General Synod will meet this year with contentious issues in the air. Kanishka Raffel, Dean of Sydney, and Karin Sowada, Sydney Lay Representative, preview the 2020 Session in its various modes.

An Ordinary Session of General Synod will take place in Maroochydore from 31 May – 5 June. The meeting will gather diocesan bishops and 250 or so elected lay and clergy representatives from every Australian diocese of the Anglican Church. The circumstances of our meeting are tense, and a new primate to be elected in March will chair the proceedings.

Foremost will be discussion about the blessing of same-sex marriage, following decisions by the Synods of Wangaratta Diocese and Newcastle Diocese. These actions prompted referrals to the Appellate Tribunal in 2019 and dozens of submissions have now been received. It is possible that the Appellate Tribunal will not have issued their opinion on these questions by the time the General Synod meets. In addition, the Synod of the Diocese of Sydney tabled nine motions for debate ‘at the request of a diocesan synod’. These will now form part of the General Synod meeting agenda. The nine motions include an apology to LGBTIQ people, an affirmation of the historic Anglican understanding of marriage and singleness and address matters of discipline and fellowship within the Anglican Church of Australia.

Unusually, the Standing Committee of the General Synod agreed to a proposal that the General Synod meeting include one and half days in conference mode to consider matters of sexuality and the future of the Anglican Church. It is expected that this conference will adopt a conference model known as ‘Open Space’. Any member of General Synod will be able to suggest a topic for discussion and members will break into self-selecting small groups to discuss the topic of their choice. Each group will record their reflections and any action items they propose, although there is no mechanism for implementation of action items.

Other General Synod business include a raft of legislation that forms a significant part of the Anglican Church’s responses to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. A General Synod working group led by Sydney representative and barrister Garth Blake SC has worked tirelessly in this area since before the Royal Commission was called. The national Church is greatly indebted to Garth and his team.

The General Synod will also receive a progress report on the vital work being undertaken by the General Synod Task Force on Family Violence led by Melbourne representative, the Rev Tracy Lauersen. The Task Force has commissioned independent research into the nature and prevalence of family violence in the Anglican Church, facilitated discussions between family violence working groups in several dioceses, and is examining available resources for use by dioceses to assist in developing appropriate policy and pastoral responses.

Regrettably, the 2020 meeting of General Synod may be dominated by internal disagreement about matters of longstanding ‘catholic and apostolic’ patterns of biblical faithfulness and holiness in areas of personal sexual integrity and marriage. This is greatly to be lamented. The pressing task of evangelising Australia is likely to take a back seat.

But the intractability of the disagreement between dioceses about the character of the discipleship that is faithful to the Lord’s calling to ‘be holy, because I am holy’ threatens to undermine the sustainability of the national Anglican project. There is great need for earnest prayer that the Lord would preserve us in the bond of peace and the unity of the Holy Spirit.

Even as this conversation takes place, the national church is well aware of the precarious state of many dioceses. The hollowing out of rural communities, the distress of drought, the burden of legacy assets, falling church attendances, and growing secularism requires strategic discussion to enable the re-invigoration of evangelism and gospel mission. It would be a missed opportunity to bring the national church together and simply re-arrange the deck chairs.