Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

A response to Bruce Ballantine-Jones and his book, Inside Sydney.

by The Reverend Andrew Sempell, Rector of St James Church, Sydney.

Book cover: Inside Story

Inside Sydney: An Insider's view of the changes and politics in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, 1966-2013.

As Rector of St James' King Street I stand well outside the political machinery of the Diocese of Sydney. Although, as Dean of Bathurst (including being a member of the General Synod) and as an Army Chaplain, I did have my fair share of church politics.

A popular view is that the church invented politics, released it into the wild, and has been struggling ever since to get it back into its cage. We certainly have shifted from the time of Christendom, when the church had the upper-hand and bishops could make kings come crawling to them for forgiveness. It is now the other way around, and the bishops go crawling to the politicians for 'influence' and churches have become more adjuncts to political parties in their attempts to control society. In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby: "The bishops seem to want to talk about politics and the politicians want to talk about moral issues!"

Bruce's book Inside Sydney is, in part, an expose of the inner workings of the Diocese in recent times, part apology in defence of the role of politics in the church, and part autobiography. This last aspect is unsurprising among literate politicians who are keen to ensure that the records of their endeavours are correct.

Bruce's writing style is like his political style—blunt and honest. I am sure that there are some current and former Assistant Bishops who are smarting from his critique, although there is perhaps one who is quite happy to be described as ablest in the Diocese!

His book covers the administration of the Diocese over a 60 year period and which, coincidently, is the time of the greatest decline in church participation in Australia's history. It also happens to cover most of my life from when I grew up at Glenorie (on the north-western outskirts of the city) until now.

The book is a veritable 'general store' of stories and anecdotes, with something for everyone: goods with which to agree and disagree, items to offend, dark secrets to be revealed, whitewash to cover up, and flannel to ensure we don't get too close to some embarrassing moments. I have enjoyed reading it, learnt much, and agree with many of Bruce's criticisms of the Diocesan administration that continue even today.

Bruce summarises the culture of the Diocese through the whimsical words of Winston Churchill's description of Russia as 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. I wonder if this is intended irony, for I would describe Russia as a 'calculating, controlling and confrontational' state, which may well also apply to the politics of the Diocese of Sydney. Nevertheless, I do think that to understand the culture of the Diocese we need to go back a little further than the mid-twentieth century.

Sydney was established as a penal colony and the 'established' Church of England had the privileged position of providing the chaplaincy for the settlement. Unlike the United States, which has a religious narrative for its origins based on the liberal ideals of freedom and equality, New South Wales was established on a culture of hierarchy and control—despite the humanism of Arthur Phillip. The early governors tended to see the role of the church as a 'moral policeman', there to convict people of their wrong-doing, encourage repentance and reform, and to make people useful to society. Many of the Anglican chaplains (such as Samuel Marsden) relished this role, including the moralistic monopoly arising from the Catholic clergy being kept out of the colony for the first thirty years. But, of course, the Anglican Church, was never the 'established church' here, although I suspect many of its members have never quite come to terms with that.

With the ongoing settlement of English, Scottish and Irish people (both convicts and immigrants) came the curse of sectarianism. The political and ecclesiastical conflicts over status, property, and social control between Anglican Bishop William Grant Broughton, Catholic Archbishop Bede Polding, and the Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang became legendary.

As an indicator of ethnicity and class, sectarianism became the single most powerful religious force in Australian history and segued into national politics and social policy well into the twentieth century. As Bruce noted, during this time the Diocese of Sydney took on a profoundly anti-Catholic position that drew its energy from the politics of Ireland. For example, the mid-twentieth century Principal of Moore College (and staunchly anti-Catholic Irishman), T C Hammond, was Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of NSW. This anti-Catholic fervour continues as a reduced presence in the Diocese today.

It is also interesting to note that the anti-Catholic prejudice transferred itself to the resident Anglican-Catholics of which the Memorialist controversy* of the 1930s is an example. For many people, the Sydney Diocesan narrative has been one of a movement from a broad inclusive church with ecclesiastical diversity, to a much narrower position. The resulting mono-culture leaves the Diocese vulnerable to social change around it because of its inability to evolve and adapt. This has been greatly achieved through its one-party political machine, the Anglican Church League.

