I wrote last week about the appointment of Rev Dr Sarah Macneil as the new Bishop of Grafton diocese in NSW, Australia. Not only is she due to be Australia’s first female diocesan, but far more troubling she is on the record as holding what many consider to be heterodox views on human sexuality and the atonement.
I wrote to Dr Macneil’s new diocese and sought clarification on these large questions. Did she stand by her views or was she now committed to the official position of the Anglican Church of Australia? You can read about the clear contrast between those two positions in my original piece.
Dr Macneil declined to give me any answer to the questions. I don’t really blame her; the contrast between her published views and those she would be required to uphold as a bishop were too stark. I wasn’t surprised to be blanked. What did surprise me, however, was the enormous interest shown in my piece. I got over 15,000 hits in 2 days on this story – far more than anything else I’d ever written. There was massive interest all over Australia once the simple facts of the matter were laid out. And it meant the story couldn’t be left alone.
Therefore, since writing the original piece I’ve turned my attention to the consecration process.
Grafton Diocese is in the NSW Province centered around Sydney. The Province contains the dioceses of Grafton, Newcastle, Bathurst, Armidale, the Riverina, Canberra & Goulbourn and the Archdiocese of Sydney. Normally the Archbishop of Sydney (currently Glenn Davies) would be expected to be lead consecrator by virtue of being Metropolitan but he has excused himself from the consecration on a matter of conscience (being opposed to the consecration of women). As Peter Jensen did before him, Davies has asked bishop of Canberra & Goulborn, Stuart Robinson, to lead in his place. Other diocesans from the Province would also be expected to participate.
Almost immediately after writing last week I got a flood of emails with many asking me how it was possible that someone who so openly opposed the official Anglican position could be consecrated as bishop. Given the level of interest in the story I viewed that question as valid and so passed it on to those NSW diocesans who would be expected to be there – Robinson of Canberra, Lewers of Armidale and Palmer of Bathurst. The dioceses of Newcastle and the Riverina are currently without a bishop. I asked the same questions of all three diocesans,
Given that it is established that Rev Dr Macneil is recorded as denying penal substitution (in contradiction of Article XXXI which is the official doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia) and has clearly suggested that “homosexuals in same-sex relationships” should be ordained in the Anglican church (in contradiction of the Bishops’ Protocol which she will be expected to endorse),
- Was the bishop aware that she held these views or views similar to them?
- Is the bishop still prepared to consecrate her given that she holds publicly-stated positions diametrically opposed to that of the Anglican Church of Australia and the House of Bishops on the key issues of the atonement and human sexuality?
The responses I got could not have been more different from each other. First to reply was Bishop Stuart Robinson of Canberra & Goulborn,
As with all ‘canonically fit’ bishops-elect who are presented for Consecration, Dr Macneil will be asked to publicly accede and subscribe to the creeds and other key biblical truths that underlay and frame the theological foundations of the Anglican Church. In addition, Bishop Sarah will , with her Episcopal colleagues within our Communion, observe the Australian bishop’s protocol in relation to the ordination of people in same-sex relationships.
Bishop Robinson’s position therefore is “it doesn’t matter what she wrote – I’ll take her word on what she says in the service of consecration”. What it fails to acknowledge, however, is that part of our problem in the Anglican church is that we have those who publicly claim to assent to those truths and yet personally do not believe them. The fear raised to me by many over the past week is that Dr Macneil may very well be such a person, indeed some have already expressed exactly that opinion about her to me from personal experience of working with her.
The next response I received was from Bishop Rick Lewers of Armidale. It is a comprehensive comment that does not shy away from addressing the key issues at stake.
Firstly I have to admit, to this point in time, to never having read anything written by Sarah on the subject of homosexuality or substitutionary atonement so I am hard pressed to make comment on her views.
In that context rather than risking a misrepresentation of Sarah’s views I think it better if I offer my own.
My own position on the issue of substitutionary atonement is that to deny penal substitutionary atonement would be to reject a plain reading of the Scriptures which I believe would seriously impoverish the richness of the atoning work of Christ and its comfort for every believer.
