Sydney Influence in Australian General Synod

Conservative Anglicans have women priests in their sights

Date
July 16, 2014 – Muriel Porter

The decision, by massive majorities in its General Synod, needs the approval of the British Parliament before it returns to General Synod in November for final endorsement. Observers do not foresee any problems, so it is now highly likely that one or more women will be consecrated bishops in England early next year. There are more than 1700 English women priests to choose from.

About time. The mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion has been very slow off the mark in this regard. It is 25 years since the first woman bishop was appointed in the United States, and another 39 have followed, from New Zealand to Canada to Cuba and Swaziland.

And Australia, where there are now five women bishops. Dr Sarah Macneil, the first woman to be in charge of a diocese in this country, took up her role in Grafton NSW earlier this year.

Australian Anglicans need not be complacent, however. The stark reality is that if votes even for women priests were now required in the Anglican Church here, let alone for women bishops, it is highly likely they would not succeed.

That was the take home message from our own General Synod held earlier this month in Adelaide. Mercifully, votes for women were not on the agenda at that meeting.

Over the 22 years since women priests were approved in Australia, the dominance of the conservative Diocese of Sydney has grown exponentially. And it has become even more conservative.

Ironically, when the women priests’ legislation passed the Australian General Synod in 1992, it was widely expected that although Sydney Diocese had opposed the change vociferously, effectively delaying the move for many years, it would change its mind within a decade or so.

Not so. Its opposition has become so entrenched that it is now virtually an article of faith for its leaders.

Their opposition is based on a claim that the Bible requires women to submit to their husbands in marriage and to male leaders in the church. Therefore, they cannot be leaders in mixed congregations of men and women.

Needless to say, this interpretation of the Bible is strongly rejected by those who believe to the contrary – that the full equality of women is actually mandated by Scripture.

Over the last two decades, Sydney Diocese – particularly under its former archbishop, Peter Jensen, who retired last year – has extended its reach into other parts of Australia.

This became obvious in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago. Although it was on the surface a civilised, good-humoured meeting, the changing dynamics of the national church were clear when votes were tallied for the General Synod’s standing committee.

In marked contrast to recent years, not a single woman priest was elected to that body. Eight of the nine male clergy elected were either from Sydney or have had Sydney connections. All of them could be described as theologically conservative.

Capable women clergy candidates from Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane lost out.

When the results were read out, there was consternation among liberals on the synod floor. How had this happened, particularly when lay synod voters had returned a reasonable complement of liberal laywomen from around the country to the same body?

The jury is still out, but the most likely scenario is that around Australia now, the number of conservative clergy either directly from Sydney Diocese or with Sydney sympathies has grown apace in a number of dioceses. Sydney has been very effective at spreading its tentacles.

In turn, these missionaries have been elected as General Synod representatives in place of the more liberal and often Anglo-Catholic clergy who were once there.

Add to them the fact that Sydney Diocese now has more than double the number of General Synod representatives of the next largest diocese, Melbourne – 66 to 32 – and the writing is on the wall.

One bishop commented privately that, within a decade, theologically liberal Anglicans will be, as he put it, “gone” from the national leadership.

But it is now clear that legislation for women priests would not have been passed even in Adelaide this month. It is as well it was passed back in 1992, when it was difficult enough. It barely reached the requisite two-thirds majorities then in the face of the conservative opposition.

So could we see the unthinkable happen in this country, the legislation for women priests repealed? It happened in the Presbyterian Church. Could it happen here, even though there are now close to 500 women priests in Australia? It is believed some conservatives have a repeal in their sights.

The only comfort is that, even if General Synod repealed it, repeal would also be necessary in any of the 19 dioceses with women priests if they wanted to stop ordaining them. Surely the laity, who have received women clergy so well, would not allow this to happen.

Is it likely that any diocese would go down this path? Please God, no, but in the current climate, the possibility cannot be dismissed.

Dr Muriel Porter is a Melbourne General Synod representative and a member of its Standing Committee.

___________________________________________________________________________

This article, by Muriel Porter in the Brisbane Times newspaper, warns Australian Anglicans that the emerging influence of Sydney conservative evangelicalism is now being felt in the composition of the membership of the Australian Provincial General Synod, as quoted here:

“Over the last two decades, Sydney Diocese – particularly under its former archbishop, Peter Jensen, who retired last year – has extended its reach into other parts of Australia.

This became obvious in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago. Although it was on the surface a civilised, good-humoured meeting, the changing dynamics of the national church were clear when votes were tallied for the General Synod’s standing committee.

In marked contrast to recent years, not a single woman priest was elected to that body. Eight of the nine male clergy elected were either from Sydney or have had Sydney connections. All of them could be described as theologically conservative.

Capable women clergy candidates from Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane lost out.”

The influence of the Sydney metropolitan Anglican community – which is largely fundamentalist in its stance on issues of gender and sexuality – is obviously being experienced in the important area of Australia-wide representation at the governance level in the Provincial Anglican Church.

