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by Edmund Campion

The Chosen Ones: the Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church

"Over the years I have formed the habit of attending one or other of the Sydney Anglican churches on Good Friday for the service known as the Seven Last Words, an extended meditation on the hours Christ spent on the cross." I wrote these words in a book a dozen years ago and since that time my liking for the Seven Last Words devotion has not abated. It is a prayerful, religious three hours immersion in the reality of the Passion, without the sadism of the Mel Gibson movie. So when I saw St Andrew's the Anglican Cathedral in Sydney, advertising a three hour event on Good Friday I decided to go.

It turned out to be not quite what I had expected: five dollars entrance at the door, a programme with a book catalogue, and an overhead projection screen looming across the nave. Going in, I ran into the ABC broadcaster, Kel Richards, a mirthful Christian, who corrected me swiftly when I said I was looking forward to "the service". This is not a service, he said. True - when I looked at the programme it read "Cathedral Easter Convention"; there were singalong hymns, warm-up jokes (Kel Richards), a prayer or two, and afternoon tea in the Chapter House halfway through the afternoon; the weight of the proceedings, however would go to lengthy theological lectures by Phillip Jensen, now Dean of Sydney, and his brother the Archbishop's successor as principal of Moore Theological College, John Woodhouse.

I have an Erasmian view of theology but I was keen to hear both speakers because I had just read Chris McGillion's new book on Sydney Anglicanism, The Chosen Ones: the Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church (Allen and Unwin $24.95). The first half of the book explores the campaigns to elect first Harry Goodhew and then, in 2001, Peter Jensen to the archbishopric, a tale of intrigue and high minded earthiness that will unsettle only those who view the Christian church as a gathering of angels rather than human beings. Their man elected, then follows the enjoyment of the spoils by the victors, reminiscent of the Catholic carpetbaggers who hurried to Sydney in the wake of George Pell's arrival there, also in 2001. McGillion tells much of his story from the files of the Sydney Morning Herald, a paper that gives so much space to the doings of Sydney Anglicans that some of them feel it is perhaps anti-Christian, despite its editorial leaders on the meanings of Christmas and Easter each year. Yes, the SMH satirist Mike Carlton has his hurtful fun with the multiple appointments of the Jensen family - Peter to the archbishopric, Mrs Peter to oversee women's ministry, son Michael to the staff of Moore College, and brother Phillip to be dean of the cathedral - but if you are in a major league you must expect your share of mockery, especially in Sydney. Mike Carlton is a lineal sprig of the Botany Bay mockers who formed the culture of Sydney, a reverse side to its celebrity culture.

The radical Protestantism that is the hallmark of Sydney Anglicanism insists that the faith exists most truly in individual congregations. Concepts of "The Church" as an overarching reality beyond the boundaries of this time and this place are unbiblical and thus suspect. In his 26 years as principal of Moore Theological College, the Sydney training centre for ministers and other church workers, David Broughton Knox hammered home this congregationalist ideology to generations of receptive students. It brought into question any meaning of church beyond the local congregation and was memorably evidenced when Knox's son, applying for ordination, could not bring himself to address his archbishop other than as Mister Robinson. The language of a radical Protestant diocesan group is equally revealing. Describing themselves as "reformed evangelical protestant pastors of churches in Sydney" (not Anglican rectors) they asserted their dissatisfaction with "our Association of churches" (not the Anglican Church of Australia).

The radical Protestantism of these congregationalists has led in recent years to a push for lay presidency, whereby lay people might preside over the service of Holy Communion. The fight to win authorisation for lay presidency is ongoing; in the meantime, McGillion reports anecdotal evidence that it is already being practiced in some Anglican congregations and at the cathedral Dean Jensen has introduced a version of it by inviting everyone to recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving and Consecration. It was Broughton Knox's teaching that the only difference ordination makes is that it gives you an income to teach the Bible full time, whatever the Book of Common Prayer might say. Worldwide, other Anglicans are watching these developments in Sydney with some dismay. Will the justly celebrated capaciousness of Anglicanism survive this challenge?

While lay presidency worries other Christians, the aspect of the radical Protestants that baffles secular Sydney is their doctrine of "headship". By this they mean that the Bible teaches that women should not be in authority over men in church or family. So they oppose women priests, since that must lead to priested women heading a parish. This prompted a university coeval of mine, Judge Ken Handley, Chancellor of the diocese of Sydney, to propose that they might priest women but not appoint one to head a parish as rector. It was a subtle solution to what had become a PR problem but McGillion says it got nowhere. He quotes an acerbic comment by Kelly Burke, SMH religious affairs writer 2001-2003, that most Herald readers find the headship concept "laughable if not downright offensive."

Would this worry the Jensenists? Not at all. In a perceptive essay in the latest Griffith Review, the Melbourne Anglican historian, Muriel Porter, notices Sydney's "Calvanistic zeal to root out error and preserve doctrinal purity". One exemplar of such odium theologicum is Dean Phillip Jensen who has called non-Christian religions "monstrous lies and deceits of Satan" and wrote of Roman Catholicism that, despite Vatican II, as an organisation it continues to be "sub-Christian in its doctrine and practice". So interfaith dialogue and ecumenism are a waste of time, they distract you from more urgent tasks of evangelism and may soften you up for doctrinal corruption. When it comes to traditional Book of Common Prayer Anglicans, the Sydney radical Protestants are just as unsympathetic. Their scheme is to plant "bible-based" congregations alongside traditional Anglican parishes elsewhere. They have the cash to do this - according to Archbishop Jensen the diocese is worth between two and three billion dollars - and their missionary recruits are packing Moore College in such numbers that Sydney will not be able to absorb them all. Fasten seat belts.

The Work:

  • The Chosen Ones: the Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church by Chris McGillion

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