Well, 2 days of Synod have been and gone and it's been … strange. I've thought hard how to summarise what I've seen and the best sense I can make of it is that there are clearly some people there who want a fight. It's just that they don't want to fight.
That there is a fight spoiling, and that it has already broken out, is evidenced not least by continued reporting in the local papers. As I reported previously, the key issue is over increasingly deliberate attempts by some on General Synod, including the Primate himself, to limit the independence that the various dioceses, and Sydney in particular, have. Here's how the Age newspaper put it,
On the eve of the Australian Anglican Church's three-yearly synod, which opens in Melbourne today, Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall wrote to the NSW Attorney-General, shadow attorney-general and director-general of the Department of Justice, seeking their help.
According to Archbishop Aspinall, the Sydney diocese wants the NSW Parliament to amend the 1918 Church Property Trust Act in a way that will allow it to defy decisions of the national synod unless its own synod approves. It was going through the state government to avoid the proper processes of the church, he told the General Synod Standing Committee in a letter.
In particular, the proposals mean it would be able to resist financial requirements, transferring the burden to the other 22 dioceses. Sydney pays about a quarter of the $1 million annual bill for the national church office, as does the Melbourne diocese.
Except, of course, that the Age didn't quite get it right. The Act (which is from 1917) was one of many passed in that era in New South Wales which sought to protect the assets of church dioceses (and their equivalents in other denominations) from the national bodies that they were assembled under. What Aspinall did is write to state officials about a matter that Sydney had not even legislated for (the bill is slated for next month's diocesan synod) and which does not go as far as Aspinall communicates that it does. In a sense Sydney diocese is simply seeking to tidy up a old piece of legislation.
Key to Sydney's thinking in all of this, as I understand it, is that the Property Trust act long predates the formation of the Australian Church in the 1960's with it consequent constitution. That constitution set up the Anglican Church of Australia as what can best be termed a federation.
The result has been a raft of bills and measures at General Synod which seek to act against this perceived parochialism from Sydney. From Sydney's viewpoint this is simply a move towards increased centralisation on the part of the national church. This became apparent even in the Primate's opening Presidential Address [pdf].
What do we believe the Anglican Church of Australia is called to be in our day? What is our shared vocation? That is a complex, multi-faceted question, but I hope we would answer, in part, that we are to develop and make known a credible, intellectual
rationale for Christianity in a way that will be life-giving for Australian society.
The Anglican Church could be the first port of call for people looking to interpret Christianity in Australia and to understand its implications. We should have vibrant Christian communities all around Australia and in as many places as possible. For this to be so, we must have structures and processes in place through which the strong can help the weak. We must have institutional vehicles for Christian generosity. There must be an overriding sense of belonging together and sharing in this one great mission. There must be forums for addressing and vehicles for acting on issues of wider than local significance, the issues on the national agenda.
Both the national church and the Communion are, in a sense, ongoing experiments, not yet finished, not yet perfected.
It all sounds good but read between the lines. The message is simple – the current status quo is no longer adequate, the federation must change. American readers will recognise resonances with similar, if far stronger, movements by The Episcopal Church. In reality, the similarities abound with Aspinall's move to involve secular legal authorities, albeit we are nowhere near litigation yet.
Opponents of Sydney will argue that in recent years the problem has been exacerbated by an increasing intransigence. Sydney's response has been that it is only in recent years that this push to increasing centralisation has begun, and thus the push back from Sydney was necessary.
One example of such a cycle came today in the debate over Bill 10, which bears a little prior explanation. The Episcopal Standards Commission, which oversees discipline of bishops, is affected by a clause in the Special Tribunal Canon 2007 which states that new members of the Commission can only be appointed
with the consent in writing of the Chancellors of each of the metropolitan dioceses
of which Sydney is one, along with Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.
This specific phrase had been introduced as a result of a deal struck at the 2007 General Synod between Sydney and its opponents. But now in 2010 there was a move to repeal this agreement. This reverse had been precipitated by Sydney actually exercising it's negotiated right and turning down a recent candidate.
Both parties were feeling aggrieved and any neutral commentator could see that the fight was on. Matters were only exacerbated by a question from Sydney's veteran lawyer, Neil Cameron,
Do you not consider it dishonourable to go back on an agreement made only 3 years ago?
to which the proposer of the motion, Audrey Mills, chancellor of the diocese of Tasmania, answered
Shortly thereafter the chair, Primate Aspinall, wisely suggested an adjournment to allow the opposing sides to see if they could come to an agreement. There was grateful relief from Synod. For all that they wanted to have this fight, they didn't want to have a fight.
There are four more days of Synod to go. It seems too much to hope for that peace will hold out. The legislation still in front of us seems heavily weighted in the same direction – centralisation directed at Sydney. More than that, there are enough people here who want to push this agenda.
But Synod has not been all stress. I've had a great time meeting with people from all over Australia. Morning and afternoon tea and lunches spent with Defence Force Board members from the NSW country, diocesan staff from Perth, evangelicals from Melbourne and one fantastic old saint from Brisbane have been a real delight. That's not to deny that we're all on the same page, although more of us are than you would think (and there is some unspoken respect for Sydney scattered around the country), but there is a genuine bonhomie amongst members of General Synod.
Again, they want the fight, they just don't want to fight.
So I suspect that by the end of this week there will have been some real damage done in terms of diocesan relationships. At the same time personal relationships will have strengthened. It's a curious situation.