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The Anglican Communion

Dr John Davis, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Published in The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia, James Jupp, Ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2009) pp. 148–155.

The Anglican Church of Australia is the autonomous Church in Australia derived from the Church of England, a member Church of the Anglican Communion, organised as 23 dioceses in 5 provinces, under a constitution which came into effect on 1 January 1962.

The Church of England began its history in Australia with the first European settlement in Sydney in 1788. By 1825 the settlement in New South Wales was made an archdeaconry of the diocese of Calcutta. By 1836 it had its own first bishop, William Grant Broughton. Tasmania (1842), Newcastle, Melbourne and Adelaide (1847) followed. The bishop of Sydney was the metropolitan or senior bishop. In 1850 a conference of bishops from all the Australian and New Zealand colonies met together in Sydney. A further conference in 1868 of the then 7 Australian dioceses prepared the way for the establishment in 1872 of a general synod. But the key organisational unit remained the diocese. Even under the 1962 constitution the loose confederation that is the Australian Church has no parallel in any of the other churches in the Anglican Communion, where the body with the last voice on major issues is the provincial or general synod. Further, in Australia polarisation along lines of churchmanship or tradition has been much more between rather than within dioceses.

The name of the institution does keep changing — technically then:

Church of England — up to 1801
United Church of England and Ireland — 1801-1869
The Church of England in the dioceses of Australia and Tasmania — 1869-1961
The Church of England in Australia — 1962-1981
The Anglican Church of Australia — 1981-

A substantial but decreasing minority of people in Australia has claimed Anglican affiliation: 1881 40%, 1966 34%, 2006 under 20%.

Bishop Tom Frame writes on the official Anglican website:

[By 1927] the number of dioceses would increase to twenty-five. Each sought ways to influence the communities in which they were placed. Many dioceses founded their own newspapers, established schools, created social welfare agencies and organised community action groups before political parties and trade unions even existed. In addition to moulding the actions and attitudes of those who attended worship, the Church was determined to influence political life and popular culture, particularly in the period 1880-1920. Although the Commonwealth Constitution proclaimed in 1901 provided for a secular Australian state where no one denomination could be favoured by government over another, Anglicans nonetheless believed Australia was already a 'Christian nation' shaped directly by the teaching of Jesus. The Church was active in campaigning for a variety of diverse social and economic causes ranging from support for the prohibition on alcohol to the need for low-cost housing for the poor. Although the Church's lay (non-ordained) leadership was drawn heavily from the affluent and literate classes, there was a concerted effort in the period before World War II (1939-45) to broaden the Church's outlook and widen its membership. There was an undeniable need to include and involve those previously marginalized by a lack of education or social standing.

When war ended in 1945, the Church of England remained the largest denomination in Australia. [It held this position until the 1986 national census when overtaken by the Roman Catholic Church]. However, the number of people attending regular worship began to decline in 1959. Figures for occasional services (baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals) started to fall after 1966. Although the body of people calling themselves Anglican and attending services as a percentage of the total Australian population has fallen since the very high levels of the late 1950s, the Church's ministry and mission continues to felt across Australia in the form of Sunday and weekday worship, occasional services, education, social welfare, counselling and workplace chaplaincy. While most ministry is undertaken by individual parishes, larger tasks are undertaken by the parishes acting through diocesan agencies. The motivation behind the Church's work remains the teaching of Jesus and his command to love God and one's neighbour. This has prompted Anglican dioceses to remain attentive to the world's insights and its problems while demanding that individual congregations be open to the Spirit of God and the cry of the neglected. An Archbishop of Canterbury once told Anglicans that their Church existed for those outside it!

The General Synod office in Sydney co-ordinates the work of national commissions, services the needs of the General Synod Standing Committee and organises the three yearly meetings of the General Synod,. The current Primate is the Archbishop of Brisbane, Dr Phillip Aspinall. The key aspects of his role are the chairing and leading of the General Synod and his participation in the international Primates' Meeting — one of the four 'instruments of unity' — as the representative of the Anglican Church of Australia.

But the real experience of Australian Anglicanism is to be found dispersed around the 23 dioceses. These vary enormously, in size and in tradition. As the representation of clergy and lay members in the General Synod reflects, there is vast difference between the people and resources available to the large urban dioceses and the very much smaller and struggling rural or outback dioceses. A quick connection to the diocesan websites through the main Anglican Church of Australia website makes this clear. Sydney has 268 parishes and is growing, while the Northern Territory claims 8. Several other small country regions have fewer than 20 parishes. Others, through consolidations and the drift of rural populations, are steadily contracting to that size. Melbourne however has over 200 and both Brisbane and Perth are around the 150 mark.

The Australian Anglican Church nationally and in the dioceses has deliberately embraced a parliamentary and therefore potentially adversarial model of decision making in our representative synods. This is all very well if you are dealing with nuts and bolts and structures but it becomes much more difficult when considering doctrine and ecclesiology. What if you are dealing with a fundamentally differing and contradictory understanding of who and why and what Anglicans are? That is the contemporary reality.

There is something remarkably different and very special about the diocese of Sydney. It is quite unique within the Anglican Communion with its radical fundamental evangelicalism and its power and influence. It is superbly led, theologically coherent, well organised, well trained, very rich and very large. In Australian Anglican history it has very often been a matter of Sydney and then the rest.

Every person ordained or holding office in the Anglican Church of Australia however is required to affirm the 1962 Constitution. It is therefore until otherwise changed basic to an understanding of the legal and organisational structure of Australian Anglicanism as a whole and the constraints under which it operates.

The first two chapters of the 1962 Constitution are key. The Fundamental Declarations are said to unalterable. Sections 1-3 set out those standards of the Church which are catholic and universal; this Church claims to be 'part of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ [holding] the Christian Faith as professed by the Church of Christ from primitive times....' Section 1 affirms as fundamental the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds. Section 2 receives 'all the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation'. Section 3 declares that the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and the three-fold order of bishops, priests and deacons are also fundamental.

The specifically Anglican inheritance is included in the second level Ruling Principles — very difficult but not impossible to alter. This Church retains and approves the doctrines and principles of the formularies of the Church of England embodied in the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, the 'authorised standard of worship and doctrine'.

It has 'plenary authority at its own discretion to make statements as to the faith ritual ceremonial or discipline of this Church and to order its forms of worship and rules of discipline...provided [these are] consistent with the Fundamental Declarations.' The Church 'has plenary authority and power to make canons, ordinances and rules for the order and good government of the Church'. Section 6 declares that 'This Church will remain and be in communion with the Church of England in England and with churches in communion therewith so long as communion is consistent with the Fundamental Declarations contained in this Constitution.'

The later chapters deal with the governance of bishops and synods. Surprising from an international point of view is the structure. The diocese is 'the unit of organisation of this Church'. Section 30 renders optional the application in any diocese of any canon of the General Synod deemed to 'affect the order or good government of the Church'. Chapter 9 of the constitution lays out the Tribunals and in particular the Appellate Tribunal. Its rulings are determinative in certain key circumstances and it was for example decisive in the matter of the consecration of women as bishops in 2008.

From 1962 then there was at last an agreed autonomous national structure for the Anglican Church in Australia. But against that ideal stands the facts of the practical limits of comprehensiveness. Alongside that which is held in common lies the fundamental reformation, 19th and late 20th century issues that still divide and now in the early 21st century possibly the most explosive divisions of all since the 16th century — all of which give considerable substance to the commentaries that have been speaking of 'two churches' within Australian Anglicanism for at least 50 years. In Australia a national church constitution has been simply placed on top of a continuing collection of regional and diocesan churches retaining much power. The question from the beginning has been whether this national structure would be allowed to provide the means and the opportunity to break down the pre-existing diocesan walls of suspicion, isolation and separate development.

The Church did for a time after 1962 develop a greater sense of national unity, largely through the centralising effects of a general synod with more power, the variable leadership of a series of Primates and the result of the work of the general synod commissions, most notably the Liturgical Commission and the 1978 An Australian Prayer Book. The 1995 Prayer Book for Australia is not permitted for use in Sydney. The 2007 general synod aside, the national body was for over 20 years crippled by the divisions over the ordination of women. So then the concept of unity itself — the desire for one new constitution for one country, one new prayer book, one approach to the ordained ministry — has been most profoundly challenged.

At one level it is obvious that any unified structure in the Anglican context will have to hold within itself quite mutually opposed attitudes on what, in other traditions, would be considered fundamental matters, most notably in the area of the interpretation and place of the Scriptures, ecclesiology and sacramental theology. The answer could well be now emerging that this was after all too much to ask, in the Australian context. At another level, the necessity for such structural unity is less obvious. It is not a requirement for regional expressions of the Anglican Communion to be uniformly ordered. The question might then become, what is to be the regional unit? The United Kingdom with four regional Anglican churches for instance, provides a contrary model.

A rejected possibility during the 20th century debates about the structure of Australian Anglicanism was to look to smaller provincial or regional solutions to these difficulties and to give up on the national dream. Under those proposals in the 1930s and 1940s Australian Anglicans might have opted for two or more models of churchmanship and then have had the equivalent of the constitutional separation of the Church in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. In the context of everything that is happening right now, such a realignment and a support for a devolution to re-ordered provinces might actually get a lot of support — both from the obvious people in Sydney who cannot control the general synod or appellate tribunal and yet also from those who would dream of a very different Church from a much more liberal position, perhaps especially in most of the country dioceses in the existing province of New South Wales beyond Sydney.

