Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism: The Sydney Experiment, by Muriel Porter (Ashgate Publishing, 2011 $39.60) reviewed by Alan Nichols

There may be some who gloat and rejoice at the misfortunes of the Diocese of Sydney – a $160 million loss in the global financial crisis, and the failure of its ambitious plan to evangelise the five million people of Sydney and achieve a 10% growth rate.

But it makes me weep. I weep for what might have been, for the narrowing of the commitment to Scripture and the Reformed tradition since the years of Archbishop Marcus Loane in the 80s. I weep for the time we spend on internal disputes and the waste of resources it represents.

How Sydney squandered its wealth and how it embraced a form of Puritanism, and how it has tried to re-define Anglicanism all over the world are told in graphic and terrible detail in Dr Muriel Porter’s new book Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism.

It’s a reworking of her 2006 book The New Puritans (MUP), taking us right up to the 2010 Sydney Synod, with further losses and admissions. The scenario Dr Porter predicted in 2006 has evolved into an entirely different experience of failure and disappointment.

Dr Porter is one of the few observers/participants in the national church who could do this job. True, she has had campaigns to wage (on women priests and bishops, for example), so she is not disinterested. But she is objective, calm and measured in her analysis. Already defensive noises are being made from Sydney that she “takes no prisoners” and engages in vilification, but I don’t agree.

She tackles right from the start the notion of ‘propositional revelation’ taught by Dr Broughton Knox at Moore College for 40 years. This is essentially the concept that the Bible’s revelation of God is primarily and fundamentally verbal communication; revealing God’s character by His actions in the world is secondary. Dr Porter describes the ecclesiology of the primary importance of the local congregation as the real Church of God, as against any significance of a national church.

Her analysis is supported by US theologian Carl R. Trueman who wrote: “The impact of the biblical theological approach of Moore College, excellent as it is in many ways as a tool, is yet problematic in the way it seems to have gained a virtual pedagogical monopoly in many Anglican circles and this helped to marginalise historical systematic, credal and ecclesiological categories within Anglican evangelicalism.”

She describes how an Evangelical diocese which permitted diversity right up to and including Archbishop Loane’s time in the 1980s narrowed the range down towards a form of Puritanism. The theology you believed became paramount; living out of the faith less so; external concerns about poverty or social justice peripheral.
Dr Porter argues that this extraordinary tightening up of what was considered orthodox and biblical led Sydney under the charismatic leadership of Archbishop Peter Jensen to fight in General Synod against women bishops and to engage in a vigorous campaign against homosexuality. Both were on ‘biblical grounds’ – the male headship principle with the subservience of women; and the unnaturalness of gay sex.

Extraordinarily, lay presidency at Holy Communion became a bargaining tool – unless you ban women’s leadership and gay sex, we will delegate Eucharistic ministry to lay men - all part of the overwhelming priority for ‘preaching the Word’ as the minister’s task.

An Australian argument became international. At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, Sydney supported Global South bishops to make the two issues of women’s leadership and gay sex primary tests of orthodoxy. Dr Porter in this book very usefully spells out the steps Sydney took: polygamy was permitted at Lambeth in exchange for opposing homosexuality; the nomination of a gay man, Jeffrey John, to be a bishop was opposed publicly; Reform, a new UK conservative group was formed and supported; the Windsor Covenant was developed to try and hold the Anglican Communion together when splits were emerging in Canada and the US; and then the GAFCON conference in Jerusalem just before the 2008 Lambeth Conference brought it all to a head.

Again, Dr Porter’s analysis has support. Rupert Shortt in a new book on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams blames Sydney and its archbishop for giving financial and theological endorsement to the divisions created by the GAFCON movement.

Does this all mean that Sydney wants the breakup of the Communion, or the breakup of the Australian national church? Dr Porter, quoting a Guardian journalist, is clear: “Their desire is to take over the Anglican Communion, and you don’t achieve that by walking away.” Porter adds her own commentary: “Sydney Diocese, for all its threats over decades, will never break away from the rest of the Anglican Church of Australia. Their agenda is ultimately to take it over by recasting it in their mould, and to do that, they have no choice but to stay inside the tent.” (p. 63)

Why do I weep? Is it not enough that fellowship is broken across the Australian Church – politics and law invoked to prevent or delay women priesting; independent Evangelical churches planted by Sydney in other dioceses; failure of Sydney to contribute to the financial costs to the national church of belonging to ecumenical and international networks?

What is at stake is much, much more. It has been my privilege since the 1980s to visit many parts of the
Anglican Communion, sometimes visiting aid projects; sometimes as a consultant on family ministry or social justice to the Anglican Consultative Council. I have seen our Anglican sisters and brothers at work and at worship in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda, Pakistan, Burma, Hong Kong, Thailand and England. It is a wonderfully rich, diverse, devout collection of 70 million believers. Of course it has its occasional moments of concealment, fraud and bad mistakes, but have we not all?

This whole fellowship is at risk.

In the end, this book could be read as a study in diversity within our Church of how we read and understand the Bible in its cultural context; how we develop and promote our conscience on matters of faith and life; how we respect other people’s conscientiously held views; how our disputes can affect how we uphold the Gospel in sometimes hostile environments; and how we maximize the possibility of working together with other Christians. But then, I’ve worked with Jesuits in refugee work in Asia – I know diversity is a virtue.

Canon Alan Nichols, AM, is coordinator of Multicultural Ministry in the Diocese of Melbourne until the end of the year. He is Canon of St John’s Cathedral, Gahini in Rwanda.

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