General Synod Roundup – A Way Forward?

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The astute amongst you will have noticed I didn’t get to a “Day 4” on my General Synod reports. Truth be told, I was just too tired. But now, with a weekend between me and all those long days, I thought it might be helpful to reflect a little on how everything wrapped up and what it means for us going forward.

The main business of Day 4 was to consider the large “Report of the Viability & Structures Task Force“[pdf] authored by Bishop Andrew Curnow of Bendigo. The report had been discussed to varying degrees by the numerous small groups which had met throughout the week but it seems that one common thread could be heard from many participants; the report simply did not address the enormous theological differences within the Anglican Church of Australia and that without a serious assessment of those differences the report was badly lacking. Why so? Well because many would contend that the decline in numbers and morale in many dioceses was not simply due to social factors but to radicly different theologies; those places (e.g. Sydney, N.W. Australia, Armidale, Tasmania) that were much more sympathetic to evangelical theology were those were confidence in the future was higher. Even in places where there was a mix of theologies, this truth appeared to hold. In our group an assistant bishop confirmed that the parishes where there was life, growth and confidence were almost all evangelical.

The absence of this reflection in the report means it is, at best, half helpful. Yes, there are certainly some useful suggestions (e.g. tightening up financial structures, the consideration of pooling provincial administration where possible) but the underlying assumption that the church’s “mission and ministry” could be restored by implementation of the suggestions of the plan simply failed to address the issue that not only was there no common understanding of “mission and ministry” anyway but, moreover,  perhaps it was certain understandings of “misssion and ministry” that were actually a contributing factor in decline.

Despite this, a lot of the groups were able to discuss their theological differences, albeit to varying depths. As far as I could tell, these discussions tended to be driven by evangelicals – the group least frightened of the implications of exploring differences. At the same time conservatives also reported hostility to their views; sometimes openly expressed, at other times by simple avoidance when challenging topics were raised. In my own group a senior leader found it very uncomfortable to discuss the constitutional position of the Anglican Church of Australia with respect to theology (i.e. that the 39 Articles are our standard for doctrine). They quickly brushed that one away. It was far easier to engage in personal attacks than actually discuss the issues.

That’s not to say that there were no good conversations. In particular social media played an important part in the events, promoting a more lighthearted backchannel for relationships to be established even between those on opposite sides of the theological divisions. Those of us taking part in that particular forum found it an encouragement for us that we could keep on talking and get down to discussing the real issues that needed to be addressed.

So what way forward?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Many of us wanted to get down to brass tacks and talk about some of the real issues but we were regularly met with either hostility or avoidance. That’s not a healthy way forward for us but it is a way of pretending that everything’s OK. Until we have those deeper discussions I’m not sure we can be anywhere nearer sorting it all out.

And in the meantime a number of dioceses lurch towards effective bankruptcy. They are often those more tolerant of liberal theology. What that means, of course, is that one strategy of conservatives could be to simply wait the whole process out. Evangelicals are (in the main) growing. Liberals, conversely, are shrinking and aging and many bishops are recognising (to varying levels of pleasure) that it’s evangelical ministry that so very often grows churches. But if there’s hostility to that theology then those dioceses may find themselves in a tricky place.

What way forward for the Anglican Church of Australia? In some places the train is very clearly on the track and steaming ahead. In other places some very hard decisions will soon have to be made.

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  1. Jeremy Morgan

    It is becoming blindingly clear that the future Anglican Church in Australia is going to be more evangelical and more conservative than the one we currently have.

  2. Tim Patrick

    Is the train really 'steaming ahead' anywhere? I mean, is there a single diocese whose growth is even matching population growth? I completely agree that there needs to be a very clear and honest discussion about theological differences, but I sometimes wonder if even the evangelical parts of the church are in as strong a position as you indicate. In my experience, many of them are also struggling to engage the world around them with the gospel. Certainly they have the intention, but the effectiveness is often lacking.

  3. Ian Hore-Lacy

    Sad to read that "Many of us wanted to get down to brass tacks and talk about some of the real issues but we were regularly met with either hostility or avoidance." – even if those reactions were to a perceived agenda. But at least some wholesome discussion seems to have occurred, and some entrenched pessimism challenged during the week.

