Obadiah Slope on Conservatives, progressives, tears and testimony

Musings from the Anglican General Synod


Half a lifetime ago, Obadiah attended a couple of annual conferences of the old Australian Union of Students (AUS). Feverish caucusing, pitched battles for votes, all-night business sessions. The young Peter Costello and Tony Abbott got their political practices honed there.

Obadiah was rather more pro-union than they, sort of the unreliable centrist he is today. He wound up as media officer, the only non-marxist officer in the union.

Obadiah Slope

This column is named “Obadiah Slope”, which the elect will recognise as the name of the “odious evangelical” in the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s six-part Chronicles of Barsetshire …

AUS met at Monash Uni, and in those days, so did the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students across the other side of the campus. Obadiah would scurry across the sports fields to the other side. He felt equally at home or equally discomforted at both ends. Life was just as complicated as it is now. Obadiah is still pondering the great question of how Christians relate to a society that thinks differently to God’s flock.

This brings us to the Anglican Church General Synod. Obadiah was there all last week. It felt very much like the contested concatenation that was the AUS talkfest.

Only much milder. And much better chaired. (Thanks Archbishop Geoff Smith of Adelaide.)

* * *

Obadiah can report he was not threatened with being physically beaten up, which happened at AUS one year.

* * *

At AUS, the appropriate terms were still gay and lesbian for the presenting issues that were emerging then and which dominated the Synod. We are talking pre-Mardi Gras.

Obadiah can testify that there were tears and sadness at the Synod, especially when certain motions were defeated on both the conservative and progressive sides. Obadiah would have preferred more tears during the speech-making than after the votes because this topic needs to be discussed through tears.

And at times, it was. Peter Sherlock was in tears as he recounted his life as a partnered gay man in the church. Nobly he assured the entire Synod he loved them. Obadiah felt that we could have heard more such personal stories.

What better place to learn about dealing with division in the church? As evidenced by the election results that saw a slate of conservatives win key committees, we were in the middle of a historic shift towards a more conservative church.

The headline in the Australian’s new youth website, The OZ, got it 100 per cent wrong. “Anglican Church says YES to same sex marriage.”

An early vote in the Synod saw the House of Bishops block a conservative motion. But it was only a holding action. The conservatives won the other key votes. Only when voting by houses – laity, clergy and bishops – could the progressives block the conservatives.

There was a conspicuous lack of rancour as Obadiah saw the week unfold at the press desk at the back of the conference hall. Occasional outbursts, just like the rain, but no sustained downpours.

This week has seen a very Anglican revolution begin. Very polite with finely crafted speech-making. Scrupulous rules of meeting procedure. There were only a couple of instances of clapping when a vote result was announced – and it was made clear this is NOT the thing to do.

* * *

A prayer: let me pick one phrase from the night prayers or Compline, although that might seem unusual for those I want to pray for.

Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Shield the joyous. Please save the conservatives at General Synod from triumphalism.

* * *

Vale: Being away from his usual patch meant that Obadiah missed something significant, a memorial service for Judy. Unfailingly cheerful, although she had few possessions and might easily be overlooked in a success-oriented world, Judy was a guardian angel. She had a gift for turning up just when she could help, sometimes in dramatic circumstances. And suddenly, sitting in the Gold Coast Airport typing this, Obadiah wipes away tears.

Judy taught me, as others have, that we are all fundamentally equal in the kingdom of God. It’s not just a theory; it works in real life. And in the upside-down kingdom, she is ahead of me.

* * *

I fell for it: there was a fake message in my email from work. It picked up the title of a recent email and mimicked a Microsoft log-in. Sorry, dear techs at work. You know who you are.

* * *

Explainer: Obadiah needs to make sure readers “get” the name of this column if only to avoid Facebook questions. It was a strangely appropriate soubriquet this week because it comes from the over-long Victoria novels by Anthony Trollope – Obadiah Slope being the “odious evangelical” who causes havoc in a Cathedral community. So a week of listening to Rt Reverends, Venerables, Bishops with diagonal movements and Very Reverends, although I had to look one of them up to get it right, made me feel most Obadiah.