Ms. Porter’s comment on the latest coup for those in the Church who would extend patriarchal domination in the ministry of the Church, shows the trend that has affected the latest General Synod elections from the floor of the Synod:

“The jury is still out, but the most likely scenario is that around Australia now, the number of conservative clergy either directly from Sydney Diocese or with Sydney sympathies has grown apace in a number of dioceses. Sydney has been very effective at spreading its tentacles.

In turn, these missionaries have been elected as General Synod representatives in place of the more liberal and often Anglo-Catholic clergy who were once there. Add to them the fact that Sydney Diocese now has more than double the number of General Synod representatives of the next largest diocese, Melbourne – 66 to 32 – and the writing is on the wall.”

Reflecting on the last sentence of this section of the report; one may wonder why the Sydney Diocese has twice as many representatives on General Synod than Melbourne – the next largest diocese in the Australian Anglican Church.?

Does this progression really mean that, within the next decade, the whole of the Australian Anglican Church will be misogynistic and homophobic in character? Such a state of things would certainly line up our next door neighbours with the provenance of the GAFCON Churches that seek to become separate from the world-wide Anglican Communion with a ‘sola-scriptura’ agenda that is not particularly Anglican..

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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10 Responses to Sydney Influence in Australian General Synod

  1. Peter Carrell says:

    Er, Ron, I think closer investigation will yield the unremarkable result that Sydney’s reps are proportionally representative to its size relative to the other dioceses. That we in NZ have disporportionate representation to our GS doesn’t mean that other churches should be “like us’!

    • kiwianglo says:

      Peter, I frankly do not have too much faith in the size of a diocese being the sole arbiter for its representation in General Synod. My worry about Sydney is that its influence is felt outside of its own constituency – to the effect that conservative evangelicalism appears to be gaining hold in places where the previous theological balance has been more equably distributed. Sydney does have a rather Big Brother style of evangelisation that is not typically Anglican. This may be the reason why it has so many members of the GAFCON Group – which is not ‘typically Anglican’ – or at least, not yet.

      • Peter Carrell says:

        There are no rules, Ron, about Anglican balance and distribution across that balance. Anglicanism is what it is and it is up to different forms of Anglicanism to proclaim what they believe and practice and to win adherents. If (say) liberal catholicism is losing ground in Oz then it is not a responsibility of Sydney to prop it up or to stop their proclamation.

        The answer to Sydney’s growth is for other forms of Anglicanism to grow … but perhaps they have lost their zeal and even their relevance?

        I find it alarming that you do not seem to care that the size of a diocese might matter when it comes to who has a say in the affairs of the church. Is democracy not okay?

    • kiwianglo says:

      I do, Peter, believe in democratic representation. However, I also think that the aggressive sort of evangelism that Sydney is well known for – even outside of its own terrain, in other dioceses and provinces – could be akin to the aggressive evangelism of certain other religious fundamentalist entities that are spreading alarm in M.E. countries at this very moment. As I have said many times, I believe that religious fundamentalism – of any type – can be a dis-service to those in the world who seek to live peacably with their neighbours in a society that promotes justice for all, not just the ‘elect’..

  2. Brian Ralph says:

    While I cannot find a definitive link, I have been told that the number of reps on General Synod is proportional to the number of ordained clergy i n the diocese. The Sydney diocese has been busy ordaining a large number of deacons with no intention that they they should ever proceed to being ordained priests (of course if they are women they will certainly not). Many would say that this is just another of the political machinations of Sydney to gain control.

  3. John Sandeman says:

    Sydney Anglicans have 68,000 people in church each Sunday, Melbourne 22,000, Arguable Sydney is under represented!

  4. Michael Primrose says:

    Hi Fr. Ron,

    Without hopefully being too crassly secular, one could almost suggest that the Sydney Diocese was indulging in a rather “gentile” spot of “Branch Stacking”

    Michael Primrose, Christchurch

  5. Michael Primrose says:

    Hi Fr. Ron,

    Whilst I’m sure the following article has come to your attention previously, I thought it was an interesting read. It is enthralling what you find when you do a Web search around how many Sydney Anglicans are there and why?

    http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2011/08/why-arent-we-growing/

    There were some interesting comments in the article about how the Sydney Anglicans are being really good at church planting, which probably pertains to the thrust of the main article here. The article reckons that Sydney Anglicans only comprise 1.3% of the population, which does raise the question about the disproportionally loud public voice of some of their senior clerics. However, there does not seem to have been a corresponding growth in congregations compared to the growth in the Church

    “There are also financial implications. The real cost of running our churches is growing faster than 1.4% (compound annual growth of the congregations between 2001-2006). This is partly because Sydney Anglicans have succeeded in doing what very few other Anglican Dioceses in the western world have done in the last 30 years: increase the number of full-time gospel workers being recruited and trained (ordained ministers, youth ministers, children’s workers etc.). We are employing more workers, and this has (obviously) significantly increased the cost base of our congregations. However, at least to this point, there has not been a matching growth in people attending church. Unless there is significant growth in attendance (and thus giving), and relatively soon, this equation will become increasingly vexed.”

