Melbourne Synod 2019, and beyond

 “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it.”

“Remember Lot’s wife.”

Melbourne Synod met this week, and I along with the other parish stipendiary clergy, and parish reps Peter Sherlock and Sandra Treadwell-Monk joined several hundred others at the Cathedral. With the exception of one matter, it was probably the most boring session of synod in living memory. Three minor legislative pieces were passed, virtually without debate, and a series of motions on the usual social questions passed formally and without controversy or any real enthusiasm; notwithstanding an excellent motion on indigenous reconciliation with which the synod began its debate.

It had originally been my intention tonight to spend some time commenting on the Archbishop’s charge to Synod which, at one level, said nothing useful in terms of providing the diocese with vision or leadership, but at another level made some really quite useful points about process. Perhaps I’ll go there another time. In the meanwhile I’d commend going to the diocesan website to see what he said, especially about the history and practice of parochialism in this diocese.

There was however, as I said, one exception to the boredom, and that exception forces me to leave the archbishop’s charge alone and take another tack. I refer to a series of motions designed to begin the work of entrenching a hardline anti-gay stance into the Melbourne diocesan position in debates within the national and international church, and to align Melbourne with the anti-gay schismatic movement known as Global Anglican Futures, or GAFCON. Two motions led to particularly heated exchanges – one which “welcomed” the schismatic anti-gay Confessing Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and sent them our “love and prayers”, and another which expressed “sorrow” at the decision of the diocese of Wangaratta to support the blessing of persons who have contracted civil marriages, including persons in same-sex relationships. After fairly strident and sometimes acrimonious debate, both motions were passed without amendment, roughly 230-190. I unsuccessfully sought to amend the New Zealand motion. Once that amendment was lost it was clear that from that point on those who think as I do were likely to lose every subsequent vote by a similar margin. That proved to be the case.

What is very clear is that that which has been threatening to happen for some years has now finally come to pass – pro-GAFCON Sydney-style evangelicals now have the numbers in Melbourne synod. And with the continued infiltration of Sydney diocesan clergy, and the hardening of Moore College inspired theology at Ridley College, the numbers, especially amongst the clergy, are going to continue to trend in that direction. It is my prediction that by the time of the next archbishop’s election in around five years’ time the GAFCON evangelicals will hold over 60% of the clergy vote and around 50% of the laity.

This is a moment of existential crisis for the hitherto liberal-leaning establishment of the diocese of Melbourne. Those of us who hold a different view from Sydney and its agents need therefore to consider our position, and to begin to develop strategies for continuing as faithful Anglicans in this diocese. Tempting as it may be in the face of such a shift in politics, we ought to disregard the injunction of the Archbishop of Sydney that we should “just leave”. Rather, we need to regroup, and to ensure that instead of retreating into our parish bubbles, we make it impossible for anyone to think that the diocese of Melbourne is of one mind on the question that is coming to be the litmus test of orthodoxy in some quarters. We need to do this organizational work over the next five years, before the current archbishop is due to retire, because the next archbishop’s election, and life after it, is not going to be easy.

As a starting point, perhaps somewhat perversely, I wonder whether we could discern both some helpful pointers and some salutary tales from Sydney itself. Because I believe that we in Melbourne are heading in five years’ time towards a situation parallel to where Sydney was several of decades ago before the Jensenist tidal wave: a diocese controlled by hardline evangelicals, but still with a significant number of what then were called “stole parishes” where a different liturgical style and a different theological view prevailed. The number of such parishes in Sydney has shrunk in the past two decades, and continues to decline, as the Jensenist policy of picking them off one by one gradually has its effect. In Melbourne, then, we need to have some difficult conversations and to make some hard decisions around resilience, and even resistance, in order to ensure not merely survival, but a robust ongoing presence in the face of a real and present danger.

I need to say at this point that I find this whole idea, and even some of the language I find myself using, distasteful. I am, instinctively, a diocesan person. I have never been a fan of anti-diocesan parochial behavior, which I would classify as congregationalist rather than Anglican. We need, therefore, to ensure that Christ Church, St Martin’s and parishes of similar views, remain very clearly and very insistently part of the diocese of Melbourne. We cannot respond to this shift by simply going off and doing our own thing. We need to maintain our own integrity, but to do so collectively. We need to be prayerful, prophetic, and unapologetic in our preaching, teaching, ministry and mission. We need to articulate our views, and to oppose heresy and schism where we see it. We need to speak the love and the welcome of God in the face of hate and exclusion. But we also need to be realistic, and to understand that we do so in an ecclesial environment that is increasingly hostile toward who we are and what we stand for. 

Second, and perhaps also a little perversely, I believe that the place we may most readily look for support and guidance, apart from the foundational places of the Scriptures and the voice of the Holy Spirit, is in the non-churchgoing community around us. Because I firmly believe that God has put wisdom into the minds of many of his people now outside the church to show those inside the church some quite extraordinary examples of how to be loving, how to be inclusive, and how to offer healing where there is hurt. If we can align ourselves with these people and movements within society, then we can bring the true message of Christ into those conversations. We may gain much wisdom if we listen attentively to what God is saying in and through the good people around us. Who knows, through such listening we may even show some outside the church that God loves them and would welcome them in.

So let us admit what is, frankly, a missional and pastoral disaster unfolding in this diocese. But ‘though we may be at a point when we “desire the day of the Son of man and fail to see it”, let us look at the challenge before us as an opportunity rather than simply as a threat. Let us discern the call that God is directing our way, and let us “remember Lot’s wife”, and not turn back. Let us grasp on to every opportunity to speak the loving Lord Jesus into places of hate, confusion, contradiction and exclusion, even within our own Anglican Church. And let us pray that the Holy Spirit will guide God’s holy church into all truth. Amen.

A reflection on Melbourne Diocesan Synod, October 2019
Delivered in the place of the Sermon at Choral Evensong
Christ Church, South Yarra, 20 October 2019
Luke 17:20-37
by Craig D’Alton

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