Women Bishop's Working Party presentation
Melbourne Synod. 14th October, 2000.
The Revd Dr John Davis.
Mr President, members of synod.
I am pleased to be able to share in this joint presentation to the Melbourne Synod. I do so in the spirit of the non-adversarial approach to contentious issues first trialed at the last session of General Synod in Adelaide in 1998. Our working group came out of that synod, as we have already heard. The subject matter is one of the current big three issues facing the Church at the national level.
Our Anglican Church is no stranger to controversy. The Church through all its history has had major issues to address. Obvious answers are not always clear cut. Disagreement can relate to doctrine, to practice and manner of life, to the understanding of the tradition received and passed on to succeeding generations. Discernment, painful discernment, is needed.
What is of God and what is not? What are we obliged to retain, what may with the passage of time evolve and develop? The key issue is: how are we deal with substantial differences of approach? When we have dealt with them, how then are we to behave towards those for whom a change or a development has been very difficult, and who find themselves in the position of a defeated minority.
One answer to all this is to play it very hard and say it is just a matter of winner take all. Whatever the issue is, get the required majority plus one and give a sigh of relief. Let those on the losing side cope as best they can.
Another way is being attempted with the process around this General Synod Working Party. A diverse group was assembled. We were charged with sifting through and preparing a set of proposals, to be considered by Standing Committee and then placed before the General Synod next July in Brisbane. That has been done. The subject area is the consideration of the possibility of bishops in the Australian Church who are women. As well, there are related matters of alternative episcopal oversight for those in this Church who would find that change unacceptable.
The idea of bishops who are women will be widely and warmly welcomed in the synods of the Church where this is seen as the logical and inevitable step after the earlier ordination of women to the priesthood. Melbourne is one such. There is no question of that. For many of the other dioceses of the Church in Australia this is also the case. Elsewhere in much of the Anglican Communion this development of doctrine and practice is the established norm.
But the change is not universally received. This is where things become very sensitive. Right next door to us for instance in this province of Victoria there are two other Anglican dioceses wishing to retain the pre-existing structures and practice. Both bishops and synods are on record as opposing the ordination of women to the priesthood The largest diocese in the country, Sydney, would also continue strongly to oppose change at either level.
Vigorous demands for alternative episcopal oversight provision have been part of the enormous amount of material received by the Working Party. Some of the more far-reaching proposals, particularly the non-geographical diocese model strongly supported in Sydney and by some elsewhere, would result in a very different Church than that which we now have.
Two key issues emerge.
Firstly - National level enabling legislation is required to be passed, to allow for this change in teaching and practice to occur. That is what the Working Party was asked to consider, over a wide range of options, and to make recommendations. Even after such legislation is duly passed at the General Synod, each diocesan synod still has the choice as to whether it comes into effect in that particular diocese.
Secondly - Part of the recommendation of the Working Group addresses the difficult matter of providing for those who in conscience cannot accept the change and who are part of a diocese that does. It will be up to the General Synod to determine whether such possible protocols within the legislation are included, in order to allow for that degree of alternative episcopal care and ministry that should or might be offered. Our own Archbishop has indicated in his Charge just how sensitive an issue this is. But it is of great importance for a Church which is indeed seeking to be inclusive rather than excluding.
This presentation today at this Melbourne synod is from two of the seven participants in the national Working Party. It represents a work in progress, of a task not complete. Of course there were differences of approach and conviction around the table. The views of Moore College and the Archbishop of Perth, before he became Primate. Those who could never support such change. Those warmly in favour. Small dioceses and large. Catholic presuppositions bumping into evangelical ones.
But this diverse group from across the Australian Church was brought together in a succession of meetings over more than two years to discuss, to consult widely, to make exhaustive examination of various possible options and to make recommendations for further wide consideration. This has been done.
Our brief was in summary to try to find a less destructive and less painful way to address matters that divide, than those we have used in the past. The test will be at the General Synod next year and the things that flow from that.
Conviction or the concern for truth has not been thrown out of the window. But neither has courtesy and mutual respect.
I commend this careful process to the synod.
Rev'd Dr John Davis
Vicar, St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne.