Mythbusting the Anglican votes

An old joke about economist commentators is that “so-and-so has predicted ten of the last three recessions.”

The same could apply to religious pundits who have predicted several of the last zero splits in the Anglican Church of Australia.

But that’s not to say it will never happen. Recessions happen; just wait. We’ll get to how an Anglican split might happen a bit later.

The first news story suggesting a split in the Anglican Church of Australia that I can recall dates from April 1992, just as the church ordained the first women priests. Bruce Ballantine-Jones, then Vice President of the Anglican Church League – an influential group in the Sydney diocese – told The Sydney Morning Herald the church could split over the issue.

Like women’s ordination, it has just passed its 30th anniversary.

Rinse and repeat, and this week it was The Australian’s turn. And The Guardian as well – a strange unity ticket – with some Christian media reports saying the same.

All contained some truth. But headlines like “threatens to tear the church apart” (Muriel Porter in The Guardian) make it seem like a split is about to happen. Neither Porter nor careful commenters on the conservative side will use “imminent” language.

A Sky News headline, “Anglican church faces schism,” did not reflect the more nuanced slower split that Melbourne pastor and academic Mark Durie predicts in his post (see below).

Meanwhile, some media added two and two and got five: the new OZ website at The Australian ran a headline “Anglican Church says YES to same-sex marriage”. Oops. They misread their own story, based on Jamie Walker’s reporting for the main paper.

The most heated part of the Synod came when a statement in support of traditional marriage was rejected by the House of Bishops, voting 12-10 against after comfortable majorities in the Houses of Clergy and Laity.

Sydney’s Archbishop Kanishka Raffel spoke after the vote. He was clearly unhappy, but the vote went as predicted to Eternity the night before by an astute numbers man in the Sydney delegation. Despite his recounting of the splits in other Anglican provinces (national churches) overseas, there was no walkout, demonstration, or angry denunciation.

Except for a polite call for an early adjournment to pray before lunch.

That’s all.

The inevitable “Anglicans are gonna split stories” serve to conceal a powerful story – the Anglican Church is being slowly taken over by the conservative, pro-traditional marriage group.

Voices from the conservative perspective

Here’s how one long term Sydney delegate, Phillip Gerber, saw things at the General Synod. “I am thankful to God for the leadership which the Bible-believing Bishops now bring to a much-changed General Synod since 1998 when I first attended.

“I recall a Melbourne academic and commentator once seriously suggesting in the debate that Sydney and other evangelicals strive so hard for gospel ministry only because we want the numbers to dominate General Synod. Laughable really. And yet, under God, the Synod has shifted to a place in 2022 very different to 1998, 2001, etc.

“I am optimistic, and we should pray, that over time, and again under God, the Anglican Church will be completely overrun by Bible-believing Christians, even in the Episcopacy, and that the ‘progressives’ will feel so out of place that they will just fade away, or even better be converted if they ain’t already.

“Over 24 years and seven General Synods, I have had the privilege of observing God doing this mighty work of reformation, bit by bit, little by little. God can complete the work. I pray, and I believe that he will.

Be encouraged. God is working his purpose out.”

Melbourne pastor and academic Mark Durie, posted a carefully written piece about the growing divide within the Anglican Church in Australia, looking to the United States, Scotland and New Zealand as indicators of the way the Australian conservative and progressive churches might go. In his post, Durie argues that the divide is deeper than issues around sexuality.

He points out that the tensions are not simply about sex but involve a rising conservative group with a different ethos from a more progressive group.

“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 fundamental issue is different systems of meaning.” Mark Durie

“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.”

Durie predicts an Anglican split, but he outlines what might happen first.

“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.”

Eventually, he predicts that progressive dioceses will embrace same-sex marriage, at which point a split needs to be negotiated.

Durie and Gerber, whose views we have given space above, are firmly on the conservative side of the Anglican divide.

The progressive Anglicans’ perspective

To hear what progressives thought of the General Synod, I invited Associate Professor Matthew Anstey to give me a statement, and he kindly agreed. Anstey moved the main progressive motion of the Synod, which would have affirmed same-sex marriage. Speaking against the motion, Moore College principal Mark Thompson pointed out that it would have changed the church’s doctrine.

Despite the defeat of his motion, Anstey believes there were advances for the progressives.

“General Synod 18 was a watershed moment in the life of the Anglican Church of Australia,” Anstey writes. [18 refers to the fact this was the 18th General Synod since the Anglican Church of Australia was formed.]

“Several things are particularly significant regarding the debates on human sexuality:

• 40% of GS members voted in favour of affirming that same-sex marriage is ‘a moral good, a gift to the church’. This accords with the growing number of Anglicans holding this view.

• For the first time, Anglicans (conservative and progressive) could be openly gay or lesbian.

• The defeat of the Sydney Statement on marriage was an important ballast against the unrepresentative encroachment of the conservatives against the diversity of the ACA. Note that the laity were 57% in favour, 43% against, contrary to the spurious claims of an “overwhelming majority”. The criticisms, moreover, of the “twelve bishops” showed an ignorance of their episcopal responsibilities (let alone a degree of disrespect and unpleasantness).

• The so-called ‘middle ground’ – traditionally a large portion of GS – is diminishing. No one spoke to oppose same-sex marriage and maintain fellowship with those who support it.

