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The Revd Dr John Davis, Vicar of St Peter's Eastern Hill
The October session of the synod of the diocese of Sydney discussed and approved legislation to allow for certain lay people to be authorised to administer the service of Holy Communion. To put it another perhaps more familiar way, a person not ordained a priest was to be allowed to celebrate the mass. This created an extraordinary amount of interest and comment, certainly all around the Anglican world and in ecumenical circles.
The then Primate, Archbishop Rayner of Melbourne, issued a statement which promptly declared the move to be contrary to Catholic order, contrary to the position of the 16th century Reformers, illegal, irregular and contrary to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. As well it was contrary to the expressed opinion of the Appellate Tribunal: the highest judicial body of the Church, which said that any such provision could only be made by the national General Synod and not by an individual diocese.
The whole situation was difficult and tense, not the least for Archbishop Goodhew of Sydney. His assent was required for the ordinance to pass. He was under enormous pressure. There had after all been an almost two thirds vote in favour in both the houses of the clergy and the laity. The strong support of his own synod was therefore obvious. But around the rest of Australia and in the wider Anglican Communion the reaction was different. The Archbishop of Canterbury made his opposing position clear. There was consternation and disbelief widely expressed.
In the event, on November 10th, the archbishop announced that he was unable to give the required assent and the ordinance therefore lapsed.
Archbishop Goodhew's statement acknowledged his responsibility as a bishop within the Anglican Church and under the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. He also underlined the significant role that Sydney has, but only has while it is still a part of the whole. He indicated that there are important debates and issues about which Sydney has clear positions and attitudes, and which Sydney would like to have decisive input. It was clear that these would include issues relating to gender and sexuality. He was not prepared to give his assent to an ordinance which when implemented could have seen Sydney to a greater or lesser extent distanced or separated from the rest of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Church of Australia.
So, for the time being only, the matter returns to the background. But just for now. The issue will not go away. It is for instance by no means clear that the successor to Archbishop Goodhew, who retires in 2001, will share the same scruples or concerns. A new archbishop will after all be elected by that same Sydney synod which so strongly agreed to this proposed legislation.
On a serious concern scale of 1 to 10, this has to be very high indeed. This is more than comprehensiveness. It would be more like disintegration. It is a matter that has huge pan-Anglican and ecumenical implications. The repercussions for the continued functioning of the Anglican Church of Australia would be very far reaching. The question is one of fundamental authority, going right to the centre of ecclesial understanding.
While this is not a battle that is just now to be engaged, it is important to try to understand where some of this is coming from in Sydney and those who would support this position. Of course, some would emphasise some points more than others. This is no side issue however. It is about people exploring and developing their vision, their conviction and their understanding of Church, of belief, of practice. A very much widening chasm is opening up.
A really basic question arises out of all of this. What is Anglican? The matter is that fundamental. The linking and interconnecting of such a cluster of issues means amongst other things that the new Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, to be elected in February 2000 in Sydney is going to require a superabundance of graces and gifts.
But these are all issues that must be engaged.
We do indeed live in interesting times.
St. Peter's Eastern Hill
December 9, 1999.
The Revd Dr John Davis is Vicar of St Peter's Eastern Hill and has published on the subject of the constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia.