Australia's 23 Anglican dioceses have been provided with a model to ensure the accountability of their bishops under a resolution of General Synod proposed by Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne.

Dr Freier joined Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney to sponsor a motion, one of five on the issue considered by the Synod meeting in Adelaide, to commend to dioceses a Model Episcopal Standards Ordinance. This would provide a measure of accountability for diocesan bishops to accompany procedures for clergy and lay church workers.

Archbishop Freier said existing episcopal standards were "patchy".

"It's clear that we need a common national standard so that bishops who are diocesan bishops, members of the House of Bishops, have a common standard that determines their fitness for office," he said. Assistant bishops sit in General Synod as members of the House of Clergy.

Dr Freier said the overriding purpose of the model ordinance was to facilitate the "just, quick and inexpensive resolution" of the complaint. Three dioceses in Victoria -- Melbourne, Ballarat and Wangaratta -- operated under similar provisions to the model legislation and that several complaints had been dealt with in a timely manner that offered the complainants and the bishops concerned a fair but robust process.

The Archbishop expressed confidence that the benefits of the proposal would outweigh the financial costs of the proceedings proposed.

Archbishop Davies, in seconding the proposal, said it was clear that the current Episcopal Standards Canon was not functioning well. He said dioceses around Australia may well suggest improvements to the model ordinance.

Confessions of sex abuse
General Synod has approved legislation designed to clarify the responsibilities of clergy where a person confesses a serious offence such as child sexual abuse.

After a long debate, Synod adopted legislation amending the 1989 Canon Concerning Confessions. The legislation provides that where a person confesses that he or she has committed a serious offence, such as child abuse or child exploitation, "an ordained minister is only obliged to keep confidential the serious offence so confessed where the ordained minister is reasonably satisfied that the person has reported the serious offence to police, and if the person is a church worker or a member of the clergy to the Director of Professional Standards".

"An ordained minister may reveal the conduct so confessed to a professional advisor for the purpose of obtaining advice as to whether that conduct constitutes a serious offence.

"It is a defence to a charge of breach of discipline or any offence against the ordained minister arising from his or her disclosure to any person of the conduct so confessed that does not constitute a serious offence that the ordained minister in good faith believed that the conduct did constitute a serious offence."

Sydney barrister Mr Garth Blake, who proposed the legislation, said it aimed to increase the safety of members of the Church and members of the public by ensuring that the rules of the Church did not act as a cloak for serious offenders.

Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne, who seconded the proposal, outlined the history of the seal of confession, including the harsh penalties for clergy who broke the seal and the understanding of the Reformers that the seal of confession was not absolute.

The Revd John Coleman, Administrator of Rockhampton diocese and a former Roman Catholic priest, said: "I believe that there is real merit in this proposal. I believe it gives me as a confessor an opportunity to do what I believe is the right thing. I believe it gives me the opportunity to protect children where I see the need."

Ms Leigh Haywood of Bathurst diocese, who works in criminal law with Legal Aid NSW, assured the Synod that deleting an explicit reference to domestic violence in the legislation would not weaken it as it would be covered by a reference to a "serious offence" being one punishable by imprisonment for life or for a term of five years or more.

Bishop John Parkes of Wangaratta withdrew his proposed amendment when the Primate, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, warned that it might require special legislation and suggested that it would be better incorporated in pastoral guidance issued by the Australian bishops.

An associated bill, affecting the Dioceses of Ballarat and Sydney, was defeated after an impassioned speech by Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, who declared that its adoption would be "like exhuming a corpse to add a Band-Aid to a cut".

Marriages of unbaptised in church
A bid to remove the requirement that at least one of the parties must be baptised if they wanted to be married in the Anglican Church failed to win Synod's support.

The proposal to amend the 1981 Solemnisation of Matrimony Canon narrowly failed to win the required two-thirds majority among members of the House of Clergy, where 72 members (63.2%) were in favour and 39 against of the 114 clergy present. The preceding vote in the House of Laity was 79-29, with two abstentions -- a 71.8% approval. No vote was taken in the House of Bishops once the measure failed to win the required support among clergy.

Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney said in proposing the amending bill that removing the requirement would advance the mission of the church.

Fewer marriages were being conducted by religious celebrants: 20 years ago, 61% of marriage ceremonies were conducted by religious celebrants and 39% by civil celebrants, but now, only 28% of marriages were conducted by religious celebrants and 72% by civil celebrants.

Dr Davies said the proposal provided an opportunity to offer the blessing of Christ on the marriage of people, whether they were baptised or not, and was an opportunity to engage in missional activity to those outside the Church.

The retiring Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, the Revd Professor Andrew McGowan, opposed the bill, saying there was a danger that if Synod authorised a situation where unbaptised persons were married under the Church's current liturgies, "we will be encouraging people, in effect, to lie for Jesus”.

Professor McGowan, in one of his last Synod contributions before becoming Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale in the US next month, said: "I think another thing that it says to us in broader terms is that baptism matters."

Bishop Garry Weatherill of Ballarat said the Church had to be very disciplined in its approach to marriage so as to impress on couples the covenantal partnership in which they were preparing to engage.

Archbishop Roger Herft of Perth also opposed the bill, saying diluting the requirement that at least one of the parties be baptised would not be helpful. Speaking about his experience of ministry in countries where Christianity is a minority religion, he said when people of the Buddhist, Hindu or Islamic faiths who wanted to get married in a church were asked about baptism and the Christian faith, "baptism then became a reality for them -- a costly reality in terms of the vows they were to make”.

Ecumenical relations
Bishop John Parkes of Wangaratta expressed gratitude and relief after the Synod revived relations with the Uniting Church by commending the report, Weaving a New Cloth: Anglican and Uniting Churches Working Together, to the dioceses for further action and encouraging local agreements between the two churches.

Bishop Parkes said Synod had taken "a very significant step forward" in relations between the two churches by adopting the motion he proposed without dissent. He said the report did not replicate the work of previous dialogues nor did it seek to bring about organic unity or the mutual recognition of ministries.

The Vicar of St George's Malvern, the Revd Dr Canon Colleen O'Reilly, said the report provided for "modest pastoral and local response" based on pastoral experience between the two churches.

Adelaide's Archbishop Jeffrey Driver, Convenor of Synod's Ecumenical Relations Commission, said the Uniting Church had high hopes that the 2010 General Synod in Melbourne would approve a covenant of association between the two churches. But the covenant failed to secure endorsement.

"Such was the disappointment in the Uniting Church that it was by no means certain that we would have a continuing relationship between our churches," Dr Driver said.

"For that reason, this report takes only baby steps... If I may use a cricketing analogy, sometimes you do have to get off the mark with a single (run)."

Social issues
Synod endorsed a number of motions on social questions, including supporting the principles of reforming the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; urging the Federal Government to ensure that foreign aid is directed to the alleviation of poverty; encouraging the Government to lead the G20 to recognise the major changes facing humankind in the 21st century, such decreasing food security; and calling for effective measures to reduce the impact of and incidence of problem gambling, especially through poker machines and online, as well as reducing the reliance of governments on revenue raised by taxation on gambling.

Honouring bishop, scholar
A former Deputy Premier of Victoria and representative from the Diocese of Gippsland, Mr Robert Fordham, proposed a motion formally adopted by Synod honouring the late Bishop John McIntyre of Gippsland, who died last month after a short illness. And the Synod also endorsed a motion proposed by the Revd Canon Sandy Grant of Sydney and Archdeacon Richard Condie of Melbourne honouring the late Principal of Ridley College in Parkville, the Revd Dr Leon Morris, on the centenary of his birth.

The Synod, meeting at St Peter's College near the centre of Adelaide, originally had been scheduled to meet until lunchtime on 4 July, but a revised program had it concluding on the night of 3 July.
 
* See August's TMA for extensive coverage of General Synod
 

 Related news