Today, Monday 31 March 2014, the Bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia meet as they do regularly.

A number of different sources have confirmed to me that amongst the many things on the agenda is a request by bishop John McIntyre for the House to revisit the Protocol on “Ministerial Appointments” [pdf]. Each protocol is described as “the common mind of the bishops as determined by consensus at our National Meeting” and they are renewed annually.

The particular protocol on Ministerial Appointments arose out of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Rev. David Head as a priest in charge of a parish in the Diocese of Gippsland. Rev. Head is open about living in a homosexual relationship and the appointment was announced in the diocesan paper with a picture of Rev. Head and his partner.

Under pressure, the House of Bishops issued their protocol in 2012, which stated that it “accepted the weight” of orthodox statements on human sexuality (including Lambeth 98 1.10 and various Australian General Synod resolutions)  and would uphold that position when it came to ordinations, licensing and appointments in general.

The protocol was renewed in 2013 (all protocols being renewed annually).

Subsequent to the protocol being issued, Bishop John McInytre in his presidential address at the 2012 Gippsland synod stated (in the context of a revisionist argument on sexual ethics),

I will appoint to office in our diocese those whom I believe God is calling to minister among us, and I will continue to do so with a grateful heart to God for the gifts and skills they bring to us.

Thus less than 2 months after agreeing to the Protocol, Bishop McIntyre signalled his intention to breach it. In his 2013 address he reiterated this position:

The impasse we have reached suits those who do not want to give a full place to same-sex attracted people in the life of the church because it continues the status quo that excludes them. This is entirely unacceptable as a matter both of compassion and justice.

Were we today to embrace [diverse] our historical Anglican heritage fully, I believe we would go a long way to removing the unnecessary conflict and division in the Anglican Communion caused by the current debate about the place of same-sex attracted people in the life of the church. It would set us free to affirm the significant presence among us of same-sex attracted people, both lay and ordained; with some living in faithful life-long relationships. In grace, we would openly welcome these sisters and brothers in Christ into our churches and celebrate their presence among us as part of the God-given diversity of our communion in all its richness.

I understand that Bishop McIntyre has provided his fellow bishops with the 2 months notice required to request an extended discussion upon a topic that is the subject of a Protocol with a view to revisiting the protocol. Such a process is, itself, set out in another protocol from 2013. I also understand he has indicated to his fellow bishops that he is unwilling to assent to the protocol as it currently stands for another year.

As a result the House of Bishops will be breaking into a number of discussion groups including one that will look specifically at the topic of human sexuality with a view to discussing the Protocol. That group will include Bishop McIntyre and is chaired by one of the Metropolitan Archbishops with another Metropolitan (a conservative on the issue of sexuality) as part of the discussion.

I asked Bishop McIntyre for a comment on this story but he has declined.

The possibility of a far more public division amongst the bishops on this difficult issue is now much more likely. A renewal of, let alone a change to the Protocol requires the unanimous agreement of the bishops and this will certainly not be given. At that point I am led to believe that Bishop McIntyre may very well signal his intention to act against the Protocol. Alternatively I have been advised that the discussions may very well be bogged down with no renewal of the Protocol possible. What happens after that is anyone’s guess although McIntyre has given us all a clear indication of his intentions.

Once again some serious divisions in the Anglican Church of Australia are being exposed. The bishops work hard to promote an appearance of collegiality but under the surface there are real tensions. I have been shown correspondence where more than one diocesan bishops describes their more conservative colleagues in what could generously be called “unflattering” terms. It’s hard to believe that John McIntyre will be the only one arguing for a change in the Protocol and, if he chooses to breach it following the meeting, the only one who will do so.

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, meeting in July, will be an interesting time.

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