Those parts of the Anglican Church of Australia who struggle to remain faithful to orthodox Christianity in a Church rocked by impaired communion, let out a huge sigh of relief at the 12th General Synod in Brisbane (21-27 July 2001) when moves towards women bishops were delayed until the next General Synod in three years' time.
The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, held every three years, consists of about 250 lay and clerical members, forming the three houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. Representing all dioceses, it is responsible for the governance of the church, creating canons and receiving petitions; it is meant to speak for the "national church."
This year, the Synod participants gathered in the prestigious Carlton Crest in Brisbane for the first time, the big-ticket item on the agenda being that of women bishops. Having passed a "clarification canon" in 1992 to remove legal barriers to the ordination of women as priests, 18 out of 23 dioceses have adopted the canon in their own territories - resulting in approximately 300 women priests in Australia. Because each diocese holds a relative autonomy, no legislation passed by the national synod or any other province or diocese can be imposed upon any other diocese - legislation must be adopted by a particular diocesan synod.
For the first time in many years, an astonishing step back from the liberal agenda occurred when it became obvious that the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the "special Bill" allowing for the consecration of women as bishops would not eventuate.
The Bill at first received support from 58 per cent of the Synod (not voting in separate houses) at the first reading stage. In the course of the debate, it was realised that the previously forceful protagonists of women priests (including many outspoken bishops) were holding back their vote for women at the episcopal table. Why was that? The answer appeared to be clear: there was little support from the (liberal sector of the) floor for inclusion in the Bill of some form of "alternative episcopal oversight."
Quite simply, alternate episcopal oversight (such as already exists in the Church of England) would be a way in which parishes who in conscience cannot accept the sacramental ministry of a woman bishop could receive the ministerial oversight of a male bishop (i.e., a bishop whose orders they can in conscience recognise as valid). A number of different protocols for this were discussed, the most comprehensive of which would mean parishes becoming a part of another geographical diocese, with property, bank accounts and accoutrements intact.
The reason conservative parishes were so in favour of this form of alternative episcopal oversight is because they have learned the hard way not to trust "liberal" bishops to "work something out" without the necessary binding legislation. Too many parishes, clergy and laity have found their communities decimated already in the intervening years since the introduction of women priests by bishops who wish to force the revisionist agenda on conservatives.
The resistance against women bishops legislation, without some sort of protection for parishes who in conscience could not accept the move as congruent with either Scripture or Tradition, could be found mainly from those dioceses which have not accepted the women priests legislation. Representatives from those dioceses (Sydney, Ballarat, The Murray, Wangaratta and North West Australia) all offered input into why it was so important to protect those Anglicans throughout the country who were not able to accept innovations to orthodox standards of faith and order.
"From our point of view, the admission of women to the episcopate is not corollary with the admission of women to the priesthood. In the last word, what we are embarking on is an unworkable division of the Church," said the Rt Rev David Silk, Bishop of Ballarat.
So what General Synod witnessed was a very astute manoeuvre of strategic retreat. The Bill which was passed at the close of the debate reflected the strong fears of those bishops who support women in the episcopate but who did not want to lose parishes from within their own geographic boundaries. The entire debate ended up focussing a bit more on geography than on theology.
"I have not presented a theological argument for women bishops because that argument was completed when women were ordained as priests almost nine years ago," said Dr Muriel Porter, chair of the Synod working committee on women bishops and mover of the motion.
For those members (and particularly younger Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals) of the Anglican Church of Australia who have been struggling to hold on to the sacredness of the Scriptures and Tradition they received in that same Church, the Bill that was passed offered a small (but perhaps temporary) reprieve until the next General Synod.
The voice of allegedly the youngest individual on Synod, Liz Criddle, claimed to speak for the next generation of Anglicans when she said, "If you want to know what young people think, I speak for all those under 40 when I say that this Church needs women bishops."
However, a retort from one of the Evangelical sectors of the Synod embodied the views of those scattered orthodox young people in our provinces, striving to see how they can have an Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic future in such a Church: "You don't speak for my teenage daughter!"
We look prayerfully towards the next General Synod in three years.
Nigel Zimmermann is a journalist, currently studying theology as an ordinand for the Anglican Diocese of The Murray.