Peter Brain considers the Report of the Viability and Structures Taskforce, produced for the 2014 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia.
Peter Brain, formerly Bishop of the Diocese of Armidale, is the Rector of Rockingham, WA.
This is a sad report. Not because of declining numbers, the precarious financial status of many dioceses, or the difficulty most dioceses have in attracting ordinands. Those anxieties for church members, local church and denominational leadership are real. The real sadness of this report is its failure to address, or even pose, the possibility that our problems might be theological. Could there be a failure to be clear on the nature of our calling, the content and power of the gospel and the primacy of the local church?
Time after time the Report suggests that our problems stem from the fact that the number of nominal Anglicans is declining. In all the years of being a Christian it has never occurred to me that my ministry should be restricted to Anglicans. As long as there are people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour our Lord calls us to take the gospel to them because they are perishing. People who are not members of other local Christian churches are our mission field too.
Could this be the result of a far deeper and more serious problem? A failure to be on the same page as Jesus in regard to the content of the gospel and its power to save sinners. The Report nowhere speaks about this matter. On a couple of occasions it makes the assumption that we are Christians by virtue of our baptism. Apart from having no Biblical warrant, honest reflection would keep us from this folly. Not only does it ascribe to the sacrament a power it cannot possess, robbing the Holy Spirit of his wonderfully life changing work, but the fruits and habits of baptised uncommitted Anglicans betray their need for conversion.
The focus of the Report is on the diocese. Indeed the report, in response to the tragic problems caused by some of our members in improper sexual behaviour, suggests that we ought to be one national church. Whilst the reasoning — that people and governments don’t understand our diocesan diversity — may be laudable, it is an approach that can only move us further away from the coalface of healthy and vibrant local churches. This betrays a misunderstanding of where real growth, healing and discipleship takes place.
At the risk of opening myself to the criticism of pride or grandstanding, the Report, whilst acknowledging the low ratio of ordained pastors to census Anglicans, the availability of ordinands, the healthy financial position and the numbers of attenders of Sydney and Armidale Dioceses, never posed the question as to whether there may be a correlation between these facts and the kind of theology and ecclesiology practised and held in these two dioceses. I would imagine that any secular investigation would be very happy to have a city and a rural diocese by which to compare what is going on. I hasten to add that neither of these dioceses would be content with either the size of congregations or with their rate of growth. But they are there and there are clear differences between these dioceses and others. They provide an opportunity that was missed by the Report to compare, contrast and enquire.
The emphasis of these two dioceses on the authority of the Bible gives to their pastors and members a confidence in God and the content of the gospel. The fact that Jesus is Lord and that repentance towards God and trust in Jesus form both the content and call of the gospel means that false hopes (like you are saved because you are baptised, good, spiritual, sincere) are consistently exposed and the sure hope based on God’s grace to us through the uniqueness of Christ, his substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection, confidently held out to all. The emphasis on the life of the local church, where converts and seekers are drawn into its fellowship, provides a context for these gospel realities to be observed, tested, proved and learnt. The diocese can nurture and encourage this ministry (and must do so) but the diocese will never be a viable substitute for the local church.
As one who has returned to parish ministry after 12 years in diocesan leadership I am rediscovering the privilege but also the challenges of this coal face work in evangelism and pastoral care. It is in a warm hearted and gospel focussed local church that those hurt by past sins might regain confidence. Those of us who are committed to evangelical truths have no right to be proud, smug or self- confident. We do however, have a mandate from our risen Lord to be confident in him and the gospel he has entrusted to us. We are part of a denomination that is struggling and asking questions. The Report is honest at this level. However the Report does not encourage us to find any answers from God who has so graciously called us to build his church through his gospel.
The Report of the Viability and Structures Task Force is General Synod 2014 Book 8, and is available at www.anglican.org.au/general-synods/2014/documents/books/book%208_for%20website.pdf.