This week the General Synod of the Australian Anglican Church has been debating what its stance is to be on human sexuality. A vote to affirm the church’s traditional position on marriage was strongly supported by clergy and laity but was narrowly rejected by the bishops. A split is looming, but in this, Australian Anglicans are not unique. In recent decades, Christian denominations all across the West have been dividing along progressive versus conservative lines. Anglican Churches in Scotland and New Zealand have been impacted by this trend. In North America, denominations affected by splits include the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the American Baptist Churches USA.
The trigger in all these cases has been whether the church will endorse same-sex unions. However, the fault lines run deeper than attitudes to human sexuality.
Why Is It So?
Despite appearances, this church division is not just about sex. In One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, American authors George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk recently argued that progressive and conservative Christians now differ so profoundly that they can no longer be considered members of the same religion. The fundamental issue is different systems of meaning. Progressives value a humanistic, post-Enlightenment ethic of social justice, downplay the idea of exclusive truth, and seek a flexible and inclusive theology. On the other hand, conservatives find their identity in obedience to a supernatural God revealed in the Bible, adhere to a historical theology which encompasses sexual ethics, and emphasise the supremacy of the Bible in forming doctrine.
The tension between these two outlooks was anticipated in Immanuel Kant’s famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in which he asserted that human beings are progressing. Kant rejected fixed creeds and dogmas when he wrote:
An epoch cannot conclude a pact that will commit succeeding ages, prevent them from increasing their significant insights, purging themselves of errors, and generally progressing in enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature whose proper destiny lies precisely in such progress.
On the issue of human sexuality, theological progressives stand with Kant, “progressing” and “purging themselves of errors”, while conservatives stand against Kant, holding on to their creeds and dogmas.
This theological division goes much deeper than two previous disputes that are sometimes mentioned in connection with the current divisions: the ordination of women and the question of divorce. It is not inevitable that those who support remarriage of divorcees or the ordination of women will line up in favour of a change in the church’s position on human sexuality. The culturally innovative Australian Pentecostals have long accepted women as pastors but they maintain a conservative Christian position on sexual ethics. Another example is the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the USA, in which theological conservatives are strongly committed to the ordained ministry of women, but are now proposing to separate from their progressive counterparts due to differences in their views on biblical authority and sexual ethics.
It needs to be noted that the terms “progressive” and “conservative” as used here refer exclusively to theology, and not culture. Theological conservatives can be culturally progressive – for example embracing new liturgies or new music – while theological progressives can be culturally conservative.
Assumptions And Facts About Denominational Decline
Much secular commentary has assumed that the conservative side of this divide is doomed to cultural irrelevancy and decline. In fact, the opposite is true, as theological progressivism is everywhere associated with denominational decline, while conservatives thrive. An example can be seen in North America, where the continuing Episcopal Church, which has embraced same-sex marriage, is in steep decline while the breakaway Anglican Church in North America, which maintains a conservative position, is growing rapidly.
In Australia, the contrast between theologically conservative and progressive Anglican dioceses is stark, as revealed in a 2014 General Synod report on denominational viability. At the time of the 2011 census, the conservative Dioceses of Sydney and Armidale had, respectively, 9.7% and 7.9% of census Anglicans in church on any Sunday, while progressive Brisbane and Perth managed to attract to church only 2.1% and 2.6% respectively of census Anglicans.
The current dominance of conservatives at the Australian Anglican General Synod reflects their greater success at retaining and growing their membership. For example, the Brisbane and Sydney Dioceses historically have had approximately the same number of nominal Anglicans as measured by census responses, but by 2011 conservative Sydney had more than five times the overall Anglican attendance of progressive Brisbane.
One of the most striking demonstrations of the dominance of theologically conservative Christianity has been the rise and rise of Pentecostalism. Although Anglicans are sometimes claimed to be the second largest Christian denomination in Australia, they have already been eclipsed in terms of numbers of weekly worshippers by the Pentecostals, who, enjoying a much younger demographic profile, will only continue to increase their share of Australian Christians in the years to come. The advance of the Pentecostals to this dominant position has been astounding: at the start of the twentieth century the Pentecostal movement did not even exist, and its growth has taken place during a period of widespread decline in Christian observance.
Claims And Facts About Representation
Although it has been claimed by progressives that conservative dioceses have stacked the Anglican General Synod by ordaining excessive numbers of clergy, the reality is just the opposite. Australian Anglican conservatives are under-represented, not over-represented, at the General Synod. For example, the progressive Perth and Brisbane Dioceses have two clergy for every hundred worshippers while the more conservative Sydney and Armidale Dioceses have just one cleric for every hundred worshippers. If the Anglican General Synod membership were based on numbers in the pews rather than numbers of clergy, Sydney Diocese could have as much as double the General Synod representatives it currently has.