“GS18 brought a much clearer presentation of two alternative narratives, each claiming to represent the heart and soul of the ACA, articulating for their community who they are and what they hope for, and including a rich repertoire of emotional responses and behaviours, an ‘ethos’ as it were.

“We seek to listen and learn in light of the testimony of Scripture, Anglican formularies, and human experience” – Matthew Antsey

“In this light, our narrative is one of a comprehensive vision of God and God’s people, preaching and enacting Christ’s affirming, generous and open-hearted love, grounded in Scripture and the historic Christian creeds. This creates space for and celebration of difference, including matters such as human sexuality. Our story evokes hope and joy, bound to an ethos of affirmation and welcome and ongoing dialogue.

“Moreover, we don’t believe in asserting one’s so-called ‘orthodoxy’ over all others who disagree with us, be it in speeches or petitions or social media. Rather, we seek to listen and learn in light of the testimony of Scripture, Anglican formularies, and human experience. Imposing unilaterally one (highly contested) view threatens to end the productive and nuanced discussions across the church regarding LGBTIQA+ Christians and their allies and families.

“Looking forward, I believe GS18 will be a catalyst for conservatives and progressives to articulate their visions more clearly and engage more proactively with those who identify with it.

“And who knows how this might play out in the years ahead?”

Anstey’s comment about bishops exercising their episcopal responsibilities might explain what some have found odd in their voting. Some bishops may have felt they were constrained to promote unity – voting to block the Sydney Statement on marriage (12 to 10) and almost immediately voting to approve a Sydney statement on Chastity – which included a conservative view of sexual ethics – (10 to 12). A bob each way.

Anstey’s account illustrates a general agreement that there are two blocs in the Anglican church with a shrinking middle ground. He blames the conservatives for ending “nuanced discussions on LGBTIQA issues”, and it is fair to say that the two blocs have come to the end of discussing this issue.

Rumours, myths, splits and actuality

Sydney’s share of General Synod has risen while other dioceses have fewer delegates. In her Guardian/Conversation piece mentioned above, Muriel Porter suggests that Sydney has stacked the Synod.

Synod numbers are based on a formula that means lay and clergy delegate numbers are based on the number of ordained clergy a diocese has. The more people in a local church, the more pastoral staff a local church can hire, and the more delegates a diocese can send.

There are plenty of lay ministry workers in Sydney that could be ordained, so the stackers (if they exist) are not doing a very good job.

In fact, the Sydney delegation did not send its full quota to Synod.

We can clear up two other minor myths. In a Church Times piece, Porter reports, “The Australian Primate, the Most Revd Geoffrey Smith, Archbishop of Adelaide, has warned dioceses not to proceed to authorise same-sex marriage blessings in the wake of last week’s tense General Synod meeting.” The Primate did call for restraint, but before the Synod and in his presidential address, not after.

An unofficial Sydney Anglican podcast had Archbishop Kanishka Raffel calling for a Bishops’ meeting to be called early. Having checked, Eternity believes he was politely responding to a suggestion of calling the meeting forward, perhaps as a “nice to have”, but he does not appear to be pressing the point.

Options for the ACA into the future

In other Western Anglican provinces such as the US, Canada and New Zealand, the progressives have won the debates, but this General Synod signals this is not happening in Australia.

There appears to be no mechanism in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia for dioceses to leave – three have been merged – Kalgoorlie, Carpentaria (Torres Strait) and the oddly named St Arnaud in Western Victoria.

The conservatives are likely to plant churches in progressive dioceses like Perth and Southern Queensland, but as Durie notes, the progressives are unlikely to reciprocate.

There could be alternatives to a formal split. Conservatives might so dominate the national structure that it becomes a shadow operation. And a new conservative diocese of the Southern Cross operates in places that hold same-sex blessings or marriages. That would mean, in effect, a parallel structure – much like the conservative GAFCON movement of conservative Anglicans operating worldwide.

Sydney strongly influenced GAFCON, so this model is in the minds of the local conservative leaders. GAFCON includes a majority of the Anglican Communion measured by church attendance, with its provinces such as Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda along with breakaway churches in countries like Canada, the US and New Zealand.

In Australia, this model could have conservative dioceses linked to the breakaway Diocese of the Southern Cross in a network that supplants the national church.

“Why leave an organisation you are about to take over?” is the question conservatives will need to answer. Staying put formally will save a lot on lawyers’ fees.

In the other slow-moving split in the United Methodist Church, the conservatives form a majority, but many look like leaving.

That is because a cumbersome and entrenched bureaucracy, including Bishops, in the United States (just under half of the 12m strong church) defy what happens at the church’s General Assembly.

The difference with the Australian Anglicans is twofold:

1) there is hardly any bureaucracy in the General Synod office; it is tiny;

2) It is likely the conservatives will make gains in the House of Bishops.

In which case, the Appellate Tribunal will follow.

Conservatives will need to be careful not to assume that the swing to them continues. Progressives will hope that the popularity of their position comes to be reflected in the church.

We may soon see the growing theological split in the Anglican Church, visible in how local churches present themselves. Both groups might wish to make clear to the public that they disagree with the other side. Product differentiation will follow theological differences.