The Fundamental Declarations of the 1962 constitution summarise what the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (Lambeth 1888 resolution 11) affirmed internationally. The Australian experience of actually at least for a generation or two bringing together the extremes of Anglicanism under one institutional roof was of influence in the early drafting of a possible international Anglican Communion Covenant. As a sort of agreed umbrella document above each of the 38 autonomous national or regional Churches, this new covenant would have to involve a voluntary ceding of some of that autonomy for the sake of holding together internationally as a Communion. Obviously this move away from a dispersed authority model and the arguments in any case of what it might require, was going to be highly contentious, especially in the heat of existing controversy.

A 2008 Covenant draft put it this way:

that, reliant on the Holy Spirit, [the Anglican Communion] professes the faith which is uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith, and which is set forth in the catholic creeds, and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear significant witness, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation....

That was not going to be nearly focussed enough on the issues of the day to satisfy everyone and yet anything more than this would invite rebellion from others. This is because we are in the middle of what is developing into a major battle for the very soul of what it is to be an Anglican. It is happening at a world level. It is happening within the Australian Church nationally. It is happening at the diocesan level.

In the bigger scene, the Anglican Communion as a whole is still struggling to come to terms with very substantial change. There is every indication that this will not be successful. The trouble for Anglicanism internationally is that it is attempting to come to grips with the doctrinal and/or church disciplinary developments surrounding the ordination and consecration of women, and more recently same sex issues, at exactly the same time as it is — after nearly 150 years of loose association based on a variously shared history — vainly attempting to provide an appropriate and effective international structure for actually doing so.

2008 was not a normal Lambeth year. The Lambeth Conference is one of the four so-called instruments of unity of our Anglican Communion. Every ten years or so since 1867, the Archbishop of Canterbury — as the first among equals of all the Anglican bishops and who you need to be in communion with if you are to be Anglican — issues an invitation to bishops from around the world. The archbishop is himself the longest standing 'instrument of communion'. The Lambeth Conferencee is the one occasion when all bishops can meet for worship, study and conversation. Archbishops, diocesan, assistant and suffragan bishops are invited. Also invited are bishops from other churches 'in communion' with the Anglican Communion, bishops from United Churches and a number of ecumenical guests.

There is nothing so unusual about any of that except that in 2008 a number of bishops refused to attend, including in Australia all the Sydney bishops led by Archbishop Peter Jensen and the bishop of North West Australia. The refusal related to the attendance at the conference of the bishops from the US and Canada who participated in the consecration in 2003 of the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire. Those refusing to attend were not prepared to sit down together with them, even at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This therefore was serious. The Bishop of New Hampshire was not invited. And neither for instance was the English born priest serving in Virginia who had been consecrated bishop by the Archbishop of Nigeria for American dissidents. The number of these so-called missionary bishops is now in double figures. So Nigeria did not come. An alternative Global Anglican Future conference (GAFCON) was held in Jerusalem, despite the protests of the Bishop of Jerusalem, led by the Archbishops of Nigeria, Sydney and Uganda.

Secular journalists saw a good story in this growing fissure:
David Marr wrote in the SMH and The Age

What's afoot in Jerusalem is the destruction of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide church loosely aligned to the Archbishop of Canterbury. ...

More bluntly, GAFCON is planning to collapse the church into a sort of Balkan confusion in which national branches turn their backs on each other, bishops dabble in one another's territory, and dingo fences cut across the landscape to keep "orthodox" Bible-believing, homosexual-denouncing Anglicans safe on one side of the wire, and "liberals" on the other. If the split comes, it will shatter national churches as well as the international communion. It will be particularly messy for Australia.

The GAFCON final statement called for the formation of a 'movement' as a fellowship of confessing Anglicans, based on the Jerusalem Declaration and encouraging GAFCON Primates (and presumably the Archbishop of Sydney who had emerged in a major leadership role and is not a Primate) to form a Council.

The response of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was swift. He attacked the dismissal of the existing structures of the Communion, the claim to be free to operate across provincial boundaries and the accusation that those outside GAFCON are 'simply proclaiming another gospel'. Lambeth 2008 remained with a major stated aim 'to restore and deepen confidence in our Anglican identity'.

