New Primate: Anglican divisions intensify

New Primate: Anglican divisions intensify

Rev David Robarts

The loose structure characteristic of Anglicanism since the Reformation has come under increasing stress in recent years, notably after the ordination of women clergy in 1992. The election of the new Primate for Australia, Archbishop Peter Carnley, given his controversial views on Christianity, has further intensified divisions within the Anglican Church.

Rev David Robarts, National Chairman of Forward in Faith, Australia, and Vicar of Christ Church, Brunswick, Melbourne, examines the present situation of his Church.

Fr Aidan Nichols OP, a long-standing friend and historian of Anglicanism, believes the Anglican Communion has three souls - catholic, evangelical, and liberal - contending for mastery within one bosom. His historical analysis of Anglicanism on this basis is hard to fault. These 'souls' have coexisted since the Reformation with one or other gaining periodic ascendancy without totally mastering the others.

What held Anglicanism together, not least during its considerable missionary expansion from the seventeenth century onwards, was no centralised authority, but a cultural continuity fortified by allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer and belief in an inherited apostolic order.

The development of national churches and autonomous provinces, with their own prayer books and the introduction of women priests and bishops in some provinces and dioceses, and not others, now faces Anglicanism with serious internal contradictions. Coupled with this has been the dominance of the "liberal soul" over recent decades in the declining churches of the developed world and the largely "evangelical soul" in the rapidly growing provinces of the developing world.

Conflict apparent at the time of the last Lambeth Conference in 1998 over such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women has continued, and there has been a strong reaction against its Resolution on sexuality, with the affirmation of single-sex 'marriages' and the ordination of practising homosexuals in the largely liberal Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA). This in turn has caused backlash there and elsewhere.

As a consequence, beleaguered traditionalists had two Episcopal priests consecrated as "flying bishops" in Singapore last January, with the Primates of Rwanda and SE Asia as chief consecrators. Protests from many sources, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the US Presiding Bishop, have followed.

The consecrating Primates, for their part, defended the consecrations of the two Missionary Bishops to the US as an 'interim action' on behalf of faithful and often episcopally besieged congregations living amidst the 'apostasy and breaches of discipline in ECUSA'. Their actions, as the Rev Dr Geoffrey Kirk points out, 'focus attention on the interconnectedness of ... radical departures in order, dogma and morals, whose implications for the coherence of the Communion must now, at last, be taken seriously."

While most Anglicans have lived more comfortably with various forms of heresy than the prospect of schism, it is increasingly difficult to put off facing our doctrinal divergences whilst asserting structural unity. The underlying basis of that unity - the historic ministry - is now undermined by differences, creating in practice a situation described by Nichols as "undeclared schism."

These internal problems, however, have not dissuaded Anglicans from the wider quest for unity. Most notable has been the ARCIC statement, The Gift of Authority, which appeared in May last year, the third such statement on authority and a significant development in dialogue.

Yet one must confess to a certain sense of unreality as things now stand. A huge gap exists between Primacy as variously understood by Anglicans and the vision of a Universal Primacy. Even more problematical is the "chameleon-like character" of Anglicanism noted by Ian Ker, which, with its left hand signed the Porvoo Agreement accepting intercommunion with Lutheran churches that do not claim to have retained Apostolic Succession, and with its right, the ARCIC Agreement with Roman Catholics, two of whose most recent Popes have pleaded in vain with their ecumenical partner for restraint over the ordination of women.

Turning closer to home have been developments with regard to lay presidency, supported by many Anglicans in the largest, most powerful, and uniquely evangelical Diocese of Sydney. While Australian Anglicans decline elsewhere, Sydney grows and expands. To have worthy local laity presiding at the Eucharist - a notion not uncongenial to Catholic theologians like KŸng and Schillebeeckx - is one espoused by many evangelical Anglicans who set no store by a sacerdotal priesthood, but whose primary concern is the proclamation of the Word and planting new churches.

Pressures are such in the Diocese of Sydney that lay presidency, as an official fact of life, may not be far away. While this would further distance Sydney from most of the Church, some would see the process used to secure the ordination of women as providing the very opening for this innovation also. Indeed, warnings to this effect prior to 1992 went unheeded.

New Primate

Recent turmoil over the appointment of the new Primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley of Perth, and his Easter Statement in The Bulletin, also indicates deeply held differences amongst Australian Anglicans. This election reflects the Primatial appointment itself moving from something of a gentlemen's agreement to the arena of power politics. Archbishop Carnley, a distinguished philosophical theologian, who has never been a parish priest, is no stranger to controversy. His views over subjects ranging from artificial birth technology and human sexuality to women bishops and other faiths have disquieted many, as have his use of the Bible and his actions in ordaining women without the approval of General Synod in 1992.

The new Primate may be seen as the luminary of liberals and is one who knows how to use the media to advantage. He is highly sophisticated in his use of words but it is not always easy to know quite what he means - or believes. Only time will tell as to whether in our current difficulties Peter Carnley has the capacity to embrace and hold together Anglican "souls" of other than his own kind in his primatial role, or whether the Australian Church will slip further into a declining diocesanism within which Sydney will continue quietly to withdraw whilst expanding its own influence.

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