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Book Launch: The New Puritans by Dr Muriel Porter

At St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Wednesday 29th March, 2006

Numbers of people who have already read The New Puritans have told me that it was a painful book to read. I understand their reaction entirely – it was a painful book to write.

This was, in many ways, the most personal of the books I have written. It touched the very heart of my own Christian commitment.

Sydney Diocese, as I have explained in The New Puritans, was my first spiritual home – more, it was my spiritual cradle. I look back on my childhood and teenage years in an average Sydney suburban parish with great happiness. When I was growing up, St Bede's, Drummoyne, was a place of warmth, nurture, enrichment, and real fun. It offered excellent preaching and teaching, dignified liturgy, high-quality music, energetic children's and youth ministry, and loving engagement with the wider community. More, it provided pastoral care of rare generosity, as my sister and I experienced abundantly after the untimely death of our mother in our early teenage years. The parish cared for us in a multitude of ways. And there was nothing unusual about the standards we enjoyed there; it was fairly typical of Sydney suburban parishes of that time.

It was also part of mainstream Anglicanism – low-church and Evangelical, certainly, but still solidly and proudly part of traditional Anglican life. That is no longer the case in most Sydney suburban parishes today, and certainly not the case at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Does it matter? I believe it does, and that is why I have written this book. It is not just an exercise in nostalgia, lamenting the loss of a particularly vibrant Christian manifestation. For one thing, ordinary parishioners in Sydney have effectively been robbed of their spiritual inheritance; too many younger ones do not even know what they have lost. But more seriously, the ascendancy of the kind of Anglicanism now championed in Sydney poses a threat to mainstream Anglicanism in this country and beyond.

Barney Swartz, reviewing the book in The Age, has argued that I have 'over-egged the pudding', exaggerating the level of threat. The problem is not Sydney's strength but the weakness of the rest of us, he claims. Sydney's capacity to gain increasing power and influence over the Australian national church is simply the outworking of their success compared with the failure of the liberal catholic wings of Anglicanism.

I have to disagree with Barney. Certainly those of us outside Sydney, whether we regard ourselves as liberal catholics or moderate Evangelicals or just broad church Anglicans, do bear some culpability for our vulnerability. In general, we have not met the challenges of the post-modern world very well; we have seen our constituency dwindle alarmingly by comparison with the situation in Sydney. And as I have argued in the book, we have been too nice to Sydney. We have struggled to be fair and accommodating, generous and accepting; I believe we have been at best naïve and at worst cowardly in not upholding more strongly the mainstream Anglicanism we cherish. That has been true for forty years and more; the dysfunctional national church constitution adopted in 1961 is the most glaring example of our generosity – and naivety.

But Sydney's blatant success as a rich, well-resourced, single-minded diocese spreading its influence deliberately around the country now threatens us at a newly-dangerous level. It is planting churches in a number of other dioceses, and has now developed legislation to ensure those new colonies are kept firmly linked to Sydney. With the aid of friends, it has ensured that numbers of its theological graduates have been smuggled across the border into this diocese, as one perceptive observer has recently commented to me. Its growing numbers of clergy will ensure an even larger Sydney contingent at future General Synod meetings, making significant change of the kind the rest of us would like – such as women bishops – almost impossible for the foreseeable future. Recent experience has suggested to me that, if anything, I might have underestimated the threat.

So writing The New Puritans was for many reasons a painful experience for me. I just hope it might alert a few more people to the very real dangers faced by the church we love, and indeed by the wider community. Fundamentalist views about the subordination of women, and ideological hysteria about gay people, pose grave threats to women and gay people in general, not just in the church. The new influence of the religious right in our culture should not be underestimated; when the religious right is bolstered by a large segment of a respectable, mainstream denomination, it is increasingly dangerous.

Muriel Porter

Click for Charles Sherlock's address at the launch


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