The confessional nature of the Jerusalem Declaration reflected very much the Sydney arguments so familiar to Australian Anglicans for generations. This was the key issue identified by a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, speaking to the Australian general synod in 1950. He argued for the exact opposite approach in St Andrew's Cathedral:

There are no specifically Anglican doctrines. We hold as the faith only that which evidently appears as such in the Scriptures and the Creeds. But there is a specifically Anglican temper of mind and heart.... We are...attempting ...the due combination of order and freedom within the Church.... Anglicanism is betrayed when anyone seeks to eliminate the tension by dismissing anything which is against his own habit or way of thought.

But to underline the longstanding nature of both this evident division and the articulation of the opposing arguments by key players, it is worth highlighting Donald Robinson (a later Archbishop of Sydney) writing not long after in 1955 of 'two Anglican Churches' in Australia:

We only remain united by maintaining two denominations in one organisation and allowing both to call themselves Anglican. But the real problem we have to face is that there is no unity between these two divergent views at the level of local worship, which is the only valid test of unity. While this remains the case, the alleged comprehensiveness of the Church of England is a chimera.

In 2008 Peter Jensen declared that the 'sleeping giant' of evangelical Anglicanism had been awakened.

Some of the bishops attending GAFCON also attended Lambeth. Others such as those from Sydney, Nigeria and Uganda did not. So of course there was not be able to be the conversation and discussion, let alone the potential reconciliation, that participation in a two and a half week residential conference at such a key time could well have brought. It remains to be seen what common language might continue to exist to describe Anglicans' continuing relationships with each other.

At the time of writing these matters are not at all resolved. The nature and status of the Anglican Communion, as classically defined by Lambeth 1930 (resolution 49) is clearly evolving:

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces or Regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:
(a) they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
(b) they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
(c) they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the Bishops in conference.

The official website of the world-wide Anglican Communion, says that the Communion is the third largest Christian grouping, comprising over 80 million members in 44 regional and national member churches around the globe in over 160 countries.

The website draws attention in particular to those four Instruments of Communion. The first is the Archbishop of Canterbury in his international role. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Focus for Unity for the other three Instruments of Communion of the Anglican Communion, and is therefore a unique focus for Anglican unity. He calls the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, chairs the meeting of the Primates, and is President of the Anglican Consultative Council. The Lambeth Conference of bishops has been meeting every 10 years or so since 1867. The Anglican Consultative Council reflects most clearly the regular Anglican approach to governance in that it includes bishops clergy and laity meeting together from all 38 provinces. It first met in 1971. It has an information sharing, co-coordinating and facilitating role. The most recent development is the regular Primates' Meeting. Its first meeting was in 1981. The Primate or Presiding Bishop of each of the 38 autonomous provinces represents that Church at this meeting. Each of these Instruments of Communion has differing roles. All of them are essentially agents of influence and persuasion. None are juridical or legislative. Because the Primates have taken to annual meetings, there has been more prominence assumed or claimed by that meeting than in previous times. That also is not without controversy.

An irretrievable breakdown occurs in an inter-personal relationship when at least one of the parties does not want to work at it any more. The same can apply with a sufficiently large faction or group within an institution. It is very hard to see how the boycott of the Lambeth Conference by some bishops from Australia and Africa could in any way do anything other than prevent the working through of these difficulties. Lambeth is one of those four 'instruments of unity' in the Anglican Communion. Another is the person and office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A direct snub of two out of the four instruments is not a bad start towards complete breakdown; if that is the direction you want to go in.

'Unity at any price' is no longer acceptable to anyone. That is why it actually is a real possibility that there will be institutional division. Hard-liners at either end of the spectrum might bring this about. By not being prepared to talk or to pray or to worship together with all those who have found themselves in this Anglican tradition by choice or birth, they instead only find fellowship with that ever-decreasing number of those with whom they have complete agreement.

Is there a way forward? Perhaps it remains a matter of attempting once again, as ever, to discern what are 'first order' and therefore communion breaking matters of difference, and what are 'second order' questions, where we can agree to differ. That has been the Anglican way. If there is not consensus, it means that from time to time we lose the extremes, but the centre holds. Acts 15 is a powerful New Testament example of establishing what is central and what after all is not, as the early Church grappled with the implications of the conversion of the gentiles. The Anglican Church, as it is presently organised in this country and internationally, bears witness to this approach, in its variety and in its dispersal of power and authority. Of course it is not tidy. It has never satisfied the rigorists. But it was an agreed compromise formerly at least holding together a wide range and perhaps papering over pre-existing and basic differences.

This is what presently stands. The language used in these post Lambeth 2008 times will be careful and nuanced. No body, least of all the very well endowed diocese of Sydney, would wish to find itself in court challenged over the appropriateness of its continuing to hold property and assets in trust for the purposes of the Anglican Church. For that reason alone, at least within Australia, there may be a stepping back from the brink. But the issues that divide remain and are as sharply expressed here as anywhere in the Anglican world.

JCD, 2008

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