Minefields at this General Synod?

Robert Forsyth

This is the first occasional blog for Anglican Media reporting on the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia held in Melbourne from Saturday 18 to Thursday 23 September.

I am an old hand at this business. It's been my privilege to be part of the General Synod for almost twenty years.

Just as our synods give you a chance to experience a little bit of the imagined community of the Diocese of Sydney, so too the General Synod for the Anglican Church of Australia. I like the experience of meeting people who are fellow Anglicans and yet so different - different in theology, experience, outlook and especially different in where they live and the conditions in which they minister and serve as Christians.

However, these differences set a background of chronic tension within the General Synod. This is not new.  It's never been different in the Anglican Church of Australia and its predecessors. Whenever things get a bit tough now, I'm reminded of a rather funny poem written by the then Bishop of Newcastle, Francis deWitt Batty, some time in the 1920s about the difficulty that the various Church of England dioceses were having in Australia in coming together as one national church.

A few more efforts made
To please the Sydney group
And we shall very likely be
Completely in the soup.
And on the other hand
If Queensland sets the pace
The Reformation might as well
Have never taken place. 

Of course, the differences in theology and outlook of the various dioceses are not always present because a lot of the work of the General Synod is fairly straightforward, if somewhat complicated, passing of canons and other resolutions for the working of the Anglican Church of Australia and its institutions.

However, there are real explosive issues too. When I joined the General Synod, it was like coming into a minefield. There was, to start with, the minefield of women's ordination as priest (boom!). Actually this was only the end of a very long battle that had lasted years and years and years (boom! boom! boom! boom!). Then there was the new prayer book, A Prayer Book for Australia (boom!) which divided the Synod and in some part our own delegation from Sydney. Then there were subtle moves on the question of homosexuality (potential big boom!), women bishops (boom!) and so on.

This Synod there are no big issues, at least not on the surface. So you might think this is a minefield-free time. However, I am going down to Melbourne not so much afraid of minefields but of the occasional (how can I put this) cluster bombs. Sure, there is a lot of material on the agenda that is just standard material for a synod with motions on everything from the environment to what I regard as some foolish suggestion that Australia's population should somehow be cut, sermons about liturgy, freedom of religion, human rights and so on. There some issues that are slightly more contentious concerning the beginning of our discussion about the Anglican Communion Covenant, although this will not be decided upon at this Synod. By the time we come to 2012 it may be a completely dead issue.

But there is also the possibility that this time we in Sydney ourselves will become the issue. Or rather if not us alone but the ongoing difficult relationship that seems to have been developing between some aspects of the Diocese of Sydney and the institutions of the Anglican Church of Australia. In the last couple of years, I have observed a kind of dialogue of the deaf between the General Synod Standing Committee and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Sydney. This has been over questions of how much money should be spent and on what and by what authority, which reflect deeper differences about the nature of the institutions of the General Synod itself. I am hoping that when we get together in Melbourne and talk face to face, there will be a chance for better dialogue and discussion. Not that I think there will necessarily be agreement.

However, the formal and adversarial (like a parliament) processes of the Synod may simply exacerbate things. The Sydney delegates are proposing a number of bills which would change the operation of the General Synod and its Standing Committee in a way that will loosen or lower its power over dioceses and restructure the Standing Committee representation. No doubt, these moves will be resisted by others who believe in a more active, central national church rather than a weak central body and institutions.

I don't know how this will develop. One of the troubles with the General Synod is that it both meets too often and not often enough. It meets too often because every meeting is expensive and difficult. It doesn't meet often enough in that we rarely get the chance to really understand each other and know how each other works. I know that we Sydney delegates find ourselves having to learn a new language, not just different standing orders. There are subtle differences in culture and expectations operating. We in Sydney are fairly straightforward about arguing the case. I notice that from other dioceses there is much concern about the way things are done and the tone in which they are delivered as well as what is actually said. It takes a lot of patience to learn to listen to each other and not misunderstand.

So maybe there will be cluster bombs somewhere in the undergrowth of this General Synod. I hope not. I am flying down without not great enthusiasm. I guess I find the difficulties tiresome. And tiring. But I may come back pleasantly, happily surprised. I am certainly looking forward to the challenges friends that await.