Clash of cultures in church

THE Anglican Church of Australia is preparing to face its nemesis. Its three-yearly General Synod meeting in Fremantle next month will be the swan song of a lame duck primate, Peter Carnley, who retires next year. It will also face the see-sawing strategies of the evangelicals from the conservative wing of the church, and the more ambivalent liberals ranged against them.

In a church which prides itself on compromise and inclusiveness, it may find the strain too much this time around. One issue is women bishops.

For nearly 27 years the church has been considering the role of women in positions of power. At the last General Synod in Brisbane in 2000, the legislation that would have led to women becoming bishops appeared a lost cause. But at the coming synod it is back on the agenda. The other issue is the next primate and the evangelicals hope to prepare the ground for the election of Sydney's archbishop Peter Jensen.

Traditionally the primacy would belong to Sydney as the oldest diocese, but its relationship with most of the other Australian dioceses has always been tense, though three of its archbishops have served as primates.

Strongly Calvinist in its theology, with a burgeoning Moore Theological College training hundreds of potential clergy and church workers, it is the only diocese that has registered growth over the past few years. It is geared to flood the gospel market with eager, young activists.

In the past, the primate -- a position of honour rather than power -- had to be an archbishop, but now any of 23 diocesan bishops is eligible. The lobbying is already intense and with the capture of some key dioceses by evangelical activists, it would not be surprising if Jensen won the prize.

Roger Herft, Sri Lankan-born bishop of Newcastle, has considerable support and has always favoured an equal role for women in the church, including their consecration as bishops. With the archbishopric of Adelaide vacant, and Melbourne soon to be, along with Perth, the archbishop of Brisbane, Phillip Aspinall, is considered too recent an appointment to be eligible.

There will undoubtedly be a tussle when the time for election comes next year, especially as evangelicals already control Tasmania, Armidale, northwest Australia, Sydney and, by default, Melbourne. The Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, George Browning, has appointed a gentle Sydney evangelical as assistant bishop.

Evangelicals are ablaze with a deep-seated faith in biblical truth. They waste no time on liberal speculation about what they teach and believe. Their rejection of formal worship with its robes and archaic language has given them a hold on many young people, a phenomenon not repeated in the largely greying and diminishing Anglican congregations elsewhere. Evangelicals will be a formidable bloc at the General Synod.

Most dioceses are seriously cash-strapped -- Melbourne has more bishops than it can afford and a Sunday constituency of about 17,000 regulars. Tasmania has just sold its Bishopscourt to meet compensation claims from sex abuse victims, and many country dioceses face stringent economies due to drought and shrinking financial support. Sydney, however, has considerable wealth and access to convertible assets.

Its influence ranges over a good many other dioceses, where its financial assistance often helps maintain an Anglican presence. Bishops critical of the Sydney stance on a more fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible are cautious about biting the hand that feeds them.

Some of these dioceses lack Sydney's unity. The diocese of Ballarat, long considered a high-church Anglo-Catholic stronghold, has a maverick bishop, Michael Hough, who is busy making enemies of natural supporters, and Adelaide is so bankrupt in morale after its alleged cover-up of sexual abuse by its former archbishop, Ian George, that finding compensation for victims and a suitable successor may prove difficult.

Legislation to remove gender from the highest position of bishop in the church is now ready. A similar attempt in 2000 was withdrawn. At the coming synod, Sydney will lead the charge to oppose women as bishops. With four other dioceses, it is opposed to women priests and argues that the prospect of women bishops is contrary to both Bible teaching and the traditions of the church. Evangelicals believe that only males can rule the church and that this is non-negotiable.

Claire Smith, a Sydney evangelical and member of the steering committee of Equal but Different says: "Scripture teaches that God has given complementary responsibilities to women and men in the family and the church. These reflect differences God instituted in the creation of humanity."

Smith upholds the Sydney belief that the role of women in the church is not as power brokers. This argument has unexpected allies in a conservative Anglo-Catholic movement, Forward-in-Faith, equally opposed to women bishops.

Bishop Jeff Driver of Gippsland, convener of the Working Group on Women Bishops, points out that, "even if the legislation is passed, in the end, dioceses will have to make their own decision". To be passed, a two-thirds majority of the bishops, clergy and laity is needed. And one clause provides for a male bishop to minister to those whose consciences preclude them from accepting a female bishop.

Complicating the issue is the attitude of Forward in Faith, whose vice-chairman, David Chislett says: "Those women and men who still conscientiously believe that the ordination of women is not of God have become ecclesiastical asylum-seekers in our own church." Chislett says many Anglicans are permanently depressed and have had to compromise with a system in which they no longer have any faith.

If the women bishops legislation is passed, Forward in Faith has allied itself with another body, the Traditional Anglican Communion, which most Anglicans treat as a breakaway or schism. A second dissident group, the Anglican Catholic Church of Australia, is another player in what is fast becoming a game of musical chairs.

These churches have very few members in Australia and worldwide the TAC claims a constituency of about 500,000. Forward in Faith, using its council as an electoral college, has named Chislett to be ordained a bishop by an equal number of ordinary Anglican diocesan bishops and TAC bishops.

As a result, he becomes a virtual bishop-in-waiting, a kind of Clayton's shepherd, whose job it will be to pastor dissident parishes who refuse to accept the ministrations of women bishops. He would perform the role of "flying bishop", in parishes all over the country who refuse to accept women priests or bishops, and the ministrations of their own local bishop. How this would be received by the majority of Australian Anglican bishops has not been tested, but when suggested previously, most have been hostile, believing, as one remarked: "I will decide what happens in my diocese."

Sydney offers a hint of things to come as it is unashamedly evangelical and pursues a monochrome policy begun over 80 years ago. It is contemptuous of the nominal nature of much Anglican loyalty. And it believes in individual conversion, a personal affirmation of faith. This is probably where the real Anglican divide now exists. A covenant recently signed by a plethora of Australian churches recognising one another's baptisms has been hailed as a huge step forward. But for many Anglicans, the formality of a child's baptism remains a social rather than a religious responsibility.

The Bible-believing movement within Australian Anglicanism questions the assumption that baptism makes you a christian. They want a discernible change in lifestyle and a daily witness to christian faith.

Many times before, the Anglican Church has been threatened with a split on substantial issues. But Anglicans have an ability to compromise and absorb shocks that would destroy other institutions.