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Reflections on General Synod

The Rev'd Dr Andrew McGowan
Director of the Theological School and Joan F W Munro Lecturer
Trinity College, University of Melbourne
Preached in the Chapel of Trinity College: 22nd October, 2004

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Indeed. Last week, as some of you know, I attended the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. For some of us there – and I know for some of you here – it was a rather disheartening experience. Although we did some important and long overdue things to make the Church something closer to the safe place it should be for children in particular, we did not make the Church a safer place for women to exercise ministries of leadership, nor did we make the Church or the world safer places for gay and lesbian people. God, be merciful to us, sinners.

Yesterday many of us rose to find greeting us at the breakfast table the extraordinary remarks from the Dean of Sydney at a meeting of the group in the Church of England known as "Reform". Dr Jensen gave warning of a number of areas where the Anglican Communion is at grave moral risk, which for Colleges seem to have included the perils of selling choir CDs in your ante-chapel – let us take careful note before we too become thus a temple to paganism!

But seriously folks, we are clearly in difficult times. And the really serious stuff was not only the attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury, and not only the usual implied verbal gay-bashing, at which our General Synod also tried its hand, but something the Guardian had reported but the Age didn't, namely the misogynist bits: "as soon as you accept women's ordination everything else in the denomination declines", said the Dean.

Although some of the English voices quoted at that meeting of "Reform" seemed to be giving up on their structure as a bad job, the reality there and especially here seems more likely to be that those of such a mind are flexing their muscles to seek greater power and influence inside the Church.

Last week in Fremantle those of us who were seeking progress for our Church towards having women in the episcopate tended to argue in terms of accommodation, agreement to differ, respect for dissent, and in a variety of other ways that skirted the actual principles involved which, in effect, we regarded as established. Whether or not a different approach would have helped, in retrospect this might have been a mistake. We may be grateful that in the debate there was a greater degree at least of civility, and perhaps even of charity, than in these other comments from the UK. But we were met with a resistance based on, and argued from, not fear of the process, or concern that there might be intolerance for conservative dissent, or whatever – we were simply met by the same old arguments of twenty years ago and more from biblical proof texts, and a single-minded insistence on having their own way. And this will happen again and again. And these views are now, or again, held and taught closer than in Sydney.

Today the two parables presented to us in the Gospel are strikingly apt, in their own ways. It is of course tempting to revisit the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and to re-cast the first man who went to the Temple to pray in Jensenite terms. But this parable almost inevitably comes back to bite anyone who would use it against others – any would-be tax collectors who point the finger at self-righteous Pharisees find themselves thanking God that they are humble and repentant, not like their self-righteous neighbour, and so on. I may thank God that I and you are not like Philip Jensen – but in truth a repentant Philip Jensen is more acceptable than a righteous Rowan Williams, and if that is hard for me to accept it is true nonetheless.

Even in the face of views and developments like those mentioned, we have to connect identification as Christian not just with certain positions, but with a certain circumspection and humility about our own place before God and our own theology's place before God. If we too sink to intolerance we may win more battles, but will already have signed away the war. A left-wing Philip Jensen is not the answer. Charity must never be lost.

Yet the "importunate widow" surely has something for us today as well. She has often served as a reminder to us of the need for courage and sheer persistence in seeking what is right in the world and the Church, or at least keeping on in the face of disheartening developments – she is a biblical embodiment of Woody Allen's observation that eighty percent of success is "just showing up"! We may be disheartened but we too must like her just keep showing up. Keep showing up.

But it seems to me that our charity and our persistence must be matched also by an increasingly clear and forthright public articulation of the authentic Gospel we proclaim – the Gospel that is not biblical literalism or patriarchy or homophobia, but life and freedom and wholeness for all people. We have a Gospel whose character Jeremiah could have been describing in today's reading: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people". Not like the former covenant established in the observance of particular words, our authentic Gospel is not about proof-texts or exclusion, but about God's unconditional love shown in Jesus Christ and written in the heart.

The time when we could just get on with being quiet, solid pastors and teachers of this message and ignore the posturings and politics is gone. Women, if you are silent, then one day they will not let you do even that solid unpretentious pastoral stuff. Gays and lesbians, you already know that story all too well. And straight white men, look at what it took for Rowan Williams to be a target. Do you think we will be left alone either? No – all our solid pastoring and teaching and administration of the sacraments – which is still the heart of who we are – must ever more clearly be the enactment of an authentic Gospel that is not afraid to say what it is and what it is not, with both charity and persistence.

Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. And will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Yes, yes! But until then, cry out for justice we must – for ourselves, one another, and for all God's people. It's time.


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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