NZ gets two Anglican Churches. Maybe Australia will too

There is a great line that economics writers use to disparage each other: “They predicted ten of the last three recessions.”

Church splits are a bit similar. It would be easy to have predicted ten of the last three schisms.

For example, an imminent split in the Anglican Church of Australia has been written about for the last two decades – normally in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This is not to diminish the seriousness of the current situation facing Australia’s Anglican Church. The dispute over same-sex blessings that escalated after the Diocese (region) of Wangaratta authorised blessings of civil marriages of LGBT people and the Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies responded by asking those leaders who want to change doctrine to leave, was quite rightly described by Davies as a “crisis”.

While Australia’s Anglican Church still hangs in the balance, there is no doubt that a real church divide has already occurred in New Zealand.

This weekend a large number of Anglican bishops from around the world (including many Australians) consecrated Jay Behan in Christchurch as the first bishop of a new Confessing Anglican Church of Aotearoa, NZ. The consecration was led by Archbishop Foley Beach, chairman of the GAFCON Primate’s Council. Other celebrants were Archbishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, Bishop Richard Condie of Tasmania, Primate Laurent Mbanda of Rwanda, Bishop Deryck Eaton of New Zealand, Bishop Gary Nelson of North Western Australia, Bishop Julian Dobbs of North America, Bishop Rick Lewers of Armidale, Bishop Andy Lines of the UK, Bishop Bill Atwood of North America, Archbishop Peter Jensen and Sydney bishops, Bishop Paul Barnett, Bishop Michael Stead, Bishop Peter Lin and Bishop Chris Edwards.

The new church consists of 12 churches formed by people who have left the original Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP). The divide follows the decision by ACANZP to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages and civil unions – the same issue that has caused protest in the Anglican Church of Australia, following moves by the Dioceses of Wangaratta and, most likely, Newcastle.

“A number of people felt that with good conscience they could not remain within the structure that was there,” Behan told the Pastor’s Heart podcast. “So we formed what is called an extra-provincial diocese … It is brand new territory and pretty scary.”

“Amid all the things that can make you anxious … it drives you back to what is important, which is Jesus. And a love for the people who have taken sacrificial decision, walking away from buildings or insurance monies.” (A number of the parishes involved are from earthquake-stricken Christchurch.)

“Human sexuality is the presenting issue but underlying it is the issue of the authority of Scripture. Do we believe the Scriptures are our ultimate authority in matters of faith and conduct?”

GAFCON is a network of Anglican “provinces” (national churches) that hold to traditional marriage, and represent a majority of Anglicans worldwide. The Sydney Anglican Diocese – and former archbishop Peter Jensen – played a key role in its formation. In turn the worldwide GAFCON network has been influential in giving the new NZ group confidence that they would not be on their own.

The list of bishops taking part in Christchurch includes leaders from the Anglican Church of North America and the Anglican mission in England – two of the churches formed by people leaving “original” Anglican provinces.

Peter Carrell, the ACANZP Bishop of Christchurch, tweeted to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “Is this the moment @JustinWelby when the fracture in the Anglican Communion becomes irreversible? Australian bishops out of protocol control, two of their synods greeting a breakaway diocese. Archbishops from Rwanda, Australia and ACNA combine to inaugurate a new Anglican Church!”

He also explained the ACNZP view this way: “The point of ACANZP’s approach, clearly rejected by Sydney, is that when Anglicans disagree deeply while remaining as deeply committed to being Anglican, the only way forward is to provide for the disagreement to be held within one church, rather than asking one group to leave.”

Despite sincere attempts (the sincerity of which is accepted by both conservatives and progressives) to create a structure in NZ that both groups could live within, many of the conservatives have left. In an interview with Dominic Steele, Glenn Davies suggested that Bishop Behan could look after Anglicans in progressive dioceses in Australia who want to be under a bishop that supports traditional marriage. This points to the emergence of parallel Anglican networks in Australia.

Because GAFCON represents the majority of Anglicans, and believe that they hold to the foundational doctrines of the faith, their attitude has generally been to say “we are not leaving, we are staying”. They have formed breakaway churches only when churches like The Episcopal Church in the US have adopted progressive theology. The conservative view of marriage holds sway in the majority of the Anglican communion.

As mentioned in Peter Carrell’s tweet, Melbourne also joined Sydney in greeting Jay Behan’s appointment as bishop of the new church.

Votes in the Melbourne Synod (church parliament) held on the weekend indicated a more conservative stance, possibly influenced by planting of new churches, likely evangelical in the main. “Melbourne’s Anglican church has voted in a majority to express “sorrow” over the decision to offer same-sex blessings in the regional Victorian city of Wangaratta,” according to an SBS report.

This means that Australian Anglicans are likely to stick with a traditional view of marriage.

NZ fits the other model – of a place where conservatives felt they had to leave.

This is the background to Sydney’s glenn Davies that those leaders who want to change the doctrines of the church should leave – a mirror image to the NZ situation.

However it’s not possible to predict an outcome. Especially as we don’t wish to predict “ten out of the last three church splits.”