Last week reported on the decision by the synod of Newcastle Diocese to approve 2 controversial bills. The first sought to change the Diocese’s disciplinary procedures so that being in a same-sex marriage was to not be considered an offence (including being considered as a breach of Faithfulness in Service). The second, which was not completed and sent to Diocesan Council (where it will almost certainly be approved), was a “Wangaratta” type bill to allow for a liturgy of blessing for those in a same-sex marriage.

Since that synod vote many members have contacted to voice their concern about how these votes came about. Those who got in touch used language such as “concerning”, “deeply upsetting”, “offensive to conservatives” and even “a stitch-up”.

The substance of the many complaints concerns the work, or more accurately the lack of work of the Diocesan “Faith and Order Commission” (“FAOC”).

The existence of a FAOC was first suggested as part of Bishop Peter Stuart’s 2017 Presidential Address where he said,

If we wish to, there is an opportunity for us in this Diocese to make a significant contribution in national Anglican discussions and in wider public discourse. Some years ago the Diocese of Sydney established a Doctrine Commission to assist in such work. A bishop can be greatly assisted in their commentary knowing that there has been careful consideration of matters in their Diocese. We have particular insights to offer because of our rich history as well as vast experience of ministry in an industrial city as well as in suburban and rural centres. I hope that the Diocese might establish a Faith and Order Commission to give careful consideration to matters of significance. I envisage a small group of say five people – two appointed by DC and two appointed by the Bishop, with the Bishop also appointing the Chair. Such a group could be augmented in its work by some consultants with particular expertise. I hope that such a Commission would publish essays and hold workshops enabling the Diocesan family and others to explore important matters at depth. My hope is that the clergy and people of the Diocese would happily be part of such theological conversations.

The FAOC was then established by Diocesan Council in 2018 with the Dean, Katherine Bowyer as it’s chair, as reported in the year book:

The 2018 Strategic Plan for the diocese contained a reference to the work of the FAOC:

In assisting the Diocese to engage in collaborative thinking and decision-making it will prepare a theological and biblical resource on a critical question to be considered across the Diocese in discussion groups and as part of a conference session at each Synod (FAOC001).

The Faith and Order Commission will help us in 2019 hear the experience of LGBTIQ+ people and develop a diocesan understanding of and response to what we hear (FAOC002).

Motion 20.4 passed by the 2018 synod included a clause which read as follows:

That this synod:

3. Supports and encourages the Faith and Order Commission to listen to the experience of LGBTIQ+ people and develop a diocesan understanding to what we hear (FAOC002).

The FAOC set about the task of considering the topic of human sexuality. A number of additional people were added to the core group and they were sent copious amounts of reading to begin their work. But the FAOC never met, let alone produced the promised “theological and biblical resource” on human sexuality. So it was a great surprise to many in synod that the two human sexuality bills arrived as private bills introduced by the chair of the FAOC when the FAOC had no report to deliver to inform those debates (as was its mandate) nor, it appeared, had even met once to consider the matter.

One member of synod reports what happened during the debate (the events of which have been corroborated by a number of sources also present):

On the floor of Synod the Dean had the question put to her. “Why did this bill not come to us via the Faith and Order Commission?” She paused, turned to Bishop Peter, and then replied haltingly (with some confusion in her voice), “I understand that the Faith and Order Commission has been disbanded.”

Surprise has been expressed to that even the chair of the FAOC didn’t know whether the body had been disbanded or not.

And so the synod considered the matter. More than one person that we have spoken to have expressed a similar opinion on the mind of synod; that they are deferential to the bishop and will consider something that he approves of as something that should be approved. So it was with these two bills. While proposed by the Dean, they were understood by many to have the Bishop’s clear backing. As one synod member put it to us, “the Dean is the Bishop’s agent for getting things done”. It may have been a private bill but the implication was that this was “official” and “from the leadership of the diocese”.

