by The Reverend Dr Stuart Piggin Synod Representative, Parish of Hunters Hill
Reflections from Synod 2018
To be frank, Synod is not unmitigated joy. This year was no exception, except that it felt different to me from any Synod I have attended.
Normally, the Sydney Synod is a very political affair. But this year, the atmosphere was different, as the realization seemed to dawn on all present that the Church in is in trouble, and the solutions are not obvious. 72% of Sydney Anglican parishes are declining. Some of those parishes are the biggest in the diocese and they are neither holding their numbers nor meeting their budgets.
Until just a few years ago we Sydney Anglicans were holding our own, even increasing in absolute numbers attending our churches although we have been falling behind as a percentage of the population. But in recent years, absolute numbers have declined.
In the face of these challenges, there was a becoming humility in the Synod on behalf of those who normally tell the rest of us what to do and how to do it. Triumphalism was not on display.
An example of this was a motion moved by Lyn Bannerman 'to request the Archbishop and Regional Bishops to consider approving the remarriage of a divorced person, where that person has been abused physically or emotionally by their former spouse.' While having some vocal opposition, and ultimately considered by secret ballot, the motion was passed overwhelmingly.
There was animated discussion of a claim that the reason why people were leaving churches was because they had abandoned the Prayer Book and proper liturgical services such as we have here at Hunters Hill. In the past, the Prayer Book and liturgical services have been given as reasons for decline. So, it was a mark of how serious things are that such a debate was held in Synod and that all options and possibilities are being considered.
In the past Anglicans Together has been a vocal, and yet somewhat powerless group in the face of the conservatives. But now they might be open to constructive proposals?
Of course, you are thinking that you know the reason for the sudden decline, namely the appalling revelations emerging from the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse and the widespread view now that Christianity is harmful? It is not yet time to address that view as demonstrated by the decision to exclude the representatives of churches at the national apology for sexual abuse held in Canberra while the Sydney Synod was being held.
It is rather a time for repentance and for ensuring that churches are safe places for children and for women. Much of the attention of Synod was devoted to approving procedures to ensure that safety. These procedures are the product of listening to victims, consulting experts in the field, and receiving guidance from lawyers who so well represented in synod.
I am confident that the matter is now being addressed with great diligence, and we shall emerge from it like the Ancient Mariner, sadder but wiser, and subject to much more training in how to comply. And poorer—because it costs money and resources to do those things properly. It is expected that Parish costs will rise because of the parish property and liability insurance program, additional costs associated with the running of the Professional Standards Unit, and a levy on the income we earn from our properties..
Of course, it was not all doom and gloom. There were heart-warming moments in Synod such as the work of Aboriginal pastors in Campbelltown, the elevation of 'Provisional Parishes' to the status of Parish, after significant hard work and growth, and the good work being done to create churches in the new areas of Western Sydney. According to Glenn Gardner, Executive Director of NCNC (New Churches for New Communities) this work in new areas has been considerably helped by funds from Parishes like ours (Hunters Hill contributed a great deal through the large receipts policy). You may say, well that is not helping us much? Yes it is—we are all on the same side, as Jesus said in Mark 9.40.
I was encouraged by the decision of Synod to give financial assistance to the Diocese of Bathurst, bankrupted by some unwise investments in schools, by declining rural populations, and by the need to provide redress and compensation for victims of sexual abuse. Sydney Diocese will provide financial support of $250,000 per year towards the costs of a Bishop and his registrar for the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst for a period of six years.
Not everyone agrees with me that this was an unambiguous good, because there was a condition, namely that the Archbishop of Sydney has to approve the appointment of the next bishop. This is seen by some as a regrettable move away from diocesan independence, but I don't think diocesan independence has been an unmixed blessing. Barriers between dioceses have blocked movement of clergy and financial support from wealthy dioceses such as Sydney to needier dioceses such as Bathurst and Riverina. If the Archbishop of Sydney respects the distinctive culture of those dioceses, such as their support for women priests, that may not be a big problem.
There was much attention in Synod paid to the development of the 'GAFCON movement' in which Peter Jensen, a former Archbishop of Sydney, has played such a big part. This is a movement which has won the support of the majority of the Anglican Communion even though it threatens to break off traditional links with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But many of the GAFCON churches are very Anglican and many of them support the ordination of women. It has been good for Sydney clergy and laity to meet with these committed Anglicans, and especially encouraging to meet with those who are enjoying explosive growth in the global south.
My view on all this?
We are facing an unprecedented challenge.
We really have to get serious and make every step a winner. We must consult widely, get the best advice, and keep all our members fully informed. We will survive this tsunami through our love for one another and through the unity of all the saints.
But this is a very exciting time, because it will require more than mere human effort to reset our course. We will have to rely on God, and on Jesus who promised to build his church.
The faith which Jesus has given us when he brought us to himself is a faith which actually gets better from the sort of stress we are now in. The Bible is full of it:
We rejoice in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance" (Romans 5:3).
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (James 1:2).
You have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:7).
Precisely because this is such a challenge, it is a very exciting time in our history.