    I think that this translates as we have employed far more sales staff in recent years than we realistically require for our customer base. There does seem to be some rather brave whistling in the wind

    “In comparison with other things, confidence in the church, and attendance at church, remain higher than we might think. 39% of Australians have a high level of confidence in churches (ranked fourth after the police, health system and education system). 71% report having attended a special church service in the last year, and 40% a regular church service.”

    since the level of public confidence has taken a severe battering after revelations in the Royal Commissions and the meaning of the attendance percentages are debatable. Then there is

    “In other words, although the outspoken atheists and cultured despisers of Christianity may seem very prominent to us, this may well be because they are over-represented among the media gatekeepers and opinionisers. The population as a whole is not nearly as hostile to Christianity or to churchgoing as we think.”

    Personally, I would think, that for sparkling, secular, sun loving Sydney, the Sydney Anglicans, and their public face, don’t really provide “something substantial, compelling, and worth getting out of bed on Sunday mornings for” and, along with the happily, recently departed, for greener pastures, Cardinal Pell, are safely pigeon-holed, by the populace, as “god bothers” and, even worse “wowsers”.

    And, let us be honest, there are few greater Australian social sins

    Michael Primrose, Christchurch

  6. JOHN SANDEMAN says:

    Michael you will find a link to heaps more stats here which will give you a fuller picture of what is happening in the Australian Anglican Church. It is complicated, and not pretty numbers wise.
    http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/two-australian-denominations-face-big-challenges

  7. Michael Primrose says:

    Hi John,

    Thank you for the reference to the interesting data from the Australian Sixteenth General Synod 2014. The relevant paper for this discussion is

    Book 8 – Report of the Viability & Structures Task Force & Other Materials for Small Groups Discussion Program

    http://www.anglican.org.au/general-synods/2014/Documents/books/Book%208_for%20website.pdf

    Looking at the data for the Sydney Diocese, you see that during the period 1991-2011, the number of people identifying themselves as Anglican dropped from 886,349 (24.3% of the population) to 703,525 (15.9% of the population) which is the equivalent of a 20% negative change i.e. dropped by a fifth. (Appendix 1: Number of people identifying as Anglican)

    However, during the same period 1991-2011, the number of active clergy in the Sydney Diocese increase from 459 to 655 clergy, which is an approximately 42% increase in the number of clergy over the period (Appendix 2: Australian Active Clergy – 1961 – 2011). Thus, in 1991, there were 1931 Anglicans for each active clergy and in 2011, there were 1074 Anglicans for each active clergy. Thus, in the Sydney Diocese in 2011, an active member of the clergy will only have to care for 55% of the number of Anglicans, that his predecessor had to care for in 1991.

    In 2013, the number of active clergy in the Sydney Diocese was 754 (Appendix 3: Number of Clergy Across the Anglican Church of Australia) of which there were 40 female deacons and 1 female priest. If you look at the figures for Full Equivalent Clergy in the Sydney Diocese (Appendix 4: Anglicans per Clergy) there are 552.9 FTE clergy. Once again using the 2011 Census figure for the number of Anglicans, this means that there were 933 Anglicans for each active member of the clergy in the Sydney Diocese, or 1272 Anglicans per Full Time Equivalent member of the clergy. Thus an active member of the clergy in 2013 is caring for 48% of the number of Anglicans that his predecessor cared for in 1991.

    One should note that these calculations are based on the Australian Census figures, where people are allowed to self identify with whatever faith, denomination or lack of faith they wish to. It is, therefore, an aspirational figure rather than an absolute count of the number of Anglicans and will include a proportion of “Anglicans of Convenience” if you will.

    If you look at Table 1 (Numbers of Anglicans and Clergy Across Australian Dioceses) you will note the weekly attendance figures for the Sydney Diocese. The calculated weekly attendance figure, taken from the ABS 2011 Australian Census of Population and Housing and Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, is 54,429, which equates to 72 Anglicans per active member of the clergy. The Diocesan estimate for weekly attendance is 68,149 Anglicans, which equates to 90 Anglicans per active member of the clergy. I note that Sydney is the only Diocese whose estimated weekly attendance rate is greater than the calculated figure. The two figures differ by 25%.

    If we allow for a population of 4,432,775 for Sydney, then each week 1.2% of the population (calculated), or 1.5% of the population (estimated) attend an Anglican church. The problem is, of course, what do the other 98% of the people in Sydney do?

    Looking at the figures over the last couple of decades, it would appear that there has been a significant increase in the number of clergy in the Diocese of Sydney, which coincides with both an absolute and a proportional decrease in the number of people actually identifying as Anglicans. On the positive side, one could say that those self identified Anglicans in Sydney are now much better served by the clergy, with one member of the clergy per thousand members of the laity (or one member of the clergy per 80+ weekly Anglicans), which would seem to be comparable with the Dioceses of Armidale and North West Australia.

    An analysis the figures supplied in the Paper 8 of the 2014 General Synod would seem to confirm my previous comments with respect to the unusual increase in the number of clergy in the Sydney Diocese. As you say, the numbers are not pretty.

    Michael Primrose, Christchurch

    Me Culpa: I did of course mean “genteel” rather than “gentile” in the previous post

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