A swan that quacks like a duck must be a duck
In contemporary English, a cult is generally understood to mean a group committed to a particular or singular personality, ideology, or goal; one that distinguishes them from mainstream practice or belief. The recently announced ʹDiocese of the Southern Crossʹ sadly fits this description, notwithstanding their cries to the contrary and their claim to be ʹAnglicanʹ. Given the respect in which I have previously held its main instigator, Bishop Glen Davies, it grieves me to say so, knowing as I do that ʹcultʹ carries with it pejorative connotations.
The Anglican Church has always understood itself to be part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Its distinguishing features of identity have not been doctrinal or ideological, but cultural and historical as its original name implies - the Church of England. The historic creeds are foundational to this universal Church and are deemed a sufficient summary of biblical truth. In other words, what makes a person Christian is belief in God who is known to us as the source of life, who is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in whose Spirit we seek truth, wisdom and transformation.
There is no space within this One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church for a person or group to decide a particular aspect of biblical truth, as they interpret it, carries sufficient weight to define membership and exclude others. The Church has historically refused to be so specifically or narrowly defined. It is bizarre that views on sexual orientation and gender orientation have been chosen as sufficient reason for separation, given that primacy of marriage between males and females has been upheld by the recent Lambeth conference and no Australian Anglican clergy person is currently licensed to conduct marriage for a same sex couple. Give us a break.
Context is everything. The national leader of another denomination once confided in me "the Anglican Diocese of Sydney is not a Protestant Church, it is a Puritan Church". I asked what he meant, to which he replied: "a Protestant Church is committed to reform within a context, a Puritan Church is committed to an ideology without a context". Every period of history has been troubled, but none more so than our present time. If I were to choose an area of biblical ethics or morality to wear as a necessary badge of identity it certainly would not be judgement about sexual orientation or indeed of male headship. I frankly do not understand how a person of Christian commitment is not in the absolute vanguard of environmental responsibility. Similarly, I do not understand how a person who claims to be Christian, can seek to flourish from neo-liberal capitalist systems in which the poor flounder and the rich flourish. Nor do I understand how a bishop can remain quiet about the obvious lack of transparency on the conservative right of politics. In other words, the bible has far more to say about the misuse of power, about inequality, about the despoiling of the natural order, than it does about sexual orientation. Please, if you are going to choose a moral or ethical line in the sand, at least choose one that has both biblical prominence and contextual urgency.
We have been told this diocese will not seek to be in communion with Canterbury but with GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference). ʹBeing in communion withʹ means being accountable or answerable to. Members of the Anglican Church are not permitted to engage in any practice which is not acceptable to the International Anglican Communion through Canterbury as it focus. GAFCON is both the financial and ideological child of the Diocese of Sydney. In stating its intention to be in communion with GAFCON, this ʹdioceseʹ is asserting accountability to and by itself, sadly another aspect common to all cult like behaviour.
There are significant dangers inherent in commitment to single focus orientation, indeed such focus is frequently used as a distraction from more confronting, but less palatable realities. When GAFCON began, one of the first Provinces to seek membership was Rwanda. At the time Rwanda was still recovering from its 1994 genocide in which some of its bishops had been so implicated that they could not continue in office. I called on the then Rwandan Primate in his home Diocese six years after the genocide. I found it incomprehensible then and find it incomprehensible now that this Province, which in churchmanship would otherwise have little in common with Sydney, should embrace a distraction from an issue which should have been all consuming.
We are led to understand the Anglican Diocese of Sydney will remain intact and, while supportive of this new venture, and of GAFCON, will seek to remain an Anglican Diocese, yet not in communion with Canterbury. (For the second time Sydney bishops did not attend the once every decade conference of bishops at Canterbury). What an absolute contradiction of loyalties and blatant self-interest! All NSW bishops have sworn loyalty to the Archbishop of Sydney as metropolitan. For integrity’s sake should he now communicate with them and offer to absolve them of this commitment? To be Anglican, the primary and absolute commitment is to Lambeth – not to Sydney
The highly respected journalist, Julia Baird, has constantly pointed to the danger of another defining issue of the Diocese of Sydney – the doctrine of male headship. It has implications far beyond the reality that women cannot become priests or bishops in that Diocese. Australia’s law makers from the Attorney General down are currently devising laws that will criminalise coercive behaviour as abuse, even if it does not manifest in violent behaviour. Baird is the first to point out we can assume most people who hold this doctrine do not behave in a coercive manner. However, the problem is that this doctrine gives comfort to those who are so inclined, and polls have shown coercive behaviour to be above national average figures in Anglican homes – including vicarages.
Bishop Glen Davies is reported to have said the creation of this diocese will "send shivers up the spine of many Anglican bishops". It will, but not for the reason he rather patronisingly assumes. It sends shivers up my spine that intelligent Christians, following Christ in the business of redemption of fellow humans and the whole created order would choose this badge of identity, this ʹline in the sandʹ.
It sadly means that even fewer members of the wider population will feel we have anything to contribute, or that our company is a fellowship they wish to keep.