Primate vs Ex-Primate. The full spectrum of the Anglican Church of Australia

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A couple of recent events, similar to each other yet also radically different, serve to demonstrate the vastly different approaches being taken by our most senior leaders in the Anglican Church of Australia on the most pressing issues before us. It is now perfectly obvious that some of our leaders are more than prepared to maintain the doctrine and practice of the national body and the agreements that they signed up to. Some aren’t.

Two very recent events have made this clear.

The first is the recently publicised story of Sorèl Coward. Sorèl is a male-to-female transgender person. Sorèl tells her own story in a public published Facebook post (link to clip of the post):

The facts as Sorèl relates them are these

  1. She was married in 1992 in Sydney. She was a man who married a woman.
  2. She was ordained in 1996 in the Diocese of Wangaratta and was still living as a man at the time.
  3. Some time after this she left left the clergy and began to work in the community health, psychology and social work field. During this time she “came out as transgender“.
  4. Recently she applied for Permission to Officiate (“PTO”) in the Diocese of Adelaide. PTO is essentially a license from the bishop of a diocese to act as recognised clergy in leading divine service, administering the sacraments etc.
  5. Archbishop Geoff Smith, Archbishop of Adelaide and current Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, refused to grant a PTO. In a fascinating coincidence, Smith was the preacher at Coward’s original ordination.

On what basis did Smith make this decision not to grant a PTO? Coward has also published the letter than Smith sent and in it the reasoning is clearly set out:

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Smith’s letter will be very encouraging to all those who are looking to their senior leaders to uphold not only the doctrine and discipline of the church but also our polity.

He notes that she is presenting as a woman married to a woman and that the church does not currently authorise such marriages nor bless them. He also observes that, given the tense political situation at the time over this issue (my description, not his), “it would be inappropriate at this time for me to issue you with a PTO”. To do so “would be to get ahead of where the Church currently is on matters”.

Interestingly Smith holds open the possibility that a PTO may be granted in the future if the Church’s position changes. That stands somewhat in contrast to Cowards claim that to

…never again be able to say to mass, never again to preach the Gospel, never again to celebrate any of the sacraments. I have not right of appeal. There will be no further consideration.

Long-time readers of will note that Archbishop Smith’s response is entirely in the spirit of the Bishops’ Agreement of 2018 where they pledged not to move forward on these matters unilaterally.

Another senior leader who also signed up to that agreement was Archbishop Philip Aspinall of Brisbane, former Primate from 2004 to 2014. There is a remarkably similar case to Coward’s that is bubbling away in his own diocese but Aspinall’s approach is almost diametrically opposite to that of the Primate.

The Diocesan website of Brisbane (the “Diocese of Southern Queensland”), Anglican Focus, has published a piece promoting one of the already most well-known marriages in the Diocese, that of Penny and Josephine Inkpin. Josephine is also a male-to-female transgender person who has remained in their marriage. When Inkpin originally “came out” the Archbishop was full of praise and support.

Our article at the time raised the very same issue which has challenged Archbishop Smith:

  1. Does the Diocese now recognise Rev. Inkpin as a woman?
  2. If so, is Rev. Inkpin’s marriage now a same-sex marriage since it is between two women? If not, why not and what implication does this have for Inkpin’s desire to be treated as a woman?

Obviously Inkpin’s situation is different to that of Coward. Most significantly Inkpin had remained in ordained ministry so the removal of a PTO may not have been the best solution at the time (and obviously not one that Aspinall would have seriously considered).

Nevertheless the underlying tensions that Smith recognises remain. Given the moment that the Anglican Church of Australia finds itself in with respect to same-sex marriage and given the Bishops’ commitment not to act unilaterally nor outside national constitutional mechanisms, it seems remarkable that the Inkpins’ marriage is so regularly publicised. It is also notable that the Archbishop recently hosted a renewal of their wedding vows in the Cathedral.

The Inkpins renew their wedding vows in St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane. (source Anglican Focus)

The Diocese has taken every opportunity to promote them as a model of a marriage in ministry.

How can any of this possibly be considered as upholding the spirit of the agreement that Archbishop Aspinall and all the other bishops signed up to? Under Archbishop Aspinall’s leadership, his Diocese has not just endorsed a same-sex marriage but held it up as an exemplar.

The Primate carefully but clearly upholds both the doctrine and the agreed polity of the Anglican Church of Australia. Nobody expected any less of him.

His predecessor seems determined to do the exact opposite. No wonder we’re in a mess.

