Today was the first full day of business for the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia meeting in the grounds of St Peter’s College, Adelaide. The morning had a bunch of procedural business but the first real point of interest was the outgoing Primate, Philip Aspinall’s, presidential address.
The speech sought to encompass the current issues facing us as Aspinall hands over the reins to Freier of Melbourne.
Not withstanding the pressures put upon the church by the Royal Commission into Child Abuse and financial/viability concerns in several dioceses, the key issue facing us is the question of unity – and Aspinall didn’t avoid it:
…the nature of our very weak federation is largely not understood either within the church or outside it. While we refer to ourselves as ‘The Anglican Church of Australia’ and there is widespread perception in the community of the Anglican Church as a unified, coherent entity, the reality is quite different.
Every Primate and every General Synod in the life of this Anglican Church of Australia wrestles in one way or another with the unity and diversity of the Church and with its very dispersed authority structure. How do we cohere in the face of diversity and difference and with very weak national offices and instruments?
With this is mind, the most interesting section was at the end, dealing with “underlying theological issues”:
At virtually every point local autonomy has trumped substantial endeavours to express our belonging together, to act together, to provide mutual accountability and support, to plan and organise mission sensibly and to allocate resources where they are needed. That is, the character of the church as catholic has found only the most muted expression in Australia. Local autonomy has trumped catholicity.
It won’t have escaped your observation that the same kinds of issues, writ large, also manifest themselves in the dynamics of the international Anglican Communion. The Churches in the 39 provinces of the world are autonomous, self-governing. There are no central instrumentalities that can compel provinces to comply with decisions or standards made or set outside those provinces.
At root we are dealing with a spiritual issue. Historically the Anglican Church of Australia has been plagued by lack of trust, suspicion and party spirit. The difficulties experienced in securing agreement to our current Constitution in 1961, and the decades it took to do so, indicate that this dynamic has been with us from the outset. And the shape of the Constitution that emerged politically and legally entrenched what was fundamentally a spiritual shortcoming.
Thus the differences we see expressed in Australia are in some ways typical of the Communion-wide differences and the structural situations are in some ways also the same.
So what is the answer?
Structural change will be possible and effective only when it is accompanied by deeper spiritual transformation – transformed hearts and minds – conversion. The trick will be to attend to the spirit as well as to structures. Reform in the law will not be achieved apart from transformation in relationships.
Progress will come when perceptions are transformed to the point where we recognise the same apostolic faith in the other with whom we differ.
There’s a refreshing honesty about our situation here and in some ways I echo the identification Aspinall makes elsewhere in the speech that there has been some improvement of trust and relationships. But his proposed solution also exposes the most fundamental problem which many point to – his assumption that a generous spirit will automatically lead to a recognition of “the same apostolic faith in the other”. It’s the contention of many (from both “sides”) that the “other” may not share the same gospel after all.
The Primate encouraged us…
Gathered around scripture, anchored in prayer, relying on patience and all the fruit of the Spirit, allowing the possibility that we might recognise in each other, beneath differences, a common faith in Jesus Christ, let’s see what God might do with us.
There’s always that possibility and it was a real joy in our discussion group to recognise that in people from different backgrounds. So I sat with those who others might call “softer” evangelicals and convinced Anglo-Catholics and there was a definite agreement on key aspects of the gospel, and a sense of shared conviction and the unity that brought. But there are no doubt others in the General Synod with whom that conviction is not shared and, perhaps, will not be no matter how long we wait. But perhaps we will be able to acknowledge our differences in a better way?