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Muriel Porter, The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church

Launch speech by Charles Sherlock
At St Peter's, Eastern Hill, Wednesday 29th March, 2006

I am a son of Sydney. I was raised in four Sydney rectories, had my faith shaped by Sydney youth camps, and matured through Sydney University Evangelical Union. A formative experience for my Anglican identity was lectures by Donald Robinson in 1966 on liturgical revision, and on the 39 Articles. And my mother is part of the Loane dynasty!

So why launch this front-on confrontation with today's Diocese of Sydney? I am here reluctantly: my natural instinct is to seek dialogue and common ground – I shrink from conflict. And I am not unaware of the consequences for my reputation as a reformed theologian.

I am here in part due to my long friendship with Muriel Porter. We have different temperaments and tastes, and come from different church traditions, yet Christ holds us in a common faith. We have worked closely to see all ministries open to women – most memorably in jointly supporting the 1987 Melbourne synod motion to request David Penman to 'ordain women now'.

I am also here in part due to my engagement with Muriel in the ministry of writing. She has a great pen (keyboard?). No-one who reads this book will be slowed by dark sentences or impenetrable paragraphs! And Muriel is not 'Dr Porter' for nothing: her books constitute perhaps the most sustained Australian Christian contribution in print to gender issues. So I was both complimented and glad to assist when asked to read draft chapters of this book, and can assure you that every comment, suggestion or hint has been followed through.

But I am here not just because of friendship and admiration, but because of what Muriel has written. I do not support every stance she takes, but this book takes up issues of critical importance not only for Anglican futures, but the welfare of all God's people and the good of society, in this land and beyond. Given my Sydney roots, Ridley ministry and Evangelical convictions, I am often asked to 'explain' Sydney to others (and not just Anglicans). I am tired of doing so, but I have not put pen to paper as Muriel (and Kevin Giles) have done.

Bear with me as I retrace something of my own history. I started theological teaching 35 years ago this May. After two years at Ridley, in 1973 I found myself (along with the other new tutor, Peter Jensen) at Moore, and became friendly with Broughton Knox. Far more human than most realise, he was bulldog-like in holding to his convictions, and put enormous energy into seeing others accept them. His potentially fruitful concept of 'church' being more a verb than a noun, and his famous article, 'Propositional revelation the only revelation', were still new. I did not realise their full implications, though I found chapel rather 'wordy' compared to Ridley, and missed the weekly celebration of Holy Communion. Broughton once asked me what I would change about Moore, and – having delighted in Leon Morris' roses and willows at Ridley – I suggested putting $500 a year into a garden, so that beauty and feeling could embrace the truth of the mind. It did not happen.

And that difference over the nature of truth gradually grew into a chasm. By 1977, in Interchange I was contesting the subordinationism in Knox's arguments against the ordination of women, and the associated approach to interpreting the scriptures. A decade later, the 'Sydney' line on 'church' and 'worship' was starting to bite in Sydney parishes, with Archbishop Robinson seeking vainly to stem the tide. Evangelical concern with sacramentalism was becoming a questioning of sacraments themselves. If revelation only took place in plain-meaning sentences, then symbols with their less than plain meaning could only deceive – and experience even more so.

These ideas have long concerned me, along with the sectarian and politicised understanding of church which has grown from them. Muriel Porter, however, has pushed behind (historically) and below (psychologically) the concerns many have over 'Sydney' with Peter Jensen now at the helm. Her book opens with a sketch of the present, then fills in the background with a deft, well-researched chapter on how 'Sydney' came to be the way it is, explicating the key role of Broughton Knox at Moore, following T.C. Hammond (whose son-in-law, incidentally, married Peta and I!). Chapter three situates Sydney within the 'conservative religion' of Howard's Australia, with carefully-drawn, modest conclusions.

This book's longest chapters are on women's ordination (the 'great cause'), and more recent debates about gays and lay presidency (a coupling on which this book sheds considerable light). Muriel argues that while these issues need consideration in themselves, more fundamental is the way in which 'Sydney' both reads, and requires others to read, the holy scriptures. Further, its sense of 'rightness' has led 'Sydney' to be a player on the international stage. Wherever we stand over gender and church issues, these claims need to be faced.

If I have a regret about this book, it is the title. 'Puritan' carries a great and goodly heritage, despite its bad odour today, and I regret its being applied to today's 'Sydney Anglicans'. More importantly, I wonder whether this way of summing them up will lead these Christians to heed the call to repent of the ideology which has emerged among them.

So I launch this book out of friendship, out of admiration for its writing and scholarship, yes – but more, as an acknowledgement that I have not done those things which I ought to have done. It is, if you will, a 'coming out', an act of public repentance for not confronting more directly the reality that 'Sydney Anglicanism' is bad for one's spiritual health, making the 'food of the soul', the holy scriptures, indigestible. Such a claim opens me, I know, to the charge of spiritual pride. I do not want to be cut off from my Sydney sisters and brothers in Christ, but I need to say to them, 'for God's sake, listen to this book!'

Dr Muriel Porter has done those things which I ought to have done, seeking to expose a movement which is spiritually dangerous for the good health of both church and society. I urge you, along with every 'Sydney' Anglican, to read this book, repent, and seek to live out, in Muriel's closing words, "an Anglicanism faithful to the full, life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ".

Click for Muriel Porter's address at the launch of her book


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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