The power of proximity

Robert Forsyth

By Monday morning the somewhat dull beginning of the Synod had brightened up, as had the weather. (Melbourne can sure do with a bit of global warming.)

Already I’ve been struck by the value that General Synod provides for proximity. That is, it brings together some of the key players and leaders of all the different dioceses in the Anglican Church of Australia. We are together with time and space forcing us to deal with things we could otherwise put off for years or just ignore for ever. This means that there is an intensity of relationship in these few days that you don't get in the other non General Synod years.

Proximity has some value and brings some difficulties.

One of the most important results of proximity is that you put human reality to the theory that we somehow belong together in this complicated and strange Anglican Church of Australia. That you are actually meeting and seeing fellow Christians does help express and cement something of the relationship that we belong together. It's a bit like attending a wedding or funeral and finding members of your family you hadn’t noticed or had much to do with for years. The same sense of recognition and embarrassment occurs.

Proximity also helps in matters of difficulty. Already I’ve noticed that in some matters that have been long-standing and unsolved the pressure of meeting together is taking us somewhere more positively. For awhile there has been a Mexican standoff over the appointment of members to a group called the Episcopal Standards Commission. For various reasons, the Chancellor of our diocese and the Deputy Chancellor have refused to appoint anyone extra to it. And this has led to something of a real blockage of process. They have their reasons, and it wasn’t until we met here in the Synod and a canon was put up to change the structure of appointment that it seemed to me that reasons were given publicly and the possibility of a really significant compromise is in the offing. I am hoping that in fact a quite wide-ranging deal will lead to ways forward and improve the situation which until now had been going nowhere. This is just an example of the kind of things that proximity can positively effect. 

One good thing about the General Synod process is the possibility of "huddles". If a matter gets to a point where it seems to be getting nowhere, a “huddle” is called to see if a compromise can be worked out between those involved. It works well and is a real benefit of proximity. I have noticed that on many issues there is a strong belief here in the General Synod on both sides that it is good not to have a winner-takes-all attitude. Efforts are made other than on matters of deep principle or strong conviction to include as many people as possible.

There is a negative side to all this proximity.  It can intensify conflict. Not that this is always bad or avoidable. But it does force us at times to face irreconcilable differences among us. 

The key matter on the morning of Day Three was about whether it's proper to for the church to marry people who are not baptised. We have spent some time deeply disagreeing on whether marriage in a Christian service can ever be for those who are explicitly non-Christian. The matter was “resolved” by one side (those who did not favoure the matter) winning by the narrowest margin among diosesan bishops. It was just one of those questions on which it would be hard to have a compromise. Though I am pleased to say the tone of discussion was courteous and respectful. And one of the highlights of the debate for me was hearing a leading Sydney member of Synod described as a misguided liberal. I am referring, of course, to Bishop Glenn Davies. That’s proximity for you.