We approached the Dean for comment and asked her some specific questions, many of the same questions that we were hearing from members of synod themselves:

1. Were the FAOC provided with reading material prior to meeting together to discuss questions of human sexuality?

2. Did the FAOC meet to discuss this topic?

3. When and how was the FAOC disbanded?

4. Given that the communicated intent was that the FAOC report to synod to assist in the debate over human sexuality, what alternative means to equip synod for the debate were considered?

We received the following answer for publication:

The Synod of the Diocese resolved affirmatively around the questions brought to it. These matters are now with the Appellate tribunal, and the Diocese will participate in these processes.

Conservatives in the diocese are now very disappointed with the way that things have been handled. They were promised participation and collaboration but saw those much-publicised vehicles sidelined with no explanation. They have spoken to us of a breach of trust by the bishop himself and we understand that several who serve in diocesan posts are now seriously considering their positions.

One member of synod said to, “Conservatives and evangelicals have been treated with contempt” by “a group of leading individuals in the diocese”.

If the diocese has entered a crisis over the votes themselves, it has only been made worse by the manner in which those votes were reached.

update: 5pm 8 November 2019

The Bishop of Newcastle, Peter Stuart, has sent an email to the diocese including the following:

Faith and Order Commission

You will recall at the Synod that there was some mention of the work of the Diocesan Faith and Order Commission and the fact that it hadn’t met during 2019. I expressed sadness that it was one of my dreams that hadn’t come to fruition. I didn’t respond a comment about it being disbanded.

Since the Synod, I have received feedback to the effect that people would like to see the Commission continue to enable us to develop a Newcastle Anglican perspective on complex theological questions.

Dean Katherine has shared with me that in 2020 she will have responsibilities to the General Synod and for incorporating the congregation of St Peters Hamilton into the Cathedral Parish. With those additional roles she doesn’t feel able to continue as chair. When I think of the demands of being the sole priest at the Cathedral during 2019 on top of which was, and is, the impact by the Graeme Lawrence trial, I am conscious of the huge responsibilities Katherine shoulders. I have accepted her request to step away from that role.

Canon Andrew Eaton has accepted appointment as Chair. He will gather the group early in 2020 to establish their working practices. The agenda may include –

Further consideration of the insights from thus years Morpeth Lecture on Disability and Aging,
Such further consideration of matters related to the blessing of same-sex marriage as may be required.
The appropriateness of congregations meeting on Sunday to receive communion by extension in the absence of a priest.
With a view to the longer term – the possibility of the NSW Parliament considering voluntary assisted dying legislation and a possible Diocesan response.
If you would like to be part of the Commission, please let me know.

The new Chair of the FAOC is known as a very vocal supporter of same-sex marriage.

image: Diocese of Newcastle

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20 comments on “Newcastle Synod Decision A “Stitch-Up”

  1. Insightful piece David. The Diocesan Bishop does not come up smelling of roses, it seems to me. Rather, this stinks to High Heaven.

  2. It is extremely sad that bishops ignore their ordination vows when they promised to preach the truth of Scripture. Come judgement day those Bishops who ignore God’s view on marriage will have to face God wrath.

    • Yup. Here is an apt quote below, that ought to bring about urgent repentance by the Diocesan.

      “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.”
      St. John Chrysostom (attributed)

  3. I’ve had a long connection with the diocese through various organisations and people. Bp Stuart (before becoming bishop) held a role in the diocese when the former dean held and maneuvered the reins. Even though the former dean has been removed, there is still more to be uncovered and people to be held accountable. The rot has only been scraped, not excised!

    • The fact that the recent Synod passed supportive legislation of SSB and redefined sexual sin, and that this has NOT been repudiated by the current Diocesan, demonstrates the entire Diocese at clergy level as a general statement has been spiritually corrupted and moribund of a saving Gospel from the top down, save a few notable exceptions. Including the Archdeacon of Newcastle.

