Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Sydney's Anglicans

Paper delivered by the Reverend Canon Dr Bruce Ballantine-Jones OAM to the Sydney Institute, 6 June 2017

Bruce Ballantine-Jones

Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I sometimes think the Diocese of Sydney is a bit like that.

When people think about the Diocese they might think of its opposition to the ordination of women, its opposition to the ordination of practicing homosexuals and to so-called gay marriage. They note its occasional disagreements with the Anglican Church of Australia and more recently its prominent part in addressing divisions in world Anglicanism.

Behind all of these is a resolute opposition to theological liberalism. This is the approach which seeks to fit Christianity into a secular worldview at the expense of biblical authority. Liberalism is seen in Sydney as the main cause of the numerical decline of Anglicanism in England, the US, and in many parts of Australia.

Whichever way you think of it, Sydney is one of the most distinctive Anglican dioceses in the world.

The reason I call myself 'a diocesan insider' goes back to 1959 when at age 17 I made a personal decision to become a Christian at the Billy Graham Crusade. That night I turned up at St John's Darlinghurst, and in 1963 I was elected to represent that parish at the Sydney Synod, making me its youngest member. Later I entered Moore College and was ordained in 1971 and thereafter was a Parish Minister until I retired in 2006. I joined the Anglican Church League (ACL) in 1970.The ACL is essentially a political party aimed at advancing evangelical influence in the Diocese. For many years I was its president. Other roles I filled were as editor of a newspaper called the Australian Church Record in the 1970s, a member of Synod's Standing Committee, a member, and until recently Chairman of the Glebe Administration Board and of the Diocesan Secretariat, which is the administrative arm of the Diocese. I was a Canon of St Andrew's Cathedral, a member of numerous committees and commissions and represented Sydney at the General Synod of Australia for about 30 years. I think all that qualifies me as an insider.

The Diocese itself comprises some 270 parishes and 400 churches, with a weekly attendance of around 80,000 people. The 'parliament' of the Diocese, or Synod, has created around 50 organisations to further its objectives and every three years elects by secret ballot some 500 people to manage these bodies. Included among them are some 40 schools, a theological college with around 300 full-time students and a large network of caring activities under the banner of Anglicare.

As to its character, it is unashamedly evangelical in theology. This means it places the highest importance on biblical authority, godly living and evangelism. About 95 percent of the parishes are led by evangelical ministers. As an Anglican community it has undergone massive changes over the last 40 years. These cover the everyday experience of belonging to a local church and the growth of its central functions.

Of these changes former Archbishop Jensen said:

Most of our churches have altered beyond recognition in the last 25 years... [Ecclesiastical] Dress has changed, architecture has changed; preaching has changed; music has changed; the content of services has changed... Failure to make these changes would have shown a preference for church-culture rather than the gospel, for the outward rather than the inward, for elitism rather than universalism.

A critic of Sydney evangelicals, Professor Michael Horsburgh described ACL and its supporters thus:

...They may appear to be socially conservative in [their] rejection of the ordination of women and attitudes towards homosexuality, but it [ACL] seeks radical changes in the Australian Church.

He recites some of the changes mentioned by Jensen. I basically agree with Horsburgh.

By far the most interesting element to outsiders is its overt political culture. This is very much a function of the secular nature of denominations. Former Principal of Moore College, Broughton Knox, gave the most coherent formulation of this secular character. He said that denominations are secular bodies set up for religious purposes. The 'church' itself is to be identified with the local congregation which meets together for prayer, praise, teaching and fellowship.

Denominations on the other hand are trans-congregational, man-made entities set up to assist local churches. Some have top-down and highly centralised forms of government, such as the Church of Rome, others have bottom-up structures with a weak centre, such as the Baptist denomination.

The Sydney model is a bit of both. It has an archbishop and a synod with clear separation of powers. 'Sydney' operates very much like a state within a state; its structure is not unlike that of the American Constitution. For example the US has an elected president, Sydney has an elected archbishop. Both have elected legislatures.

Reflecting its secular character, Sydney's Synod operates under Westminster rules. Both the President and the Archbishop can veto legislation and both have executive responsibilities which are subject to constitutional and legal constraints. Both legislatures create laws and pass money bills. Senior appointments are subject to approval by their respective legislatures and both systems have their judicial arms. To be frank it would be impossible for such bodies not to be political.

In Sydney's case, like many secular bodies, that involves political parties, how-to-vote tickets, the formulation of 'parliamentary tactics', the use of propaganda and the staging of special events to promote policies and advance political objectives. Notwithstanding all this, for the most part these activities are undertaken in a spirit of cordiality. Unlike our parliaments, it is considered bad form to attack individuals or to be disruptive on the floor of Synod. It is more a 'play the ball not the man' game. The result of all this is that in the 108 years since the formation of the ACL, Sydney Diocese has become overwhelmingly evangelical.

In my book I have tried to describe many of the great controversies of recent years and how political action was employed to bring about the results.*

Now even though I am a lifelong warrior for the evangelical and Sydney cause, I don't want you to think that I am an uncritical apologist for the Diocese. I think I am as aware as anyone of its weaknesses and limitations. In the main, the criticisms in my book go mostly to matters of central administration following the growth of financial resources, also the underlying committee culture which in some cases led to serious under-performance. The problems relating to the GFC and the failures surrounding the recent Diocesan Mission are examples which come to mind and which I deal with in my book.

In reflecting on these difficulties I tried for many years to work out why a diocese with so many resources and so much talent always struggled to do the 'big thing' when run from the centre. The explanation I have come up with is at three levels. The first is that all the operational entities, parishes and major institutions, are functionally independent of the centre and, except in extreme circumstances, cannot be told to do anything. The second relates to the two-headed nature of diocesan leadership - Archbishop and Synod. When they disagree they can cancel each other out, as we often see when a US president and congress are in deadlock. But sometimes when they do agree, they still find it difficult to make progress. Why?

This brings me to the third level, namely the inefficient, committee culture which robs the centre of a sense of united purpose and the capacity to translate good intentions into good outcomes. To put it another way, volunteerism at board level, the absence of strong corporate memory and sometimes unchallenged conflicts of interest, combine to hinder best practice and good governance, leading to underperformance and reputational damage. Call that the 'Yes Prime Minister' syndrome. I nominate a number of examples of this in my book.

Notwithstanding these problems, I am against a more centralised, top-down structure. Instead I advocate a proper auditing process to ensure that all organisations follow best governance practices at board and at senior management levels. Despite these shortcomings at the organisational level I am glad to say that Sydney Anglicans continue to express the essence of the Christian gospel both in their devotion to evangelism and in the extensive works directed towards the needy through bodies like Anglicare and the Archbishop's aid programs.

The key to the strength of the Diocese is the health of the local church. Good ministers, well trained and theologically informed lay leadership, a strong commitment to children and youth ministries and a strong sense of purpose at the local level is the key to that strength.

This is a little of the Diocese of Sydney. I hope it helps to unravel 'the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'.