Another religious strand that entered the Diocese in the early twentieth century, not mentioned in Bruce's book, was the Plymouth Brethren—a conservative, non-conformist, holiness sect that, despite its name, originated in Ireland. The Katoomba Convention (based on the English Keswick Conventions) was established by the 'Brethren' Young and Deck families, who had married into the Sydney hierarchy. Over the years the Convention has changed from a non-denominational Christian gathering to a narrower Sydney Anglican one. Attendance at the Convention, similar to the Russian Communist Party Congress, has become a way of defining who is 'sound' and 'one of us'. It also provides a way of teaching the Sydney narrative both across the Diocese and across generations, and gives young people the opportunity to meet each other and find suitable partners. As I have discovered through my own connection with the Young family, most of us in the Sydney Diocese seem to be related to one another; and herein lies a problem.

Far from being a democracy based on the Westminster conventions and open to the whim of the electorate, the Diocese of Sydney is run as a family business (a big one—perhaps similar to what Consolidated Press used to be under the Packers). The familial and tribal connections are vital to the operation of the diocese, along with the patronage of powerful leaders (both clerical and lay) within the Diocese. It is these tribal connections, based on a narrative that reinforces the idea of being 'God's elect', that leads to hubris, self-focus and error. There are moments when Bruce comes close to acknowledging this, but then out comes the flannel.

An example is the loss of around half of the Diocese's financial assets in the global financial crisis of 2008—indeed, more than $160M (the real figure has never been disclosed and could be much higher). Who was the wiz-kid that came up with the idea of borrowing a pile of cash to buy equities as a way of increasing wealth in an organisation that does not pay tax and therefore cannot write off the interest costs against its tax liabilities? I'm no merchant banker, but I do know that margin loans are for rich people who pay too much tax, and who gamble that the capital gains will outweigh the interest burden—similar to investing in the Sydney property market. I think the diocese was conned by its own propaganda, greed and insularity.

Another problem for the Diocese of Sydney (and much of the Anglican Church for that matter) is an increasing lack of competent people to oversee the governance and good management practices of its entities. Too often a preference is given to people who are 'in the tribe', 'one of us' or who are 'ideologically sound', rather than the best professional available. Having the same people sitting on boards and commissions at the strategic, operational and administrative levels of an organisation can be a disaster, as the Diocese of Bathurst financial demise has demonstrated. When it comes to governance and operations, we would be better served by engaging people with a high degree of professionalism, competence, and an ability to be called to account for their fallings; but unfortunately, tribalism works against this.

Bruce's argument for Synod being something similar to a national parliament in a liberal democracy breaks down when one realises that, unlike a nation state, the church is a voluntary association and that people are free to engage as they wish and depart at will. Indeed, for many Anglicans, the experience of synod is not so much a binding force as a cause to leave. And leave they have over the past 60 years with regular church participation plummeting from 45% of the population in the 1950s to 8% today, a drop of 80%; whereas the reduction in people identifying themselves as Christian has only dropped by around 30%. I wonder why?

Today, around 2% of the Sydney population are regular worshippers in an Anglican Church, (that is at least once per month); which it is not big. This figure is consistent across the major centres of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Mind you, only about 0.5% of the population are members of a political party—so we are not that badly off. What is different about Sydney Diocese is its age profile, in that it has a higher proportion of young people—especially teenagers. The Diocese has done well in this regard.

I could talk further about the failure of the Mission goal of 10%, and the problem of a top-down approach to change. I could talk about how the church spends too much of its time talking to itself and not enough time engaging with the community in an open and honest way. I could talk about how the desire of a minority to maintain social control over the rest of the community leads to resentment and rejection. I could talk about the way that the exercise of realpolitik in the church alienates people and betrays the gospel of Christ and the concept of 'sacred community'.

A 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' indeed; but 'calculating, controlling and confrontational' remains, with an emphasis on the need to be in control; but I will leave it there.