        • Hmmm … perfectly apt. A spiritually dying Diocese, with most bereft of Salvation, that is moribund.

          “1. Approaching death; about to die.
          2. On the verge of becoming obsolete: moribund customs; a moribund way of life.”

          • You’re quite right – I simply assumed, as you’d used the word an way that didn’t make sense in the sentence, that you didn’t understand. One can’t be “moribund of” something, one can have something which is moribund. Purely semantics I guess.

  4. One of the many sad subtleties of the email that Peter Stuart sent to the Diocese on or about 8 November is that the Cathedral in Newcastle can now only afford one clergy-person on its paid staff (the Dean) assisted, according to its website, by one honorary deacon. And the Dean will now also be responsible, from 1 December 2019, for the adjacent liberal anglo-catholic parish of St Peter’s Hamilton (who were last able to publish a pew sheet on 1 September).

    Where are all the LGBTIQA+ parishioners supporting these two churches with their freewill offertories?

  5. When a church deviates from its faith, it is not such a sad thing that it should encounter financial problems. We have the same situation in the Wangaratta diocese, and yet, the money is readily raised to repair the Cathedral organ damaged by rodents outside the pulpit. The concerts that take place in churches here are always very well attended. You don’t need clergy if your only useful role is in the area of cultural events and social welfare. In fact, the community today would be better off without clergy. Sadly, a new bishop is to be appointed in Wangaratta, rather than an administrator.

  6. Well, these people who claim to have been ” treated with contempt” must have been at some other synod – every single person who had anything to say was treated with the utmost respect and listened to and thanked for their contribution to the conversation – it is an outright lie to suggest that there was any kind of ‘stitch’ up or underhanded manner in which votes were gained for the affirmative on the questions put to our synod. You might ned to get better sources – perhaps some with the courage to put their names to their slanderous lies.

      • David, I already stated what I believe to be untrue – that there’s been any kind of “stitch up” to begin with. You don’t mention in your piece of gossip that the Bishop had already been asked and had answered questions regarding FAOC which is why Dean Bowyer seemed confused – you know, why ask a question already asked and answered.

        To publish the claim that the Dean is in anyway not her own person, or that our Bishop would manipulate such an underhanded manner just shows the type of people you and your posse of courageous ‘conservatives’ are.

        The synod provided a safe and respectful space for all to have their say – and to suggest their wasn’t time for people to discuss or reflect is to be deliberately ignorant of the debate had in the Anglican Church around the world for the past 20+ years! The fact of the matter is that there are more people in our diocese, both clergy and laity, who believe that God’s blessing should not be withheld from anyone who seeks it.

        Plenty of people tried to keep the ‘unacceptable’ folks away from Jesus, and yet he still blessed, healed, forgave, ate with, and accepted them. I suspect that whomever seeks to stop people from coming to God will find they’ve joined the herd of goats.

        • Greg, I’m just reporting what people who were at the synod said to me.
          I see that you’ve not challenged the timeline of events. That you interpret them differently is obvious but you’re in denial if you think that conservatives in the diocese aren’t feeling very very badly disappointed with how they’ve been treated.

  7. David I have no doubt conservatives are feeling bad – but they have absolutely no call at all to be feeling bad at how they have been treated – they were treated with absolute respect, Their input acknowledged and gratitude expressed…anyone claiming to have been treated badly is simply lying – if they read this and have any valid claim to say otherwise – I challenge them to put their names to their claims instead of giving about things in underhanded and deceitful manner, i.e. feeding you with lies and misinformation.

    There were no new reasons, either for or against trotted out, so it’s simply disingenuous to claim that the bill not going before FAOC placed anyone at a disadvantage on the floor of synod, so I simply can’t understand the claim of “mistreatment”. Sour grapes is far more likely, they live and minister in a diocese which has a majority of its clergy and to the idea that no one is excluded from God’s blessing….such an awful way to think isn’t it?

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