A Meeting of Bishops

Gary Nelson comments on the recent national conference of bishops held in South Australia.
Gary Nelson is the Bishop of North West Australia.

What do you call a meeting of Anglican bishops from around Australia?
A talk-fest? A liturgical wake? An episcopal staff retreat? A mitred endurance? Or, …
Each year bishops gather together to discuss issues of mutual concern.  In March we were ably hosted by the Bishop of Willochra in the beautiful country town of Clare, South Australia.

On the surface it’s an enjoyable time and I look forward to catching up with fellow bishops. Yet just below the warm greetings and shared informal moments are serious tensions arising from our theological differences. This was prominent in the ‘big’ issue of the meeting that focussed on the Viability and Structures General Synod report. An external facilitator was provided for the discussion, but a curve ball was thrown with a comment about an elephant in the room – that is, the varying theological opinions represented by the bishops present.  So we then journeyed down a little detour to discuss the way we might discuss our theological differences!! How this will play out next year remains to be seen.  

In ‘essentials’ our theological differences do shape our responses to the Viability and Structures report – we can’t escape this conclusion. Why does growth follow faithful gospel proclamation (Acts 6.7)? Why does vitality seem to be concurrent with church life centred on the trustworthy, ‘God-inspired’ Word (Eph 4.11-16; 2 Tim 4.2)? Isn’t this exactly what we should expect if the gospel is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’ (Rom 1.16)?

As we ponder the future of our Anglican denomination, what are our options? Perhaps we’ll soon reach the point of no return leading to a split, such as occurred in America, as the honourable way ahead.  Or, just maybe, we can charter another route to bridge this increasing gap between those standing on an evangelical view of Scripture, and those who have drifted from a gospel centred biblical approach to faith and ethics.

Personally I am not very optimistic, especially when you consider the aftermath of the Primates’ meeting in Canterbury as evidenced in the approach of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Episcopal Church of America.  Last year I visited America, meeting with Archbishop Foley Beach as well as speaking at a number of churches and Trinity School for Ministry.  The pain of the split at both personal and congregational level was very evident.  Though, encouragingly, what has emerged is an Anglican denomination much clearer on its gospel objectives and committed to holding fast to the teachings of the Bible, particularly in the area of human sexuality – the issue that tipped them over the precipice into the waters of division.

Friends, keep praying that God may have mercy on our Anglican Communion and bring those rejecting his word to repentance, along with a renewed gospel commitment.

Back to the bishops’ meeting in March.
It was so sad to hear of the abuse through the CEBS movement and, at times, the failure of people in authority to take appropriate action. We must learn from our past, working harder at ensuring our children are kept as safe as possible within our church environment. EFAC members should take this responsibility very seriously as it flows out of our evangelical belief and ethical stance.

The Bathurst diocesan financial problems remind us that integrity in money and property matters require careful attention. The Faithfulness in Service document is a helpful guide on basic financial practices to protect people from false accusation and assist us to faithfully administer our stewardship. Continuing vigilance is needed as the bar of community accountability standards is raised and churches come under greater scrutiny.

The bishops’ protocols – what do we do with them? They were designed to be a means of collegial attitude and agreed action in certain areas of mutual episcopal concern. Each year there has been a recommitment to them, but recently they have come into question. This has arisen over the homosexual issue in the Diocese of Gippsland. When the agenda for the meeting first appeared there was no place provided for discussing this very significant and divisive matter. This was changed, but left to near the end. Our differences were highlighted when the possible plebiscite on redefining marriage was discussed. Very few bishops were prepared to give unequivocal support for traditional marriage as the Bible presents, and as our Anglican doctrine still maintains. For me, another indicator of how close we are to the precipice of denominational division.

Other significant matters were briefly reviewed and discussed (eg. church planting). But they remain in the background to the elephant in the room, with its impact on human sexuality and the underlying issue of how we read and understand the Bible. Please pray for the bishops across Australia and their role as leaders of our church.

Gary Nelson
Bishop of North West Australia