Sexual Ethics And Denominational Decline
Research reports (1, 2, 3) published in 2014 by the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) found that younger Australian Christians are generally more conservative in all aspects of sexual ethics than older Australians. Baby boomers, who now dominate in declining churches, held the most progressive views on sexual ethics. For example, in 2014, 97% of young adult church goers aged 20–30 believed that adultery is always wrong, while only 84% of worshippers aged 60–69 believed adultery was always wrong.
The Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) is not only the most aged and fastest declining major Australian Christian denomination; it is also the most progressive in its sexual ethics. The NCLS research showed that on all issues to do with human sexuality, the aging UCA has the most progressive profile. In 2014, the UCA had the lowest proportions of members who said sex before marriage is always wrong (32%) and adultery is always wrong (80%). In contrast, one of the most sexually conservative groups was the Pentecostals, of whom 98% said adultery is always wrong and 85% said sex before marriage was always wrong. In 2014, only 5% of Pentecostals agreed with same-sex marriage, in contrast to 26% of Uniting Church attenders.
The 2014 NCLS research also showed that lower frequency in church attendance and personal devotional practices, such as personal Bible reading and prayer, was correlated with more permissive sexual ethics. In other words, the less someone practices their Christianity, the more permissive their sexual ethics.
This NCLS research shows a threefold correlation between an aging demographic, liberal sexual ethics and denominational attrition. The figures show that these correlations are not just about attitudes to homosexuality: they extend to all aspects of sexual ethics, including attitudes to sex before marriage and adultery. This is not about any one point of ethics, but about the way biblical faith is translated into Christians’ understanding of ethics. It is about a different system of meaning.
It must be acknowledged that these broad-brush trends cannot account for all individual differences. There are individuals with progressive sexual ethics who hold a more conservative view of biblical authority, and people who hold to more conservative sexual ethics but are more liberal in their theology. Nevertheless, it is the broad trends which will determine the overall trajectory of denominations, especially those, like the Anglican church, whose governance structures are democratic.
How Splits Work
The denominational splits taking place around the world proceed according to the realities of their own particular contexts. The pattern varies, depending on whether progressives or conservatives are dominant. Wherever progressives are dominant, conservatives tend to break away to form new denominations. This was the pattern of the Episcopalian–Anglican split in North America. In contrast, wherever conservatives are in the majority, progressives tend to follow a path not of separation, but of rogue non-compliance, by including and blessing same-sex couples in defiance of global or national protocols. An example was the North American Episcopalian break with global Anglican protocols on same-sex marriage, manifested in the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay, non-celibate man, as Bishop of New Hampshire.
Another example is the USA-based global denomination, the United Methodist Church, which has for decades debated requests to change their Book of Discipline, which labels homosexuality a sin. The conservatives in the UMC, although still numerically dominant, have become frustrated with their progressive co-religionists’ defiance of the denomination’s protocols. For example, in 2016 the openly gay Karen Oliveto was elected UMC Bishop of the Mountain Sky Area, and continues in office after the denomination’s highest court, the United Methodist Judicial Council, ruled that her election was in violation of church law. Now the still numerically dominant UMC conservatives are moving to split the denomination, to enable progressives and conservatives to go their separate ways. Chastened by the progressives’ non-compliance, UMC conservatives are hoping to enact stronger disciplinary safeguards in their new denomination, to head off the potential for progressive drift in future.
What Will Happen With Anglicanism In Australia?
The fundamental unit in the Australian Anglican polity is the diocese, so ultimately each diocese, together with its bishop, will have to choose its own path. Because of the ubiquitous pattern of progressive decline, it seems unlikely that progressives will ever gain numerical dominance in the General Synod, at least not in this generation. Up to this point, progressive-dominant dioceses have been exercising restraint, to varying degrees, but as they come to terms with the growing conservatism of the General Synod, their consciences will lead them to ignore or modify national Anglican protocols, first through passive resistance in church discipline, and then through open action.
Perth Diocese has already begun to take steps in this direction. In 2013, the Perth Synod voted to recognise same-sex relationships, and in 2019, it varied the national Anglican code of conduct for clergy, Faithfulness in Service, replacing the injunction that clergy should “not engage in sex outside of marriage” with a requirement that they “not engage in disgraceful conduct of a sexual nature”.
Dioceses like Melbourne, which contain significant numbers of both conservatives and progressives, have a difficult road ahead of them. People who have until now avoided this issue will experience inexorable pressure to take sides. Nevertheless, in such mixed dioceses, the longer this struggle continues, the stronger the conservative position will become, due to ongoing progressive decline: in Melbourne, the strength of the conservative position is apparent in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Sunday School and youth group programs are found in conservative parishes.
