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Lay Presidency Update

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

The October session of the synod of the diocese of Sydney discussed and approved legislation to allow for certain lay people to be authorised to administer the service of Holy Communion. To put it another perhaps more familiar way, a person not ordained a priest was to be allowed to celebrate the mass. This created an extraordinary amount of interest and comment, certainly all around the Anglican world and in ecumenical circles.

The then Primate, Archbishop Rayner of Melbourne, issued a statement which promptly declared the move to be contrary to Catholic order, contrary to the position of the 16th century Reformers, illegal, irregular and contrary to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. As well it was contrary to the expressed opinion of the Appellate Tribunal: the highest judicial body of the Church, which said that any such provision could only be made by the national General Synod and not by an individual diocese.

The whole situation was difficult and tense, not the least for Archbishop Goodhew of Sydney. His assent was required for the ordinance to pass. He was under enormous pressure. There had after all been an almost two thirds vote in favour in both the houses of the clergy and the laity. The strong support of his own synod was therefore obvious. But around the rest of Australia and in the wider Anglican Communion the reaction was different. The Archbishop of Canterbury made his opposing position clear. There was consternation and disbelief widely expressed.

In the event, on November 10th, the archbishop announced that he was unable to give the required assent and the ordinance therefore lapsed.

Archbishop Goodhew's statement acknowledged his responsibility as a bishop within the Anglican Church and under the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. He also underlined the significant role that Sydney has, but only has while it is still a part of the whole. He indicated that there are important debates and issues about which Sydney has clear positions and attitudes, and which Sydney would like to have decisive input. It was clear that these would include issues relating to gender and sexuality. He was not prepared to give his assent to an ordinance which when implemented could have seen Sydney to a greater or lesser extent distanced or separated from the rest of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Church of Australia.

So, for the time being only, the matter returns to the background. But just for now. The issue will not go away. It is for instance by no means clear that the successor to Archbishop Goodhew, who retires in 2001, will share the same scruples or concerns. A new archbishop will after all be elected by that same Sydney synod which so strongly agreed to this proposed legislation.

On a serious concern scale of 1 to 10, this has to be very high indeed. This is more than comprehensiveness. It would be more like disintegration. It is a matter that has huge pan-Anglican and ecumenical implications. The repercussions for the continued functioning of the Anglican Church of Australia would be very far reaching. The question is one of fundamental authority, going right to the centre of ecclesial understanding.

While this is not a battle that is just now to be engaged, it is important to try to understand where some of this is coming from in Sydney and those who would support this position. Of course, some would emphasise some points more than others. This is no side issue however. It is about people exploring and developing their vision, their conviction and their understanding of Church, of belief, of practice. A very much widening chasm is opening up.

  • This is about ideology, about a view of church, liturgy, sacraments, Anglican church government , that is far removed from the mainstream.
  • A central theological issue relates to a perceived equity between ministries of word and sacrament, or indeed the primacy of the ministry of the word - of preaching. If lay people are able to be licensed to preach, which they are from time to time or as Lay Readers, then it is argued that there should be no quite unbalancing distinctions made for the other tasks formerly reserved for the clergy. The most obvious of these relates to administering the service of the Holy Communion, they would contend.
  • It is not an unexpected development - rather it has been brewing for years, centring on Moore College, where all Sydney clergy must train. The academic and theological focus is on the Scriptures and the 16th century. Some would suggest that positions debated, fought and lost in parts of the radical Reformation in Europe more than four centuries ago are being re-engaged now. There is the view and indeed the distinct possibility of this time winning, at least within the sizeable 280 - parish patch of the diocese of Sydney.
  • For conservative evangelical Sydney there is considerable discomfort in change that is perceived to be all going in a liberal catholic direction. Huge change has indeed come about during this last generation, both within the Anglican Church of Australia and in the Anglican Communion as a whole. The Sydney Anglicans fought long and hard for an organisational and theological structure for the church in Australia that would protect evangelical belief and practice while still defined in recognisably Anglican accepted formularies.
  • Many then from Sydney feel utterly betrayed by the structures and operation of a church which has allowed such reinterpretation in what they perceive to be areas of received truth. In particular, Sydney was appalled at what has happened with the ordination of women, on the basis of the "headship teachings in the pastoral epistles of the New Testament."
  • They are also very unhappy with changes in the liturgy of the Church which have clearly moved on and away from the strictest adherence to what was included in the Book of Common Prayer, 1662. This concern is particularly focused on the 1995 A Prayer Book for Australia, now in widespread use across the country. In Sydney many parishes do not use prayer books at all and parts of the 1995 book are banned, including the form of the Thanksgiving used here at St Peter's.
  • There is an element within the diocese of Sydney who look at all of the above and consider that the appropriate pay back for this is that Sydney move ahead with the issues that are important to them, there, and disregard any wider Anglican context.
  • It is important to realise that those who have been and who will drive this in Sydney are not then primarily concerned with what others outside might think. They are quite used, in the wider context, to being in the position of a minority. But this minority is geographically concentrated with great strength and resources. They are convinced of the correctness of their position.
  • An enormously powerful sub 9/12/99text to all of this is in the area of ethics. The Archbishop made it clear in his November 10 statement that one good reason for Sydney to remain in was so it could have influence in opposition to changes in the understanding, practice and teachings of the church regarding human sexuality, particularly those being supported in North America. This link was also articulated in his initial statement of October 20th.

A really basic question arises out of all of this. What is Anglican? The matter is that fundamental. The linking and interconnecting of such a cluster of issues means amongst other things that the new Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, to be elected in February 2000 in Sydney is going to require a superabundance of graces and gifts.

But these are all issues that must be engaged.

We do indeed live in interesting times.


Dr. John Davis
St. Peter's Eastern Hill

December 9, 1999.

The Revd Dr John Davis is Vicar of St Peter's Eastern Hill and has published on the subject of the constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia.


Topical Articles

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 Lay presidency
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 Women bishops

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