Source: Sydney Anglicans
With what seems like immense power the cultural situation continues in many ways to be unfavourable to the faith. This is so in the general community. It has also impacted the church community. Mr Peter Young sent me an account of his recent visit to a famous Chapel in Britain: ‘A female layperson conducted a brief prayer service. She was doing this in an Anglican Church. She commenced by ringing a Buddhist bell three times. She concluded with a prayer, “May the god who is God in your judgment, according to whatever faith you hold, give you peace.”’ He continues, ‘I immediately thought “How often has Peter or his brother (Phillip, the Dean of Sydney) expressed this very prayer in his cathedral?” I’m sure I know the answer!’
What Mr Young observed here, of course, was the twin evils of syncretism and subjectivism. The mixture of religions, together with the endorsement of any religion without discrimination, is what the gospel delivered us from. The idea that we are the source of God’s life (‘the god who is God in your judgement’) takes us back to the idolatry of old, where the gods were made according to the imagination of our hearts, rather than the God who reveals himself to us in spirit and in truth. The fact that this occurred in a Christian building illustrates the widespread captivity of the church to the culture, with the consequent failure in nerve to promote the faith. If we cannot do it under such circumstances, when will we do it?
As you all know, we have invested considerable resources into a first class, academically sound, doctrinally clear theological education. We have put Biblical Theology at the centre of the curriculum and have been prepared to allow it to correct us and change us, as it should. It is as well that we have done so. We have rightly favoured the preaching, teaching ministry of the pastor and we may see the results in the relatively robust quality of so much of our church life and the clear understanding of the truth of God’s word usually found in our churches. So far, we have usually managed to favour the Bible as our source of truth rather than the opinion pages of the newspapers. The diocesan Mission would have been quite impossible to launch and maintain if we had not been preparing for it all these years.
That Mission rightly rests on spiritual foundations. Most obviously it maintains as its first priority preaching and prayer. More than that, it relies on our understanding of the sovereignty of God to prevent it from becoming a mere business transaction or an ever more frantic quest for converts. It is as well to remember this, because more and more it is also becoming clear that we are involved in a contest that is spiritual and, as the Bible says, the weapons of that warfare are not weapons of the world: they remain prayer and the word of God.
The American Episcopal Church held its General Convention or Synod this year. As a result of its endorsement of the election of Bishop Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, in 2003, and the sustained protest of so much of the rest of world Anglicanism, it met under strong pressure to align itself to the Windsor Report and to express regret for what it had done in disregarding Lambeth 1.10 and repentance by deciding on a moratorium on further such consecrations and the blessings of same sex unions.
I believe that there were genuine attempts to move in the direction of compliance with Windsor and fellowship with the Communion. Opinions differ as to the extent to which compliance occurred. But there was no sense that the Church as a whole actually resiled from the practices which have caused such concern throughout the world. I say this because of the way in which the Convention seems to have conducted itself and the comments of participants subsequently. I was dismayed by the sermon of the Bishop Katharine Schori who elected to be the Presiding Bishop, in which she referred to Jesus as a Mother.
Not surprisingly the American Church itself is in disarray over this, with seven or eight Dioceses (out of over one hundred) signalling a desire to withdraw fellowship in some sense. So moderate a Bishop as Jeffrey Steenson of the Rio Grande has recently indicated that ‘for what I trust are sound biblical reasons’ he will not be able to attend the investiture of the new Presiding Bishop, but will be ‘prayerfully absent’, noting that ‘a significant portion of our diocese is deeply concerned about her apparent views on some crucial points of doctrine, especially about the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.’
I presume that Bishop Steenson was referring to this question and answer in Time magazine (July 17th 2006): Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven? We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.’
He also observed: “For a long time the Episcopal Church has identified itself with H. Richard Niebuhr’s category, the Christ of culture: it sees itself as America’s cultural elite at prayer. Whatever we think of ourselves as progressives or traditionalists, we bring American values and behaviour patterns with us. But that does not always sit well with the rest of our Anglican Communion family…The Anglican Communion is undergoing a remarkable transformation, and I cannot help but think that so many of the attitudes and behaviours we take for granted in the American context will not be welcome in the new communion discipline.’
