A number of people have asked me to lay out my thoughts on what is going to happen in 2020 in the Anglican Church of Australia. Others just want to know where we’re up to and what lies ahead. So here’s my update on the lay of the land and the contours I can see ahead.
What’s the current situation?
We’re in the middle of what I think is best described as a tentative ceasefire. Of course, with any ceasefire there’s opportunities for both sides to position themselves for the conflict that is yet to come. If you think all this language sounds combative then you’d be absolutely right. Both sides recognise that this is exactly what it is – a battle for the soul of the Anglican Church of Australia. There are clearly defined positions; one that seeks to uphold the orthodox view on human sexuality (but sees that as part of a wider issue – the authority of Jesus in the church through the Scriptures) and the other side that sees a liberalising of sexual ethics as a gospel imperative.
For both sides, therefore, this is a matter of fidelity to what they think is most important.
Every conflict, of course, has particular battles. Here’s what happened in 2019 (and in the run-up). The background is pretty clear – repeated General Synods (national parliaments) of the national church have upheld the orthodox position on human sexuality. The last General Synod even censured the Scottish Episcopal Church for legislating for same-sex marriage. In addition, the bishops of the church agreed together not to pursue changes to the doctrine of marriage without going through the appropriate constitutional processes. For the Anglican Church of Australia that process was abundantly clear – it would have to come from General Synod.
Despite this apparent clarity, a number of bishops have continue to actively pursue revisionism. Some did so quite openly, like Bishop John Parkes of Wangaratta who was quite transparent in his desire to have some form of liturgical blessing of same-sex marriage and, indeed, promoted such a motion at his diocese’s synod. Others attempted to persuade us that they were simply allowing their diocese to work out which way to go. Bishop Peter Stuart of Newcastle, who told the 2017 General Synod that we do not have a settled doctrine of marriage, would be the prime example of this course of action, speaking about a “Newcastle Way” to decide the matter, promising a “Faith and Order Commission” to examine the question and yet allowing (and effectively supporting) a “Wangaratta Bill” to be presented at Newcastle’s 2019 Synod. He has appointing a new chair of the Faith and Order Commission; Canon Andrew Eaton who is a known supporter of same-sex marriage.
The decision to support such bills was in clear contradiction to the intent and spirit of the Bishops’ Agreement.
Both Wangaratta and then Newcastle passed their bills but with differing outcomes. There was an expected protest against the Wangaratta bill which was referred to the Appellate Tribunal – a body which offers opinions on constitutional matters in the Anglican Church of Australia. The diocese was persuaded to hold back from using the liturgy until the Tribunal offers a ruling.
The Newcastle bill has followed a different pathway. It, too, was referred to the Appellate Tribunal but also required (under NSW law) ratification by the Diocesan bishop within 30 days. Those 30 days have long passed and the bill has now lapsed, despite attempts to write a clause into the bill that would override the legal requirement. The Newcastle bill appears to have died a quiet death and the Wangaratta bill is the focus of attention of the Appellate Tribunal.
There is little indication that the Tribunal will properly meet, let alone offer their opinion, before a number of other events are completed, the election of a Primate and the next session of General Synod.
A New Primate
More imminently on the agenda is the election of a new Primate (head bishop and chair of General Synod). I wrote previously back in November when the news was announced that the most likely candidate to be elected will be Geoff Smith of Adelaide.
Since then I’ve consistently heard about two other candidates who are understood to want their name to go forward and have been effectively working towards that end, even being spoken of as “running a campaign”. The first, Kay Goldsworthy, has already been discussed in my piece above. The second is Peter Stuart of Newcastle who was described by one source as “trying to position himself above theological camps”. I don’t think either candidacy will have even a remote chance at success and Geoff Smith remains the favourite.
The New Primate will inherit a fracturing church and his or her first major test will be chairing the upcoming General Synod.
General Synod: 31 May – 5 June
All of these matters are going to come to a head at the upcoming General Synod. We reported previously of the failed attempt to avoid full debate and voting on these contentious matters. There will now be a full session, including a “conference” and we should expect to see a climax of the conflict.
There is now no doubt that conservatives will present a number of very robust motions and they will do so with increasing confidence. The censure of the Scottish Episcopal Church at the 2017 session has shown that the weight of the General Synod is for the orthodox position.
Expect to see a motion, or several motions, that not only clearly reassert the long-held position of the church but also speak against revision of that position or ordination and consecration of candidates who’s life is not in keeping with clear Biblical standards. There may even be some strengthening of disciplinary canons. Whatever the specifics, I’m predicting a victory for conservatives in June. We will end up with a very clear position set out and upheld by the most important body in the national church.
Such a decision should also render the related work of the Appellate Tribunal somewhat redundant. If the General Synod has spoken clearly (and not for the first time) then what more is there to say?
After General Synod
All the above seems pretty straight forward and I can’t see anything happening to change the outcomes I’ve described. But what then? Well, on the basis of how things have played out in almost every other western province of the Anglican Church I think we’re going to see the following:
- A number of revisionists (possibly even a Metropolitan Archbishop) will ignore the clear (restated) mind of General Synod and push on with a renewed energy to legislate for same-sex weddings and related changes in disciplinary structures.
- Conservatives will begin disciplinary procedures against any clergy who participate in or preside over the new liturgies and against bishops who approve of them in their own dioceses.
- Conservatives will also refuse to meet with those who continue to openly reject Biblical standards as reiterated by the General Synod.
- The new Primate will be faced with a difficult decision – will they uphold the clearly-stated position of the General Synod and refuse to invite to meetings those who reject it, or will they still act as though we’re all united?
In one sense the answer to 4. will be partly academic. Either way I don’t expect conservatives to continue to pursue fellowship with those who have shown no desire to maintain catholicity, undermine the doctrine and discipline of the church and won’t uphold their ordination vows.
So what will the Anglican Church of Australia look like in 2021? My best guess is that we will have a sadly fractured church. Whether we are meeting nationally as the entire church depends on whether the new Primate will be robust in upholding the position of General Synod. If we don’t meet in this way then expect the bonds of fellowship within the GAFCON movement to be only strengthened and expressed more formally.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see planting of congregations by conservatives in those dioceses where the bishop or synod have rejected Biblical authority and the doctrine and discipline of the national church. We will also see oversight being offered by GAFCON bishops to those clergy and parishes who cannot, in good conscience, remain in communion with such dioceses and bishops.
The story of the Anglican Church of Australia is going to be decidedly different to that of other western provinces in the Anglican Communion. Our history and our constitution have left conservatives in a much stronger position than in England, Wales, New Zealand, the USA or Canada. We have no plans to leave the Anglican Church of Australia, but my best guess is that we’re rapidly reaching the moment when we’re not going to be able to recognise others as being part of that national grouping.
What do you think?