In an article, that the more I look at it the more I think is a huge moment in our national church life, the Bishop of Newcastle Greg Thompson has branded both the Diocese of Sydney and its Archbishop Glenn Davies as “divisive”.
FRACTURES in the Australian Anglican Church on the issue of gay clergy are set to boil over at a national meeting of bishops in early March, prompting Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson to miss the event and accuse Sydney diocese of leading a breakaway conservative movement.
The emergence of a “para Anglican Communion” was underway, Bishop Thompson said in a letter to Anglican Primate Archbishop Philip Freier in December, in which he declined to attend the annual bishops conference in South Australia from March 6 because it would give the impression of a united church that conflicted with reality.
Already there are a number of things worth noting here. First, Thompson has made the calculated choice to leak a private letter to the Primate, Philip Freier. What had previously been between just the two of them is now an issue that he has decided to make public. As well as wanting to put pressure on Davies this also places the already embattled Freier in a much more difficult position.
Second, Thompson has attempted to recast the current tensions in the Anglican Church in Australia as something caused by Sydney. The reality of the situation is that the disquiet over denial of Christian doctrine is a much wider phenomenon. There are a large number of diocesan bishops who are very unhappy about some of their fellow bishop who have made public statements and actions which openly challenge orthodox teaching. The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (the movement to which Thompson is referred to as “a breakaway conservative movement”) is headed up not by Archbishop Davies but by bishop-elect of Tasmania, Richard Condie. It has wide support across the country amongst both evangelicals and traditional Anglo-Catholics, including a number of prominent clergy of some of the larger churches in the Diocese of Newcastle. It’s opening conference in Melbourne last year was attended by hundreds of delegates from across the country.
The piece goes on to cite directly (and fairly) from my own article which reported on the Sydney synod’s decision last year to respond to the bishops of Gippsland and Wangaratta who had breached the Bishops’ Protocol on appointments and spoken out in favour of marriage revision respectively.
In his letter to Archbishop Freier in December, Bishop Thompson said while the fellowship of bishops was important, “the environment at the bishops conference is not conducive for furthering our shared sense of ministry together in the Anglican church”.
“I note the recent demand by the Diocese of Sydney to sign up to protocols or they will not attend any further national bishops’ gatherings,” Bishop Thompson said.
This is particularly ironic. Thompson is essentially complaining that Archbishop Glenn Davies (following on from the synod motion) has insisted that the Australian bishops should keep the protocols that they have promised to keep. The decision of Bishop Kay Goldsworthy to make an appointment in clear breach of the protocol on Faithfulness in Service is what has precipitated this crisis in the first place.
Thompson sees this call to consistency as hypocritical:
“This is a little inconsistent given the protocols of courtesy and recognition of jurisdictions by the Diocese of Sydney which have ceased many years ago.”
Bishop Thompson noted that Sydney Diocese had actively supported the development of conservative and evangelical churches on the Central Coast and in the Hunter without consulting Newcastle Diocese.
A number of evangelical ministries within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese of Newcastle were budded out of Sydney Anglican churches. At the time they were seen as a response to the lack of (and even hostility to) gospel ministry available in those areas. There are no specific bishops protocols addressing such arrangements.
Bishop Thompson’s extraordinary actions in publicly criticising his own Metropolitan Archbishop has led to many church members, both laity and clergy, within and without the Diocese of Newcastle contacting me. A number have expressed their incredulity at what they see as a large contradiction in Thompson’s position. In recent months he has worked very hard to portray himself as acting responsibly in the area of safe ministry and in particular in the Newcastle Diocese’s response to abuse of vulnerable people in church organisations. And yet he is now complaining that others are insisting that bishops abide by an agreement already made between them to uphold Faithfulness in Service, the national church’s guidelines for dealing with, amongst other things, appropriate ministry to vulnerable people as well as matters of conduct (personal, sexual and other) of clergy and other ministers.
The irony is only further compounded by the choice of journalist for this leak; the very highly regarded Joanne McCarthy who has worked tirelessly to expose the poor practices and responses of Anglican dioceses and bishops to issues surrounding safe ministry. Bishop Thompson has chosen not only a time when Safe Ministry is in the news but also a journalist who is well-known for reporting the subject, to publicly complain that his Metropolitan bishop is insisting that fellow bishops keep the protocol they have unanimously agreed upon that itself upholds the Anglican Church of Australia’s best practice in the area.
Bishop Thompson’s intervention comes at a time when I am getting increasing levels of correspondence from members of the Diocese of Newcastle reporting rising levels of centralisation and what has been described to me as an “authoritarian culture”. Others have reported to me that there is a growing experience of action against any disagreement that is flowing from very senior leadership and an insistence that clergy and parishes conform to top-down stipulations on a wide range of matters ranging from where their parish finances are banked to very narrowly-prescribed Eucharistic practice (the subject of a recent ad clerum). There is also discussion surrounding a recently legislated disciplinary ordinance which was passed in meetings outside of the full synod but of which no minutes are available publicly. The general sentiment is not positive and is expressed by individuals from a wide range of theological persuasions.
There are difficult times ahead for the Anglican Church of Australia, no doubt. But also, it seems, for the Diocese of Newcastle itself.
image: Newcastle Herald