Richard Condie reports and reflects on the recent meeting of General Synod
In my experience, the General Synod (the national Anglican meeting that takes place once every three years) does not enjoy a great reputation. It is known for strong, sometimes acrimonious debates about matters that have the potential to divide us. It is known as a forum for the lawyers, debating the minutiae of Canon Law. It is known for our less than admirable tendencies to align on political and churchmanship lines that highlight rather than unite our differences. So how is it that I came away from the General Synod meeting in Adelaide last month, feeling positive about the experience?
It wasn't just that the meeting finished a day early, which allowed Synod reps to enjoy the delights of South Australia's capital. Nor was it the excellent hospitality of St Peter's College and warm pastry treats for morning and afternoon teas. Nor was it the South Australian wine that we enjoyed with dinner. I think it was the positive spirit of the meeting which developed as we worked really hard to communicate and engage with each other.
The Standing Committee, in an attempt to improve our process, had designed a small group program, where delegates were brought together in groups of 10 to study the bible and talk together about our denominational life. The spectrum of the Anglican Church was evident in every group. Bishops, clergy and lay people, evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, liberal and conservative, brought together to listen to one another, and really interact on the life of the church for 6 hours of conversation through the course of the week.
It took a little while to get going, but by and large authentic conversations took place. Real exchanges over issues that are important to us, and sometimes divide us. Genuine prayer and discussion about the message of the scriptures and the mission of church, and positive suggestions for forward movement. My group talked about the atonement, the resurrection, sexuality, as well as more mundane topics of church organization and life.
The beauty from my point of view, was the chance to move away from the adversarial parliamentary style process that dominates Synod meetings, where there are winners and losers, and to actually develop relationships. In my group at least, this did not mean that we pretended there were no differences, or that we avoided them, but were given the chance to acknowledge them, and still practice tolerance and respect. I did not expect this from a Synod.
General Synods spend a lot of time and energy on legislation to govern the national church, and this Synod was no exception. Discussions about our Canons concerning marriage, confession, various professional standards matters, episcopal standards and others took some of our time together. Motions on social issues like gambling, asylum seekers, climate change and the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were also presented. However the most important business of this year's meeting was the reception of the 100 page report on the Viability and Structures of the Anglican Church in Australia. This, along with the strength of the Primate's Presidential address on the first morning of business, provided a sober backdrop to the work we had come to do.
The national church is not in good shape.
The Primate spoke about our structures as a church. Seen as one national church by those on the outside, the reality is very different. The challenge to hold together 23 autonomous Dioceses, and to speak on their behalf, and to lead it, belongs to the office of the Primate. Yet he said, the“widespread expectations [which] are focused on [that] office, … are not matched by constitutional or canonical powers to deliver results.” So true! We want The Primate to speak on behalf of the church, and sometime to intervene in a Diocese over matters of business or sometimes a theological irregularity, but he has no power to do so.
… the nature of our very weak federation is largely not understood either within the church or outside it. While we refer to ourselves as 'The Anglican Church of Australia’and there is widespread perception in the community of the Anglican Church as a unified, coherent entity, the reality is quite different.
In addition to this he spoke of the financial health of Dioceses. The Diocesan Financial Advisory Group (DFAG) has been working with the Dioceses trying to get a picture of overall health. The diagnosis is not at all encouraging. The words “parlous”and “burning platform” were used. By November 2013, DFAG reported that 6 Dioceses were not financially sustainable (Bathurst, Grafton, North Queensland, Canberra-Goulburn, Wangaratta, and Northern Territory) and a further 3 were in a serious state. In some ways this should not surprise us. The writing has been on the wall for some time. As long ago as 1998 GS was warned that “unless we can find a way to address these issues it will be economics rather than theology that will determine our future”. The Primate observed that “approaching two decades later, we have not yet found a way to address these issues”.
These comments linked very closely with the Report on the Viability and Structures Task Force. This report, available on the General Synod website, ought to be essential reading for anyone concerned about the national church.
Viability and Structures Report
The GS Standing Committee established a task force in 2010 to investigate the viability of Dioceses. The report is not an easy read, not because of style, but because of its contents. According to Jim Collins (author of Good to Great) any organization that wants to grow to health needs to “confront the brutal facts”. The report contains many such brutal facts that ought to focus our minds and actions in the next years of the national church.