I think that Bishop Steenson is right. The powerful individualism of American culture, and its triumphalistic belief that it leads the world in civic freedoms has captured the church. The new faith is a missionary religion. America is a missionary country, with its version of human freedom to export throughout the world. What happens in the US will affect every nation and we see here the belief that what has happened in this decade in the US will occur in the next decade in the rest of the world. The difficulty is that as far as much of the West is concerned it has probably already happened.
I also think he is right to speak of the remarkable transformation which is occurring in the Communion. We can see this in the communiqué of the Global South Provinces after a highly significant meeting in Kigali Rwanda this September. These Provinces, which represent over 70% of active Anglicans have issued what I judge to be a strikingly important document. It illustrates a new sense of maturity and independence from the West – a desire to find their own way forward in matters to do with evangelism, social action and theological education. The conference was definitely not a one issue event.
It is almost palpable that in the last five or so years, these Anglicans have grown in assurance and capacity for independent activity and action. All this flows from their observation that the western churches cannot discipline their own for deviations from the teaching of scripture and that they of the south must take responsibility for themselves and for others. Frankly it is breathtaking.
I am not able to do justice to this communiqué. Allow me to say this: It is firmly Bible based. It is committed to maintain links of fellowship with those in the west who remain faithful to the scriptures: ‘we will work together to recognise the Anglican identity of all who receive, hold and maintain the Scriptures as the Word of God written and who seek to live in godly fellowship within our historic ordering.’ It is prepared to put truth before order. It recognises the need for orthodox networks within western churches which have lapsed from the truth. It notes that various of the Primates will be unable to have fellowship with the new American Presiding Bishop when the next meeting of Primates occurs. It is enthusiastic about the idea of a covenant which will enable a clearer orthodox identity to emerge within Anglicanism.
Does all this amount to the break-up of the Communion? I do not think so. I do not talk of a split, for example. Nor have I been one to talk of schism and the break-up of the Anglican Communion. I have always said that it is more likely that we will see its devolution into a looser federation of churches, networking across old lines in new ways. Indeed I think that this has now begun to occur. As a consequence, I do not think that the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, while of course very important, will quite regain its old place, it remains to be seen what is going to happen to the Lambeth Conference, and there is even talk of a two tier membership of the Communion.
As far as Australia is concerned, it may perhaps be thought a little strange that the Communion troubles have not afflicted us in Australia in the same way that they have in Canada and the UK. On the whole, I think that the Australian Anglican Church is relatively conservative and that we are careful to talk to each other. My hope is that we will continue to maintain the current level of unity of the Anglican fellowship across the nation.
What of ourselves? I am somewhat loathe to travel outside the Diocese and feel always that my first obligation is here, especially in the light of the Mission. However in the six months from October last year I journeyed to various parts of the world for ministry reasons. The trips involved preaching and pastoral ministry of the sort that every Archbishop of Sydney will do. We have a role in encouraging evangelicals elsewhere and my journey certainly fitted in with that task.
I had planned to go to the UK, Africa and New Zealand. As it turned out, I was also invited by the Global South to go to Egypt for its 2005 meeting on the Red Sea. It was a very great privilege to have been asked. I went as an observer. Overall, this travel meant that I had lengthy discussions with key leaders in the Anglican Communion (including the Archbishop of Canterbury), during that six month period. In particular, I saw many of the conservative evangelical leaders. Likewise Peter Tasker has kept in touch with people, and we have had the privilege of visitors here to Sydney, not least Archbishop Orombi of Uganda, Archbishop, Archbishop Fearon of Nigeria, Bishop Albert Vun of Sabah and Bishop Zavalas of Chile.
Starting with Egypt, in each trip there were conversations and prayer about the state of the Anglican Communion. One thing that I wanted to test in particular was the suggestion that we are making too much of this issue, that it is not important enough to make a fuss about. I suppose what I wanted to know in particular was whether we had become unbalanced. Is it causing a neglect of other life and death matters which should be on every agenda?
As you know, I have taken the view from the beginning that the crisis over human sexuality is a very deep one indeed. The idea that we are somehow to blame for making so much fuss about sex is ludicrous. Human sexuality is so powerful a gift and so basic to our human nature, and so fraught with both good and ill, that it is bound to occupy a large part of our thinking. Indeed it is all part of our cultural reappraisal of the roles of men and women, with vast consequences for the quality of family life and the good of the begetting and nurturing of the race. In the end, it is also a crisis over biblical authority and its clarity; hence the importance of Biblical Theology. Here is a crucial sticking point. To accept various contemporary ways of reading scripture will leave us vulnerable at all points. We will not defend the uniqueness of Christ, if we will not defend the plain teaching of scripture on human sexuality.
