Australian General Synod - An uneasy détente?

It's been quite a while since the General Synod closed and I've had some time to reflect upon my overall impressions of the week.

Much has been written by others, not least on the sydneyanglicans website. This Synod was, in the view of  Bishop Rob Forsyth,

the best meeting of recent time

What made it like that? Well, probably because there was no major divisive theological issue in front of us such as the previous debates over women's ordination. Even the vexed issue of diaconal and lay administration was only approached from “side-on” – via the question of the inter-relation of General Synod and the Appellate Tribunal.

But more than this, there was a genuine spirit of conciliation (even if limited) from a noticeable middle-ground at synod. As a novice to General Synod I had been expecting a stereotype of angry theological liberals and, although there were clearly some there, their numbers were nowhere near as great as I had feared.

That meant that when contentious issues arose there was a gentler mood than some may have expected.

Nevertheless, there were some moments of genuine tension, two in particular which stand out.

First, when debating a proposal that the Jerusalem Declaration from GAFCON be sent to the national church for study our initial hopes for a constructive result were dashed by an early amendment to the proposed text which removed from the original motion,

That General Synod notes the publication of the Jerusalem Declaration and encourages its study as a means to Anglican identity and cohesion

the words “as a means to Anglican identity and cohesion” and left the motion somewhat gutted of impact.

Staggeringly, none other than ArchBishop Roger Herft of Perth suggested his own amendment,

That after the words “Jerusalem Declaration”, add “and acknowledge the particular context in which it has arisen. The General Synod encourages its study by dioceses and parishes in this Church to assist our understanding of some of the current issues facing the Anglican Communion”.

I have to say that the Sydney delegates around me could hardly believe how good this was. (The Primate and chair, Philip Aspinall, asked for a seconder and, at this moment, the record should show that I stuck my hand up and was named as seconder although the minutes subsequently record that both proposer and seconder of the original motion accepted it and therefore no seconder was recorded wink ) Roger Herft is from Sri Lanka and was, it appears, moved by the argument that the Jerusalem Declaration represented the voices of many man developing world (or “Global South”) Anglicans. What was ultimately most striking about this whole event was that the white western liberals got torpedoed by one of their own. Except, of course, it turns out that he wasn't just that. He was a man from Sri Lanka who rightly sensed that the amendment was rejecting the majority of global Anglicans, those he had grown up amongst and who had nurtured him.

Second, there was a debate on the funding that individual dioceses make to the General Synod. At the moment General Synod distinguishes between a “general” contribution and a “special” contribution by dioceses. The general contribution covers the specific costs of General Synod but the special costs are those not central to Synod's affairs, most noticeably the quarter of a million dollars paid to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). Sydney Diocese has, for many years, conscientiously refused to contribute to those items and so is excused paying the “special” contribution. This position was agreed with the General Synod a number of years before.

So it was a great surprise when one of the motions put forward this year was to move the ACC contribution from the “special” to “general” category. The debate was tense and Sydney's main speaker against the proposal gave what could only be understood to be the official “party line” – if this motion were to pass then it would signal a great change in the national church's relationship with Sydney. It would signal the national church imposing a cost upon a diocese against their stated conscientiously-held position and, further, would also represent a reneging on agreements made previously in good faith (and argument which had also been raised previously on another matter – the appointment of members to the Appellate Tribunal). Again, Bishop Forsyth's comments are helpful here,

The leadership given by a number of bishops and others from other dioceses wishing to maintain a good relationship with us in Sydney was decisive. I think of one particular moment when debate on the funding of the Anglican Consultative Council looked like heading to a harsh decision for Sydney, but the leadership of the Bishops of Willochra and Adelaide in particular changed the terms of the matter in a most gracious way. While disagreeing with our stance they did not the General Synod want to push us too far. Most others seemed to have the same view.

And so the motion was actually defeated.

There was, as Forsyth notes, a degree of goodwill towards Sydney fostered, to some extent, by what appeared to be a conciliatory approach taken by many of the Sydney delegates. More than that, the more trenchant liberals were quite clearly losing ground. It was a wonder to see the particular group sat right in front of us struggle with the loss of four motions in one day that, perhaps, they could have expected to win a decade previously.

Nevertheless, flying home it was still clear to me that we were a long way from all being happy friends together. The situation was far closer to the détente of the 1970's. There are still deep divides, most noticeably on the nature of the gospel and its implications, across the church in Australia. Those who had been friendly towards us, for which we were grateful, were not our friends. But the temperature had eased off from boiling. Perhaps the danger now is that it lulls us into a false sense that things will get better? I doubt it. The increasing push towards centralisation will continue, not least from the Primate's office itself. In the meantime maybe an uneasy peace rests over the Australian Church…

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