    1. Lydia Smith

      Hi Matt
      I enjoyed reading your blog entry, and I can see why you are frustrated by the current local church model as you perceive it. However, I don’t think it should be written off – for a number of reasons.
      Our own small rural church acts as a base for exactly the kind of ministry you talk about. For example, our men have a breakfast style meeting each week, involving reading the bible, prayer and encouraging one another in personal growth. Last week it was held in a local café. Many other groups in our church meet outside the church building. We try to see our church building as a place where (among other things) we are equipped to serve in our workplaces, families, schools etc rather than as a place where all the “ministry” happens.
      However, the beauty of the local church meeting is that I don’t get to choose who I worship alongside, minister to or work with. In any voluntary small group, like will tend to group with like. For example, our bible study groups tend to attract a similar kind of person, at a similar stage of life and outlook. This is comfy and enjoyable – but its at the larger church gathering where we learn to display the fruits of the Spirit because we are commanded to love and interact with a range of people – some of whom we have nothing in common with (except Jesus!) and some of whom we probably wouldn’t choose to hang out with at all if we had the option! I would find it much harder to grow in patience if I wasn’t surrounded by people that I am tempted to be impatient with! And they with me of course :).
      Ephesians talks about this model as the wisdom of God on display – taking people who were divided and making one family out of them.
      This doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways that the local church model can be changed for the better. I just don’t think its “past its use by date”. In fact, because it is so counter cultural in demanding community from people who might otherwise just avoid each other, I think it speaks directly to our “niche market” culture.

  4. Tim Harris

    I tend to agree with Tim P. I think the stats (such as they are) bear out his comments. Nearly all dioceses (including Sydney, as I understand it) are struggling to match population growth. Evangelicals tend to have better demographics regarding young adults and families, but my understanding is that Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane are catching up to Sydney Diocese. While theological conviction is a core issue, rural decline and lack of business acumen are also realities. I do believe models need revisiting, with more diversified approaches alongside church planting initiatives. The big question for me (including theology) is the % of those contributing to 'growth' numbers that are from unchurched backgrounds – generally evangelicals have not been doing so well in this area.

    1. Lydia Smith

      Hellooo Tim Harris! Hope the family is well! Would you believe Fred and I have four grandchildren? Tempus fugit . . .

      Thanks for your comments too. I think there’s also a tendency in rural areas, such as ours, for church growth to be circular in nature. We have four churches in our town that you would describe as mainstream Protestant. What can tend to happen is that one church experiences a surge in growth (generally after a new ministry or pastor begins!), but this is result of people playing “round and round the churches” rather than real growth. A church can become flavour of the month, draining other churches of adhererants.

      1. Tim Harris

        Hi there Lydia. I spoke with Rick briefly at GS, and he mentioned you both. Fiona and I also have two grand-cherubs – such fun…

        The cycle you mention is indeed a well-established reality – it was certainly true in Wollongong in the late ’80’s, and is also the case in some of the ‘growth’ areas in Adelaide today. It is good that people who may have lost contact with church may have found new engagement with a revitalise ministry, but generally speaking we are not good at attracting people from a non-church background.

  5. Tim Harris

    One other thing to observe: the biggest growth trajectory in Australian churches is with Pentecostal churches – they have just overtaken Anglicans in national terms. We need to be careful in drawing theological conclusions on the basis of growth figures…

    1. David Ould

      thanks Tim, you’re absolutely right that we ought not to claim more than the stats support.

      But in the case of the Anglican Church, I think it’s pretty clear where the growth is.

      1. Brian Alexander

        Isn’t this what the evangelicals were saying in the CofE until a decent study of attendance concluded that growth was not related to theological tradition. Can you point me to any good data from Australia that supports your view (which is, I presume, that evangelical churches are growing at a greater rate, or declining less, than more liberal churches)?

        1. David Ould

          hi Brian. Don’t have any of that, only the consistent anecdotal evidence collected around Australia

  6. Roger Gallagher

    Hi David,

    Something I noticed while skimming through the report was the reliance on growth or shrinkage in the number of nominal Anglicans within a Diocese as an indicator of the health of that Diocese. It seems to indicate a certain tunnel vision in the search for new members. Surely the gospel is for everyone, not just those who ticked Anglican on the last census.

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