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This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Josh

    I’m slightly confused by a couple matters raised in Sorel’s post (leaving aside the transgender and same section issues).
    1. Do we say mass as Anglicans? (Can’t remember it being in any authorised prayer book I have seen)
    2. Are marriages sacraments in the Anglican church?
    I’m pretty certain that the 39 articles recognise only 2 sacraments (those instituted by Christ – namely Baptism and Holy Communion).
    And leaving the bizarre, at least to my mind, leap across the Anglo-Catholic divide and returning to the other issues…genuine question: how can the story as outlined both in her words and yours not breach canonical law or put Sorel out of the classification of ‘priest in good standing- surely there is at the very least a breach of Faithfulness in Service in there somewhere?

    1. David Ould

      Hi Josh. Great questions.
      1. No, in fact the Reformation generation deliberately rejected that term. It got a revival during the Oxford Movement. It’s an axiom that those who are most wedded to revising doctrine also tend to like all the supposed rituals and accoutrements. If you can’t have genuine authenticity then you at least can pursue it by other means.
      2. No. You’re entirely correct that the 39A are clear on that.

      As to you final question – yes, it might very well do so. But I think a more charitable thing to do would be to recognise the reality that gender dysphoria is a mental health issue and respond accordingly.

      1. Josh

        Thanks David,

        happy to leave the gender dysphoria issues off to the side (although there’s some very complex considerations in all of that!).

        But am I missing something? Everything else aside, if someone’s theology and practice don’t match with Anglican teaching, articles, etc – how can they be considered, or consider themselves to be, ‘a priest in good standing’ in the Anglican church? The two just don’t add up (for my mind)! Unless of course the idea of ‘priest in good standing’ is somehow completely removed from theology and practice…

        1. Josh

          I mean, if you don’t submit to the authority and teaching of the church in these areas, why would you feel the need to submit to the authority of the church in seeking a PTO? I suspect I already know the answer, but the whole revisionist approach (at least as I see it in simple terms) – reject the authority and teaching, while at the same time seeking both the the implicit and explicit affirmation by the same authority – is just nuts.

          1. David Ould

            yup, I think you’ve worked it all out on your own!

  2. Robert Bruce

    Transgender … same-sex … Mass … paedophile priests … apostate bishops …. Why do all these people who are at least three standard deviations from the norm (the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and His commands to His followers) present the public face of the Anglican Church?

  3. chris russell

    This analysis clearly distinguishes between the actions of the Primate and his predecessor, Aspinall. Smith, if he agrees with Aspinall (as to what is right in the area of marriage and sexual ethics), comes across as being weak and unprincipled insofar as he seeks to maintain observance of the current teaching and polity of the Church, regardless. I have difficulty therefore in David’s finding that “Smith’s letter will be very encouraging to all those who are looking to their senior leaders to uphold not only the doctrine and discipline of the church but also our polity”. This gives the game away, that is, that this is a matter that concerns actually a simply fight for power in the Anglican Church. Thus David overlooks that it is Aspinall, not Smith, who has the courage to act on conviction.

    1. David Ould

      why would you accuse Smith of not acting on conviction? There is no evidence of that. On the contrary he’s taken a difficult decision that will bring about some serious unhappiness from some in his diocese.

      1. chris russell

        If he agrees with Aspinall, there is evidence that he is not acting on conviction. If he disagrees with Aspinall, the evidence is that any commitment he may have to biblical ethics is hostage to fortune.

        1. Josh

          There is an alternative view here though that allows that he is acting on conviction if that conviction is that his office as Primate is to uphold the laws, ordinances, etc of the church- and to allow the bodies responsible for their adjustment to make the changes, if such adjustment is necessary, despite his own personal views on an issue (of which I have no evidence one way or another).

          1. chris russell

            Acting on the basis of conviction is not the desideratum.

  4. Paul Nolan

    The Anglican church is “in a mess” for one reason only – its early 2018 acceptance of the amended Marriage Act (MA) as a Parliamentary fait accompli, to lie down & say/do nothing about it.

    The 2017 postal survey asked Australians one question only – should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? The answer was a solid “yes”. But did Parliament stick to that mandate? It did not.

    It changed the MA to allow same-sex marriage, yes, but it also unnecessarily extended the right of refusal clergy have always had (& still have) not to marry any couple & to do so without explanation. That right of refusal was s.47 in the old Act & is now s.47(1) in the new Act, which came into force on 9/12/2017.

    Parliament put in a new section – s.47(3) – which allows clergy to refuse to marry any couple if to do so does not conform to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the minister’s religious body or religious organisation.

    That was Parliament having a dollar each way – legalising SSM plus keeping clergy involved in the Act whilst giving their churches a gratuitous & superfluous reason not to marry same-sex couples.

    How the Anglican Primate, Archbishops & Bishops failed to spot that Parliamentary con-job is beyond me. Unless of course it was their idea.

    A sensible Assembly would have pulled its ministers from the MA until such time as the Church had decided its position on SSM. In the interim, opposite-sex couples married in church could choose to be legally married as well by attending a registry office.

    Paul Nolan

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