Isaiah 63.7:  I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us.

On 1st January 1962 the Church of England in Australia, as it was then known, was constituted as a separate entity. The day was observed with scarcely a splash: it was the height of the summer holidays, and Australians were preoccupied with the sun and the surf and the cricket.

Yet it was a significant occasion for the Church, and it had been a long time coming. Fifty years earlier, in 1911, eminent English and Australian counsel had sent shock waves through the Australian Church. Legally, they said, you are not a national Church but simply a number of separate dioceses of the Church of England.  You have no authority to make important decisions, and you are bound by the decisions of the English church, though you have no power to influence those decisions. It was an intolerable situation.

Yet it took half a century to attain autonomy. Doubts, suspicions and fears held the Australian dioceses back.  Time after time, efforts to agree on a constitution failed, and by 1950 they were ready to give up in despair. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, visited Australia. He pleaded with the Church to persevere and on his way back to England he worked on a draft of a constitution. The movement was revived, a Constitution was finalised and passed into law, and the new church was born.

The vision of the new church was summed up in the presidential address of the Primate, Hugh Gough, Archbishop of Sydney, at the first General Synod:

We believe that Anglicanism is the purest form of the Christian religion.  It is Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Reformed in a sense in which no other Church is.  We glory in this fact; we cherish it as our precious possession. Like the doctrines of Christianity itself our Church is full of paradoxes; it combines comprehensiveness with exclusiveness, freedom with discipline, the priesthood of the laity with the priesthood which is conveyed by the laying on of hands in ordination, the democracy of the congregation with the authority of the episcopate.

So our Church began its life with high hopes. The post-war boom in religion was at its height.  Church attendance was flourishing, Sunday schools were overflowing, youth groups were prospering, and building programs financed by successful stewardship campaigns were transforming parishes.

How well have the early hopes been realised? One resolution of the first General Synod was a good omen. A commission was established to explore the possibilities of the revision of the Book of Common Prayer – a matter of extreme sensitivity because of party suspicions. It was significant that the resolution was moved by Bishop Theodore McCall, an anglo-catholic, and seconded by Bishop Marcus Loane, an evangelical.  It was to bear fruit some 15 years later, in the first Australian Prayer Book.

Gradually other fruits began to mature. For the first time serious theological dialogue began among the various schools of thought in the Church, encouraged by the establishment of the Doctrine Commission.  This eventually led to the momentous event of the ordination of women, first as deacons, then priests and finally as bishops.

Australian church leaders began to make a considerable contribution to the wider Anglican Communion through the Lambeth Conference, the international Doctrine Commission, and the various theological dialogues with other churches such as the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox. We were standing on our own feet as Australian Anglicans. And we were making tentative steps to being no longer simply the church (of) the ethnic English but a church of multicultural Australia with our indigenous Aboriginal and Islander bishops and our slowly growing congregations of many languages and ethnicities.

For all this we praise God, and in the words of Isaiah we may say:
            I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
            the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
            because of all that the Lord has done for us.

But, to be honest, there is another side of the picture. The prophet, even as he rejoiced at the way God had blessed the people of Israel, recognised another truth: they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit. And St Paul, in tonight’s second reading reminded us: we have this treasure in clay jars. The boundless riches of the gospel of Jesus Christ comes in clay jars – fallible, breakable, sinful – of a church of all too human members.

So there have been failures in these 50 years.  Suspicions which dogged the attempts to form a constitution have continued. We have not been ready to learn from one another as to the successes and failures in our mission. Our sense of unity has been weak in the face of party spirit and diocesanism. We have had to admit to our share of failure in dealing with the stolen generation, the taking of infants from parents, and sexual abuse. Partly for these reasons, and partly because of a host of other influences at work in our world, the cutting edge of our church in the nation has been blunted.

We must confess our sin and our failure in these respects.  They call us to honest self-examination and repentance. But St Paul reminds us of his experience and that of the early church which yet gives ground for hope. Listen:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh... because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.

Paul’s experience has been repeated in the history of the Church over and over again. God calls us, God gives us grace, we clay jars are brittle and fail, the world smashes us, we experience something like death. But God does not fail us.  The death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection.

I remember watching Desmond Tutu in a television interview at the height of the apartheid struggle. “Don’t you feel like giving up?”, he was asked. He paused for a moment, and then with that characteristic chuckle of his, he smiled and said, “We are people of the Resurrection”. People of the Resurrection – a lovely description of the Church. May it characterise and sustain us in the years ahead.

Bishop Rayner was Archbishop of Melbourne and Primate of Australia from 1990-99, having previously served as Bishop of Wangaratta and Archbishop of Adelaide. This sermon was delivered at St  Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide, on 16 November 2012.

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