The Grammar of Fragility: After Australia’s General Synod 2010

Reflecting within its own life some of the diversity all-too-familiar in the wider Anglican Communion, the Australian Church is an uneasy alliance whose fragility is never more in evidence than at its General Synods.

The Anglican Church of Australia is unusual in its loose federal structure, adopted only in 1962 to link dioceses and provinces formed in the colonial era, with distinctive histories and identities whose compatibility has always been limited.
Photo: Roland Ashby, Anglican Media Melbourne
In the relatively recent past, debates over women’s ordination in particular, but also over human sexuality, lay presidency and liturgical texts, have seen the distinctive form of conservative evangelicalism associated with the Diocese of Sydney, but more and more evident around the country as well, pitted against a broad but vague “mainstream” more readily identified by its contrasting views with Sydney than by any particular theological coherence or clarity of purpose.

Melbourne Grammar School, an establishment bastion every bit as solid as the massing of its Tudor Gothic bluestone walls, sheltered a Synod sensing and responding to its own fragility. Primate Philip Aspinall of Brisbane made a heartfelt call to the Synod to exercise a generosity of spirit, which may often have been in evidence; but it was at times hard to distinguish such generosity from caution or fear.

The question of Sydney’s relationship with the rest was never far from the surface, but only once or twice did it breach it in threatening ways. There was predictable posturing about the Jerusalem Declaration and the Anglican Covenant. A curious sense of avoiding conflict prevailed: the motion “welcoming” the Anglican Covenant was de-fanged to “receiving” the same, given the ambivalence about its provisions at both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum; and when GAFCON’s Jerusalem Declaration came up for debate, Perth Archbishop Roger Herft, who has been a frank critic of Sydney, made the generous response of seeking and gaining an amendment that encouraged study of the document and its context. This generosity seemed to be rewarded with the withdrawal of a motion seeking reception of the “Fourth Trumpet” statement of the Global South gathering held in Singapore in April.

The most contentious issue at the Synod was one that created, at least in passing, alliances across the usual boundaries: Sydney bishop Glenn Davies’ pursuit of an amendment to the Canons concerning Matrimony, removing any baptismal qualification for marriage in the Anglican Church. This drew support from “Reform”-minded evangelicals who want to remove any implication that marriage is a sacrament, but also from a pastorally and perhaps missionally-motivated group of others who saw the move as welcoming and inclusive. The opponents included the small group of conservative Anglo-Catholics left in Synod, along with more progressive Anglicans concerned about the distinctiveness of Christian identity and happy to affirm the growth in purely civil marriages.

The most difficult aspects of this issue however were procedural: although a majority favoured the move, changes to a Canon require a two-thirds majority in each house, of laity, clergy and bishops. The first time voted on, it was lost in the bishops only but this still meant it was defeated. Subsequently it was claimed (not by him, at least publicly) that one bishop had intended to vote the other way, and a recommittal was agreed to. There was some unhappiness with the claims and the process, and when after a day the vote was put again, it lost in the clergy even before the bishops could be tested. This messy set of events was an indication that generosity was not infinite, and trust not deep.

The Diocese of Sydney’s position was subjected to scrutiny also on the last day, when finances were discussed. Sydney does not contribute to the national funds that support the Australian Church’s engagement with the wider Anglican Communion and ecumenical bodies. Moves to enforce change were headed off by the interventions of the Archbishop of Adelaide (Driver) and the Bishop of Willochra (Weatherill) who both spoke critically of Sydney’s position, but opposed compulsion in changing it. Again there was a sense that the relationship could not be put to certain tests.

Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney spoke rarely, but at one point made a strong affirmation of his Diocese’s commitment to the national Church. Clearly that commitment was and is to a weak national Church by most standards, and to primacy for strong local actions and initiatives, at least by conservatives. Meanwhile Sydney’s Synod will soon consider moves to seek change the 1918 Church Property Trust Act, the secular legislative framework under which they (and others) have financial obligations to the national Church. The seriousness and the shape of that commitment thus remain uncertain.

Interviewed at the end of the Synod, Peter Jensen described the event as a lost opportunity, and superficial. He may have been right on both counts, but the superficiality is precisely the avoidance of depths where the formal structures of national Church identity give way to radically different cultures and different theologies. Their honest exposure and consideration would underscore the idiosyncratic place of Sydney, within the Australian Church and otherwise.

So generosity of spirit – or deference to fragility – maintains the formal unity of the national body for the present. It will not change the underlying problems, and puts off the harder conversations to another day. Whether the conversation is really undergirded by a grammar sufficiently robust to allow common mission anymore, or whether this uneasy peace depends on what is never spoken, remains to be seen.


  1. Anonymous5:29 am

    Hi Andrew. Interesting observations. Sounds like back slapping all round while the 'elephant' was left out in the grounds somewhere !! I guess in Anglicanism you might hope that putting things off long enough might allow for the demise of a species.
    Ken Drayton

  2. Anonymous11:29 pm

    hey, thanks for your summary. any advice on what sydney people can do when the 'financial split' thing comes up?

    i wrote a blog about dreading Sydney synod when our side seem so disorganised. would really like your thoughts.

  3. Anonymous7:34 am

    It can be a source of interest as to how much energy will be expended on, what is known in psychology, as the status quo bias. I am intrigued that the Syndney block has so much power and wonder what the consequences of compelling Sydney to contribute financially to the Anglican national funding body would be.
    Ken (comment above) makes the probably accurate observation that the elephant is still roaming. Perhaps this is just a step towards it's eventual capture though. Eventually, the energy expended in maintaining the status quo will exceed the energy that could be invested in positive change.
    Kind regards,
    Ruth McFarlane


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