Secondly on the issue of the ordination of homosexuals I offer the following. While we must value the lives of every individual irrespective of lifestyle and must show due care and compassion for all people the Bible makes clear that homosexuality is sinful. It remains the responsibility of all Christians and especially those called to ordination in the Anglican Church to defend the will of God as expressed in the Word of God and where ever sin is found to call people to repentance. That being the case I believe that the church would be in grave error to proceed with the ordination of a practising homosexual as this would be evidence of a clear breach of God’s will for people’s lives. To act in this way would be a departure from Anglicanism as it is expressed in its articles and creeds. At this time such an action would also be in breach of the Australian Bishops’ Protocols and any such action would seriously disrupt the Australian Anglican Communion and be very disturbing for all who cherish the holy Scriptures.
At this time my reason for not going to Sarah’s consecration is an issue of conscience for me over the question of the ordination of women, their role in leadership in the Church and in particular the leadership of a diocese. I have discussed this with Sarah and with grace she has accepted this decision and understand my position while not agreeing with me. I expect that we will share a respectful, while at time contrary relationship and consistent with my own Consecration promises I will extend the love of Christ to her at all times.
So +Lewers is unafraid to take a clear stance on the questions. Those that know him would not be surprised, he has long been respected for holding and expressing clear Biblical convictions and on this matter he has spoken incredibly clearly. He describes the documented views of Dr Macneil as “to reject a plain reading of the Scriptures” and “a clear breach of God’s will for people’s lives”. Most tellingly he describes the actions proposed by Dr Macneil in her sermon of March of this year as “a departure from Anglicanism as it is expressed in its articles and creeds”.
For clarity, a diocesan bishop in a neighbouring diocese describes the actions proposed by Dr Macneil in a sermon earlier this very same year as a departure from the very same truths and Biblical foundations that Macneil will say that she affirms when consecrated by bishop Robinson and others.
But some diocesans think very differently. Bishop Ian Palmer of Bathurst was the last to send a response,
I have worked closely with Bishop elect Sarah Macneil when we were Archdeacons together in the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and I warmly welcome the opportunity of working with her again as Diocesan Bishops in the Province of NSW.
Regarding the two questions you ask:
Most important, the matters you take issue with are not first order matters of Christian faith and teaching. So I think that you are mischievous in raising them to centre stage when there is much to affirm about Sarah’s ministry in the cause of the Gospel. You will plant in people’s minds a negative impression of Sarah which is neither true to her nor honouring of the Lord she serves. You will divide rather than build up the Body of Christ and this is clearly contrary to the Scriptures.
Secondly the consecrating Bishop (the Rt Revd Stuart Robinson) tells me that he has been assured by the Revd Dr Sarah Macneil that she can and will answer in the affirmative all the questions she is asked in the Consecration Service. This is consistent with my experience of working with Sarah.
Thirdly I have not seen the wider context of the short excerpts you quote so I will not comment on them.
However, fourthly, I will comment that you are wrong. Penal substitution is not necessarily taught in Article XXXI. The use of the word “satisfaction” (twice in that Article) and again the the Service of Holy Communion (1552 and 1662) owes more to the Feudal concept of “honour” (Anselm) than it does to a forensic understanding. The Scriptures affirm that “Christ died for our sins” and that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. There are a number of different images used in the NT to illuminate the Work of Christ on the cross of which the image of the law courts is just one. The Doctrine Commission has recently published a book on the Atonement (“Christ died for our sins” ed Michael Stead, Barton Books September 2013) in order to stimulate debate and deepen our faith.
Palmer’s answer is interesting, not least in it’s clear contrast to Lewers’. First, notably, he describes the issues as “not first order matters”. I was personally taken aback to hear the atonement described as “not a first order matter”. Others might also note that matters of sexual ethics are rapidly also becoming key questions in the life of the church. I have heard not a small number of key Anglican leaders here in Australia make it clear that this is a matter over which division will surely come. And that warning has already been clearly expressed within the House of Bishops.
Palmer also shares Robinson’s view that Macneil’s affirmations are sufficient. Readers may differ. One leader I spoke to this week said to me “if you can believe she’s changed her mind so massively between this year and the next then you’re more generous than I could hope to be”.