It seems inevitable that Australian progressive-dominant dioceses will eventually follow their consciences to fully affirm and welcome same-sex attracted couples, even if this is opposed by a conservative majority of the General Synod. As this happens, conservatives will move to provide separate episcopal oversight to dissenting conservative congregations in progressive dioceses. It seems certain that breakaway conservative Anglican congregations will be established inside progressive dioceses, under the oversight of a new Australian diocesan entity sponsored by GAFCON, a global Anglican conservative movement which has supported similar developments elsewhere. Conservatives will feel justified in taking this step, in part because progressives have done such a poor job in fulfilling the mission of the church, as measured by declining attendances. However, the primary justification will be to provide pastoral oversight for isolated conservative congregations.
At the same time, as progressive-dominant dioceses forge their more inclusive path, it seems unlikely that they will be ready to attempt a parallel church-planting movement into conservative-dominant dioceses, so progressives in conservative-dominant dioceses could be left high and dry.
However the details work out, the inevitable end result of these trends will be two major Anglican churches in Australia: a growing conservative church, and a shrinking progressive church.
It Has Happened Before
Nothing about this future should surprise us: it has all happened before. At the height of the Enlightenment, many English clergy and congregations moved away from credal faith, which Kant had rejected as unenlightened, to embrace Unitarianism. Most English Presbyterian churches went down this track. However, over time, the once thriving Unitarian movement in England shrank and shrank until today it is facing extinction. There was a time when Unitarians were convinced they were on the right side of history, but they were not. Contemporary demographic evidence suggests that the liberal–progressive trend in contemporary Western Christianity will eventually meet a similar fate. Kant’s demand for a progressive theology promised a bright future for humanity, but it proved to be little more than a camouflaged blueprint for Christian irrelevance.
What About The 2022 Anglican General Synod Vote?
What are the implications of the General Synod vote this week, in which clergy and laity affirmed a biblical statement of marriage, 70/39 and 63/47 respectively, but the bishops voted 12/10 against the statement?
First, this vote will make no difference to the eventual outcome, which will be division. The UMC spent two decades voting about same-sex marriage, but the issue did not go away. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, vote at General Synod on marriage.
Second, this vote will hasten the eventual split. Until now both sides have been exercising restraint, but progressive strength in the House of Bishops will embolden progressives to follow their consciences and include same-sex couples at every level of church life. This will trigger GAFCON’s intervention to offer oversight to conservative Anglican congregations inside progressive dioceses.
Third, the vote has made clear the dominance of the conservatives. For every two theological progressives at General Synod there are three theological conservatives. Given the prevailing patterns of conservative growth and progressive decline described above, conservative dominance can only increase in the years to come. It will be in the interests of conservatives not to abandon General Synod, but to use their strength in that forum to influence the inevitable process of division.
Fourth, contrary to reports in the secular media, the fact that around half the diocesan bishops voted against same-sex marriage shows that this issue is not a tussle between Sydney Diocese and the rest of the Australian Anglican church. In Anglican polity diocesan bishops have the power, through clergy appointments, to determine the theological trajectory of the diocese they lead. The House of Bishops’ vote can therefore be taken as an indication that the conservative-progressive divide will split Australia’s twenty three Anglican dioceses roughly in two.
It is said that wars start when one side in a conflict overestimates its own strength and underestimates the strength of its opponents. Russia’s war with Ukraine is a case in point. Anglican progressives have mistakenly equated the change in sexual ethics with past struggles over the ordination of women and divorce. In so doing, they have misread the theological landscape. Furthermore, in assuming that they are on the right side of history, they have ignored the overwhelming evidence that progressive churches are declining while theologically conservative churches – such as the Pentecostals – are advancing. Although this trend has long been obvious in their own denomination and in other denominations all around Australia, and indeed all across the West, they refuse to see it. Instead, they accuse conservatives of unethical power plays, but this only looks like denial, when the reality is that conservatives have been more effective in passing on the faith, and this fully accounts for the declining position of progressives. God has no grandchildren. The painful reality for progressives is that theologically conservative versions of Christianity in Australia have the youngest, most vibrant demographic profiles. Instead of pointing the finger at conservatives, which will not and cannot help bridge the divide, progressives could be confronting the question “Why is this so?”
A structural split in the Australian Anglican Church now seems inevitable. The ideological split is already entrenched, and will not go away. It arises from a deep clash between the values of the Enlightenment and a biblical worldview. The only question is how the schism will play out and how wastefully destructive it will be. The most sensible and forward-looking thing would be an orderly separation, with assets – both human and material – graciously and fairly divided. Yet Australian Anglicans are far from ready for this. Denial about the reality of the situation in which Australian Anglicans now find themselves seems so entrenched that the process of division will be drawn-out, acrimonious and bitter.
In any case, the eventual separation will happen, come what may.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.