World wide Anglicanism is in conflict and Sydney is in the midst of it. What that might mean within the diocese is not yet clear.
The conflict internationally is between the alliance of African and other bishops including the archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, who object to the ordaining of an openly gay man as a bishop in The Episcopal Church in the USA and the authorising of blessing services for same sex relationships by a diocese in Canada.
This followed heated debates at the 1998 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops when a relatively conservative resolution was passed against such measures. On the other hand The Episcopal Church in the USA objects to the ordination of clergy and bishops by African and Asian Primates for work in the USA without any agreement from that church.
The alliance of conservatives called a Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem earlier this year in protest that the Anglican Communion had not enforced the 1998 resolution and that the whole movement in North America represented an abandonment of the authority of the Bible. The American church is itself deeply divided on the issue.
The Lambeth Conference in July 2008 was set up as a consultative exercise and not as a decision-making event. GAFCON in general has regarded this as a failure, and attempts to develop a covenant to hold the Anglican Communion together as weak and ineffective. They are seeking to expand their connections through a council of which Peter Jensen is the honorary secretary and the recent Sydney synod authorised appropriate funds for him to be able to carry our these responsibilities.
The consultative style of the Lambeth Conference is a return to an earlier form, in fact its original character. In the three conferences up to 1998 a trend had developed of preparing for the conference by consulting around the Communion to identify the critical issues facing Anglicans and then to prepare material for the conference related in general terms to these issues. The conference then divided into sections to deal with these matters and produced resolutions for the conference.
This whole process, and the way in which it was reported gave the impression that this was a kind of global parliament that was making executive decisions that would lead to something happening.
Of course back home in the provinces of the Communion these resolutions were regarded as advice. Serious advice, but nonetheless advice. That is the way in which they have historically and quite reasonably been regarded in Sydney.
At the 1998 Lambeth Conference the intense and heated argument at the final plenary session on homosexuality arose not just because those involved thought the subject was very important but also because many thought that a resolution at the Lambeth Conference meant that something would happen as a result. That is exactly how the GAFCON primates interpret this resolution. They complain it has not been enforced.
There have been earlier conflicts over issues of sexual ethics such as marriage and divorce practices. These have arisen in the context of the interaction between gospel and culture. They have to do with how what is perceived to be a gospel truth of universal application can be applied in the particularities of the cultural context where the gospel is to be lived out. This is the point rightly identified by Peter Akinola in relation to homosexuality when he announced GAFCON.
In a contrast which set the tone for the public perception of this conference he went on to say:
Those of us who will abide with the Word of God, come rain come fire, are those who are in GAFCON. Those who say it does not matter are the ones who are attending Lambeth … Uganda, Rwanda, Sydney, Nigeria: we are not going to Lambeth conference. What is the use of the Lambeth conference for a three weeks jamboree which will sweep these issues under the carpet. GAFCON will confer about the future of the church, which will set a road map for the future. (Quotes taken from www.gafcon.org. It is interesting that there is no reference here to Kenya, Tanzania or the Southern Cone.)
These enthusiastic words came to be modified in the publicity of the conference and a number of bishops announced that they would be going to both Lambeth and GAFCON. In later publicity GAFCON, transformed itself into a pilgrimage to the biblical lands and denied it was an alternative to Lambeth.
GAFCON says it will develop as a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. As it establishes organisational arrangements it will face questions about its Anglican identity. Will membership of these organisations that set out to be an alternative Anglican future be compatible with membership of existing provinces in the Anglican Communion, or under the terms of the constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia.
GAFCON Primates have declared as a principle of conscience that territorial diocesan jurisdictions cannot stand in the way of gospel truth. But there is something of an oddity here in that some of the primates and bishops involved in recent cross-jurisdictional interventions have subscribed oaths of office in church constitutions that make this territorial arrangement a clear commitment.
So we have the unhappy sight of bishops who on oath are committed to observing this territorial jurisdiction at the same time breaking that same rule in other places.
The issue then becomes not just a matter of legal detail, but also of the honesty of those bishops. Given the kinds of institutional arrangements within which Anglicans work the easy separation between order and morality is not so easily sustained, as some seem to think.
The recent Sydney diocesan synod committed itself to the GAFCON declaration and Peter Jensen in his presidential address set the diocesan mission and its project of Connect 09 together with GAFCON as the way of the Lord to which he is committed and which he challenged his audience to follow as the way of the Lord.
Clearly the rhetoric for following GAFCON is winding up. If that means giving some place to the Jerusalem declaration as a way of reviving a commitment to theological truths to challenge a rather complacent Anglican way, then that is a good thing. You don’t have to agree with everything in the declaration to welcome it.
There are some things in it which are in my view theologically naïve and historically confused. But it can reasonably be seen to be trying to remind us that as Anglican Christians there are some pretty remarkable truths to which we are committed and which speak to the way we understand our condition and live our lives in faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ.
But, on the other hand the new and enhanced rhetoric might mean an intensification of the already strict control over diversity in the diocese. Will all clerical appointments be required to sign up to the GAFCON declaration, or the organisational actions of its council of Primates, of which Peter Jensen is the secretary? That might prove to be something very different from a good thing.
The GAFCON leaders claimed that what they regarded as their orthodox views have not been properly respected in the Anglican Communion. They therefore have had to act out in organisational dissent. To claim that at the global level and not to respect and engage with dissenters in your own immediate family is manifestly dishonest.
Fellowships and networks have served the church over many centuries. Mostly, however, they have worked within a respect for the ministries that have been lawfully appointed in the ecclesiastical structures of parishes, dioceses and provinces. This is not just a question of organisationalism, but of respect for other Christians and a sense of humility about our own perceptions of the particular ways in which our faithfulness is to be expressed. This is an aspect of the Anglican tradition of catholicity as mutual inter dependence. The GAFCON primates do not seem to be prepared to work in this way.
Organisational re-arrangement is by no means a bad thing in itself. But when dissent turns into organisational revolt in relation to arrangements that have been the subject of mutual agreement and long standing collaboration then that involves other issues of Christian conduct and virtue which no Christian can properly set aside. It would be a very great defeat if respectful and courteous catholicity turned out to be a victim in relations within the diocese of Sydney. It would somehow be a contradiction of the gospel in whose name the GAFCON movement began.
In an earlier version of this article reference was made to a practice in the diocese of restricting appointments to those who were opposed to the ordination of women. Bishop Robert Forsyth has assured me that after consulting with his colleagues there is no diocesan practice of restricting appointments to those who are opposed to the ordination of women. I am happy to accept that assurance.