I’d also take issue with Palmer’s suggestion that the language of “satisfaction” is feudal in origin, referring to “honour”. First, the BCP makes quite clear how it considers Christ’s death on the cross as
(by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world (Prayer of Consecration, Lord’s Supper)
The language of “one” and “once offered” is drawn directly from the Letter to the Hebrews (e.g. Heb. 10:10-14) where Christ’s death is presented to us as the perfect fulfilment of the penal substitutionary sacrifices of the Levitical cultus.
More than that, just because Anselm used the word “satisfaction” in a particular way does not mean that is the usage in the Articles. As Dan Saunders points out in his analysis of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, (my emphasis)
Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (CDH) provides a satisfaction theory of the atonement.
The concept of satisfaction has tainted Latin theology from the time of its introduction by Tertullian. In Anselm it makes a foray into Medieval atonement theory where it is then adopted and confused by ecclesiastical indulgence and penitential systems. It was left to the Reformers to instill new meaning into the word and place it firmly within a scriptural context of penal substitution by way of sacrificial ransom.
And drawing on the work of Foley he notes by citation.
‘the Reformers taught that our Lord’s sufferings were penal, and Anselm expressly distinguishes between punishment and satisfaction … satisfaction was instead of punishment; but they transformed it into satisfaction by punishment’. (from G. C. Foley, Anselm’s Theory of the Atonement (London: Longmans Green and Co, 1909), p. 219)
Behind these discussions what is rapidly becoming clear is that Dr Macneil’s appointment may very well become the public crystallisation of profound differences that already exist in the Anglican Church of Australia, not least in the House of Bishops itself.
A recent comment on davidould.net by retired bishop David Mulready (formerly of NW Australia) sums the differences up well,
…these two views Sarah McNeill represents (pro-’gay’ marriage & rubbishing the Biblical view of the Atonement) are widely held around the Australian Church. We need to persevere in God’s revealed truth and be prepared to speak up. Many more liberal women (& male) Bishops will follow Sarah.
To consecrate Macneil now would be to legitimise the clear difference between her recently published views and those she will promise she believes and will uphold. Anglicans in Grafton are naturally concerned about this discrepancy and I understand that there are discussions going on in the diocese. Perhaps Dr Macneil will be able to answer to her own future diocesan members questions she has so far declined to address? Either way, the growing differences in the Australian church (and the Church of England is in a similar state) will continue to be raised as more liberal candidates are put forward for key appointments.
This growing receptionism, the consistent legitimisation of heterodox views (or simply ignoring them in the face of (at times incredible) affirmations of orthodoxy) is not a new thing for Anglicans. It’s the story of the decline of TEC which eventually resulted in many, many Anglicans leaving what became an apostate province. Will Australian Anglicans learn from their American friends? A source very close to the leadership of the ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) had this to say to me,
The hard truth is that, orthodox Anglicans seem to be particularly susceptible to denial and wishful thinking. One of the reasons revisionist activists were able to take over the levers of power in the Episcopal Church, was the conflict-averse complacency of the orthodox. Vigilance and action are required not just at the ‘big’ moments, but in all the seemingly small decisions that are taken in parishes and committees. In the United States the watershed moments that made the news cycle were usually just the late symptoms of a lack of discipline and a theological slide that began years prior.
The boxer Sugar Ray Robinson famously commented on his career and retirement, “You always say, ‘I’ll quit when I start to slide.’ Then one morning you wake up and realize you done slid.”
Many orthodox Anglicans tell themselves that they will stand up and take action in their part of the church before the situation slides too far into heresy, only to wake up one day to discover it’s too late. Although there were a number of notable exceptions in the United States, this pattern repeated itself diocese by diocese. By the time the orthodox got serious, the balance of power had already shifted. If there is a lesson to be learned in Australia and England, provinces that seem to be repeating all the same mistakes that led to the downfall of the Episcopal Church, it is that action has to be taken much earlier than most folks realize.
“Action has to be taken much earlier than most folks realize”. Many of my Australian readers have communicated to me this past week that they believe that time is now.