A fascinating article by Muriel Porter in various papers yesterday in response to the recent General Synods in both Australia and the Church of England (where they voted to allow women bishops):
And Australia, where there are now five women bishops. Dr Sarah Macneil, the first woman to be in charge of a diocese in this country, took up her role in Grafton NSW earlier this year.
Australian Anglicans need not be complacent, however. The stark reality is that if votes even for women priests were now required in the Anglican Church here, let alone for women bishops, it is highly likely they would not succeed.
That was the take home message from our own General Synod held earlier this month in Adelaide. Mercifully, votes for women were not on the agenda at that meeting.
Over the 22 years since women priests were approved in Australia, the dominance of the conservative Diocese of Sydney has grown exponentially. And it has become even more conservative.
Ironically, when the women priests’ legislation passed the Australian General Synod in 1992, it was widely expected that although Sydney Diocese had opposed the change vociferously, effectively delaying the move for many years, it would change its mind within a decade or so.
This is quite true. And it really worries Muriel,
Over the last two decades, Sydney Diocese – particularly under its former archbishop, Peter Jensen, who retired last year – has extended its reach into other parts of Australia.
This became obvious in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago. Although it was on the surface a civilised, good-humoured meeting, the changing dynamics of the national church were clear when votes were tallied for the General Synod’s standing committee.
In marked contrast to recent years, not a single woman priest was elected to that body. Eight of the nine male clergy elected were either from Sydney or have had Sydney connections. All of them could be described as theologically conservative.
Capable women clergy candidates from Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane lost out.
When the results were read out, there was consternation among liberals on the synod floor. How had this happened, particularly when lay synod voters had returned a reasonable complement of liberal laywomen from around the country to the same body?
The jury is still out, but the most likely scenario is that around Australia now, the number of conservative clergy either directly from Sydney Diocese or with Sydney sympathies has grown apace in a number of dioceses. Sydney has been very effective at spreading its tentacles.
In turn, these missionaries have been elected as General Synod representatives in place of the more liberal and often Anglo-Catholic clergy who were once there.
Add to them the fact that Sydney Diocese now has more than double the number of General Synod representatives of the next largest diocese, Melbourne – 66 to 32 – and the writing is on the wall.
One bishop commented privately that, within a decade, theologically liberal Anglicans will be, as he put it, “gone” from the national leadership.
But it is now clear that legislation for women priests would not have been passed even in Adelaide this month. It is as well it was passed back in 1992, when it was difficult enough. It barely reached the requisite two-thirds majorities then in the face of the conservative opposition.
“Spreading it’s tentacles”. Translation – the private observation of the unnamed bishop is a reality and Muriel is really worried. I have to tell you, when the result that Porter is referring to was read out at General Synod there was also amazement from the conservatives. We couldn’t believe so many like-minded clergy had been elected to the Standing Committee. And if we were astounded, no wonder that Porter is worried. So worried, in fact, that she then throws out an utterly ridiculous allegation:
So could we see the unthinkable happen in this country, the legislation for women priests repealed? It happened in the Presbyterian Church. Could it happen here, even though there are now close to 500 women priests in Australia? It is believed some conservatives have a repeal in their sights.
Now I move in what Muriel might describe as some pretty conservative circles here in Sydney, but I have never once heard even a sniff of the idea that we might be seeking to get General Synod to repeal the legislation on women priests. Not even a whisper. Lots of ideas get floated around all the time but that one is a complete novelty. So where is Porter getting this stuff from? Certainly not from the Diocese of Sydney. And if not from Sydney then I suspect it’s just the fanciful, but fearful, imagination of those who sense they might just be losing the game in the long-run.
The lesson here is that the Constitution of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, which calls for a proportional representation of dioceses based on their numbers of clergy (which is, in turn, a measure of the actual size and relative growth of the dioceses) is an excellent thing. It means that the General Synod is more genuinely representative of the national church. And that appears to scare the liberals.