Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism: The Sydney Experiment (Ashgate, 2011).
There can be little doubt that the Sydney Diocese, in the Autralian Anglican Province, is the ‘odd man out’ in the Australian Anglican Church. Its Archbishop, Peter Jensen, one-time Secretary of GAFCON, is now Secretary of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA), under whose banner Gafcon was assembled in London, England, recently.
This confluence of conservative evangelical Anglicans from, mainly, the Global South Provinces of the Communion, have elected to move out from the ethos of trraditional Anglicanism, in order to promote the confessional ethos of the GAFCON Provinces – in their ‘Jerusalem Statement’ of polity and ‘sola-scriptura’ provenance.
The one overt follower of the Gafcon sodality – present sat the London Meeting – is the New Zealand Bishop of Nelson, whose diocese has a long-standing relationship to the Sydney Diocese, and to Moore College, the conservative (and wealthy) theological institution serving the Sydney Diocese.
It will be very interesting to see to what extent the New Zealand Church (ACANZP) is led by the Bishop of Nelson into any formal arrangement with the GAFCON/FCA movement. I think, personally, that this is very unlikely to become any sort of filial relationship.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand