The astute amongst you will have noticed I didn’t get to a “Day 4” on my General Synod reports. Truth be told, I was just too tired. But now, with a weekend between me and all those long days, I thought it might be helpful to reflect a little on how everything wrapped up and what it means for us going forward.
The main business of Day 4 was to consider the large “Report of the Viability & Structures Task Force“[pdf] authored by Bishop Andrew Curnow of Bendigo. The report had been discussed to varying degrees by the numerous small groups which had met throughout the week but it seems that one common thread could be heard from many participants; the report simply did not address the enormous theological differences within the Anglican Church of Australia and that without a serious assessment of those differences the report was badly lacking. Why so? Well because many would contend that the decline in numbers and morale in many dioceses was not simply due to social factors but to radicly different theologies; those places (e.g. Sydney, N.W. Australia, Armidale, Tasmania) that were much more sympathetic to evangelical theology were those were confidence in the future was higher. Even in places where there was a mix of theologies, this truth appeared to hold. In our group an assistant bishop confirmed that the parishes where there was life, growth and confidence were almost all evangelical.
The absence of this reflection in the report means it is, at best, half helpful. Yes, there are certainly some useful suggestions (e.g. tightening up financial structures, the consideration of pooling provincial administration where possible) but the underlying assumption that the church’s “mission and ministry” could be restored by implementation of the suggestions of the plan simply failed to address the issue that not only was there no common understanding of “mission and ministry” anyway but, moreover, perhaps it was certain understandings of “misssion and ministry” that were actually a contributing factor in decline.
Despite this, a lot of the groups were able to discuss their theological differences, albeit to varying depths. As far as I could tell, these discussions tended to be driven by evangelicals – the group least frightened of the implications of exploring differences. At the same time conservatives also reported hostility to their views; sometimes openly expressed, at other times by simple avoidance when challenging topics were raised. In my own group a senior leader found it very uncomfortable to discuss the constitutional position of the Anglican Church of Australia with respect to theology (i.e. that the 39 Articles are our standard for doctrine). They quickly brushed that one away. It was far easier to engage in personal attacks than actually discuss the issues.
That’s not to say that there were no good conversations. In particular social media played an important part in the events, promoting a more lighthearted backchannel for relationships to be established even between those on opposite sides of the theological divisions. Those of us taking part in that particular forum found it an encouragement for us that we could keep on talking and get down to discussing the real issues that needed to be addressed.
So what way forward?
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Many of us wanted to get down to brass tacks and talk about some of the real issues but we were regularly met with either hostility or avoidance. That’s not a healthy way forward for us but it is a way of pretending that everything’s OK. Until we have those deeper discussions I’m not sure we can be anywhere nearer sorting it all out.
And in the meantime a number of dioceses lurch towards effective bankruptcy. They are often those more tolerant of liberal theology. What that means, of course, is that one strategy of conservatives could be to simply wait the whole process out. Evangelicals are (in the main) growing. Liberals, conversely, are shrinking and aging and many bishops are recognising (to varying levels of pleasure) that it’s evangelical ministry that so very often grows churches. But if there’s hostility to that theology then those dioceses may find themselves in a tricky place.
What way forward for the Anglican Church of Australia? In some places the train is very clearly on the track and steaming ahead. In other places some very hard decisions will soon have to be made.