This was at the heart of the discussions that I shared in public and in private with our fellow evangelicals and indeed with others. At the same time we have had contacts with others in Asia, Canada and South America. I have to report that there was virtually universal agreement about the significance of this issue. Our evangelical and other Bible-based colleagues agree that deviations from biblical teaching on human sexuality is not a matter which can simply be allowed to pass without strong protest and appropriate action. These are matters which affect our humanity itself. It is widely agreed that we must make as clear as possible and amongst as many as possible that we have reached the limits of tolerance when it comes to the teaching of scripture. Furthermore, it is for the good of the gospel and thus in the interests of the Diocese and that we support others with the same views and receive support from others. This is where true unity lies.
Already we are being called upon by brethren elsewhere who do not enjoy our freedoms and our resources to stand with them and offer them protection and support. Thus, if a parish church, such as St John’s in Vancouver, where David Short is the Rector, sees the need to withdraw at some level from its Diocese, who can it form an association with? Some may be scandalised at such a question because of the high value they put on ecclesiastical unity and the need to keep boundaries intact. So do we. Disorder often opens the door to evil. That is why we must be sure of the significance of this issue and should avoid inflammatory speech. But I have to say that I remain convinced that we are dealing here with something of that order of significance, and one can also say with some justice that those who have innovated are the ones who have initiated the disorder which they are now seeking to contain by institutional means.
Calls for help are likely to intensify in the years ahead. We may even see a giant shift in loyalties and a new world-wide fellowship emerge. I think that we would be fooling ourselves to think that we will have a major role in such a seismic shift; but we would be equally foolish to think that we will not be involved at all. Only today I have received another anguished letter from an evangelical minister overseas seeking to bring his church into membership of this Diocese. It is not the first I have received. My response has always been that the difficulties are best met at as local a level as is possible. The closer to the problem, the better the solution.
Why us? Because Sydney is one of the few places in the Anglican world with a concentration of evangelicals and a concentration of theological scholarship. There are numerically more evangelicals in the UK than there are here, but they are scattered and frequently embattled. It is difficult for them to combine; difficult for them to think that they amount to much. Typically, also, they have been so pastorally involved that they have not been as active as they could have been at the level of Diocese and General Synod. In fact their political successes are few and far between. They lack confidence and they lack organisation. The same is more so in New Zealand, far more so in the South Africa (in CPSA) in Canada and in far, far more so in the USA. The fact that we exist and can speak up brings comfort to thousands of people around the world.
I am telling you this now because I have to warn you that we may be only at the beginning of the disturbances which will lie before us and the effort which we will be called upon to make. The two areas which I see us making our contribution in are helping to call people together and networking them when they are in minority and threatened positions, and in offering Biblical Theology, especially as the basis of theological education.
I had a conversation with an African Archbishop over the role of our Diocese. It was helpful because he neither exaggerated nor decried our influence. His point was this: for us to teach very clearly what the Bible says about human sexuality and to offer clear support to people like David Short in Canada has a powerful effect in many places, precisely because we are from the west. It shows that this is not a battle between west and south, but a conflict over the scriptures and the right way to live, shared by us all. In particular he also mentioned the contribution we can make to a theological education which is both biblical and modern. He agrees with me that the orthodoxy of the South is fragile, despite appearances and we will need to be active and committed in this generation if we are to help sustain it.
What part are we to play? We must be peaceable and reconciling; I do not doubt that. We must cherish unity with our fellow Christians at the highest level possible; I do not doubt that. We must pray and work for the unity of the Communion; I do not doubt that. We must be concerned for and pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury; I do not doubt that. We must pray for and work for the unity of the Anglican Church of Australia; I do not doubt that.
But there is no short cut to such unity. We will be rejected, misunderstood and maligned. Indeed it has already happened. We will serve the cause of unity best, we will serve all these great causes best, by steadfastly testifying to the truth that the scripture is God’s word written, and that we accept and respect its authority. Likewise, we will co-operate with and stand with those who seek to do the same. In the end, that is the path of true unity and it will help foster the unity that is an essential characteristic of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.