The report, authored by Bishop Andrew Curnow, states that “the time has come for a revolution if [the Anglican Church of Australia] is to be a strong and sustainable church for the future”. Most of this is driven by the changing shape and culture of Australia. Urbanisation on the coastal fringe means that 10 of the 23 Dioceses cover 80% of the population, and 13 dioceses the rest. On the one hand, sparsely populated rural Dioceses, with massive distances and meager resources, pose a particular challenge. On the other hand, large urban metropolises where resources are also thinly spread, are also under pressure. The Diocese of Northwest Australia is nearly the same area as Europe, while the Southern Region of the Diocese of Melbourne is the largest episcopal area in Australia in terms numbers of parishes. How can bishops provide effective oversight in such conditions?
The report offers some suggestions to deal with this, mostly of a structural nature. It highlights partnerships, the use of shared resources and suggestions about organizational efficiencies. While it does encourage prayer, reflection and recovery of leadership and vocation and the theology of being church in the world, my own view is that it does not go far enough in these areas. We do need to attend to our structures and the work is urgent, but the key to viability is recovering our biblical mission, and grappling with the changing mission field that is our nation. I wanted to read more about this in the report, and focus our time as a national church on these very questions.
In my view we ought to be entering into a period of prayer and fasting, of self-examination and repentance over our failures. We should be calling dioceses and parishes, Bishops and Clergy, lay leaders and ordinary Anglicans to recover their biblical mandate for mission and disciple making, and to recommit ourselves to evangelizing Australia. It is only by tenacity in making disciples by word and prayer that the church has ever grown.
The report was received and the new Standing Committee will have the carriage of it into the future. Expect it to come to your Diocese for discussion soon. My hope and prayer is that it won't be left gathering dust on someone's shelf, but will actuality be a catalyst for the change we so desperately need – a revolution no less!
Of course it is old news now that the Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Revd Dr Philip Freier was elected by the Primatial Election Board as the new Primate. His calm business-like approach will serve us well as we head into the future. Great tributes were paid to the outgoing Primate, the Most Revd Dr Philip Aspinall, who is, I have to say, one of the best Synod chairmen I have ever experienced – clear and good humored, but strongly focused on process and good outcomes. Whatever one says, it is an unenviable job thinking about the challenges that lie before us. We would do well to lift these men to God in prayer.
The outcome of the elections to the Standing Committee were surprising, especially among the clergy, where all clerical positions filled were from among evangelicals, and all men. Despite some comments that suggested the result was a missionary plot to overthrow womens ordination* (*http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/conservative-anglicans-have-women-priests-in-their-sights-20140715-zt7ue.html) it is more a function of the changing nature of the General Synod. Many evangelicals are represented in GS, especially with the strength of Sydney Diocese, and many make a great contribution to the life of the church. The lay side of the election was a bit more balanced, generally electing those lay people who are active on the Synod floor.
My last reflection is about theological difference. In our discussion groups, in the debates, in the voting and just hanging about in our interactions at morning and afternoon tea, is the backdrop of theological difference spanning the Anglican Church of Australia. It is both a structural and a theological issue. Structural because a Diocese can hold a particular theological flavor, liberal or evangelical, and continue to operate independently from the others. As the Primate noted in his presidential address, the GS adopted a prayer book some years ago, which may or may not be adopted by an individual Diocese; a person may be canonically ordained in one diocese, but not recognized in another and so on.
But more deeply it is a theological issue. The Primate called it a “spiritual issue” saying, we have “been plagued by lack of trust, suspicion and party spirit”. He said
Structural change will be possible and effective only when it is accompanied by deeper spiritual transformation – transformed hearts and minds – conversion. The trick will be to attend to the spirit as well as to structures. Reform in the law will not be achieved apart from transformation in relationships.
While there is some hope for finding the common thread of apostolic faith running through all traditions of the Anglican Church of Australia, there are also some deep divisions about the nature of the gospel, and the authority of the scriptures and the functions of the church. Talk is good, but also being honest about those divisions and the depth of them, and finding a way forward is much needed.
I came away from General Synod, better informed about the state of the national church, with my mind exercised about what we should do, but also with a renewed sense of urgency in mission. We do need a revolution, and in my mind it is none other than the recovery of the biblical gospel, and the urgency to proclaim it to the church and to the world. We have a massive task in promoting its claims within the church, and reforming ourselves and our practices by it, but also finding ways to teach it and preach it to a world that desperately needs to hear words of life.
I end with a shameless plug for the Anglican Future Conference to be held March 25-27, 2015 in Melbourne. EFAC Australia, and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans Australia (FCA-Aus) are jointly hosting a conference to deal with these very matters. How do we take up the mission challenges of 21st century Australia, how do we stand for the biblical gospel in our denomination, how do we recover our viability and gospel vitality, how do we do this as Anglicans today? These are the themes of the conference, and our prayer is hopeful, that it will offer a great gift to the Australian Church as a result.
Archdeacon Richard Condie is Vicar of St Jude's Carlton in Melbourne and President of EFAC VIC