Australian General Synod - Church, Constitution and Centralism

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I dread the day when my children grow up and leave home. Hopefully they won’t act like the prodigal, and ask for half my bank account before they shut the front door behind them in a final show of contempt.

I can’t imagine anything worse.

Actually now, after four days in General Synod, I’m beginning to think that I can. It would be worse if they wanted to keep taking my money while staying at home and treating me with contempt.

That’s the way that General Synod is starting to feel. The parallels aren’t exactly the same but the feeling is. As we continue to debate a number of matters concerning the relationship of the dioceses to the national church there’s an increasing sense that there are many here who have less and less time for Sydney, except when it comes to us opening up our wallet.

The background to this is probably worth explaining. When the Anglican Church of Australia was formed in 1961 the Constitution set up was was basically a federation, loosely mimicing the current commenwealth/state system. Dioceses were given a fair amount of autonomy with only those issues pertinent to the national Church being dealt with by General Synod. Of course, even such an arrangement requires some national structures – boards, tribunals etc. – but the principle was there; the dioceses were autonomous while happily in federation with one another. Dioceses agreed to fund the work of General Synod in proportion to their number of delegates.

But things have not remained that way. The number of things included in that funding has slowly increased. As just one example we now help fund the work of the Anglican Consultative Council (one of the so-called Anglican Instruments of Unity). Sydney has objected to a number of these extra items and has an arrangement whereby they are allocated to a “Special Fund” which Sydney does not contribute to.

And this is where the fun begins.

Money bills

This year’s budget shifts a number of items out of the Special Fund into the regular budget, thus bringing them into the scope of those things Sydney are expected to pay for. “Not fair!” we’ve cried.

But the sense of being badly done by doesn’t end there. In recent years we’ve also seen a massive increase in the work of the Appellate Tribunal, a body originally established in the Constitution to clarify matters of uncertainty in Synod legislation. Despite that original purpose, there have been a number of recent submissions to the Tribunal on what Sydney argues are political, not legal grounds – notably the question of whether women could be ordained bishop or whether diaconal and lay administration were consistent with church law.

Sydney has been unhappy with the results of these various submissions. First, the opinions appear to be contradictory (arguing first for a loose interpretation of original intent and then for a tight interpretation) and often confused theological and legal argument. Second, the very act of making such submissions was seen as simply a way of circumventing General Synod where these matters should have first been heard – if you know you’re not going to get it through Synod do you just ask the Tribunal? Third, the submissions were not really legal enquiries but appeared politically motivated. Fourth, the Tribunal’s opinions were being treated as enforceable rulings by many in the church, when in fact they are only advisory opinions.

Thus Sydney now finds itself paying a larger amount of money for the actions of an increasingly centralising national Church while at the same time seeing itself attacked politically through those very structures that it is funding. Indeed, at times it feels like contempt.

On the other side, opponents of Sydney see a large and apparently rich diocese stubbornly refusing to open up their wallet. This antagonism, matched up with what I am experiencing at times as a genuine theological hostility, means that Synod is getting pretty feisty at times.

Or, to put it another way, “it’s kicking off”.

And it did kick off on Day Three. In a debate about the scope of the Appellate Tribunal’s work, things got heated on the floor of the Synod chamber. There was clearly ill-will in the air. Opponents were sensing yet another attempt by Sydney to isolate themselves. We were seeing yet another attempt to deal with the increasing centralisation of the Australian church defeated at Synod.

Jensen speaks

And into this charged atmosphere Archbishop Peter Jensen made a key contribution. Speaking more clearly to the heart of the issue than anyone had yet dared, as perhaps only he was able, he reminded Synod that Sydney was still very much committed to the national Church but we were increasingly concerned by the centralisation we were seeing and the hostile political action we were experiencing in so many areas. All of this had led to a breakdown of trust, and unless trust was restored there was little progress to be made. It was an electrifying moment. Our concerns had been heard. The question now is whether they’ll be attended to.

In some parts, they will. One of the joys of this General Synod has been talking to so many different people across the national Church. I have been pleasantly surprised by the warmth and even affection so many people have displayed towards Sydney. But, at the same time, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there are some here who really do have a deep antipathy for us. They are intransigent in their opposition. You can talk to them and they’re pleasant enough but even if they are in agreement on the principles of the issues when the vote comes, they cast against Sydney. It sounds bizarre, but I’m seeing it go on around me.

So that’s what it feels like here. It’s exciting, but there’s also a degree of pain to it. I think I can speak on behalf of all the Sydney delegates that we covet your prayers at this difficult time. Pray for us to be gracious but firm, speaking the truth in love. Pray that we would manage the rest of the week well. These difficult discussions will happen again and again as we continue to discuss contentious issues such as the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration, ongoing funding of Communion bodies and Diaconal Administration.

Most of all, we’re discussing what it really means for any of us to be a member of the Anglican Church of Australia.

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