Saturday, 16 March 2013

The New Puritans of Sydney

Philip Harvey
From the archive comes this book review, which I rediscovered today in an old computer file. It is a nine hundred word response to Muriel Porter’s work ‘The New Puritans : the Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church’. The book was published in 2006 by Melbourne University Press (ISBN 0 522 85184 3) and this review first appeared in the Australian Book Review in the same year. The descriptive passages of the review remain quite familiar to those who take an interest in the subject.

A couple of years ago I attended the patronal festival at St James’, King Street, Sydney. The preacher was the Dean of Newcastle who, after the blessing, opened with ‘Greetings from across the Chasuble Belt!’ The large congregation erupted into laughter, then settled in for twelve minutes of civil gospel. This is because Sydney Diocese, alone in the Anglican Communion, requires its clergy to sign an understanding that they will not wear Eucharistic vestments, including the chasuble. The ban is but one outward and visible control mechanism of an inward and enclosed evangelical attitude that typifies the power play within the Diocese.

This timely book, written by a self-confessed Anglican ‘insider’, explains not only the seemingly quaint issue of chasubles, but the very much more serious issue of an entrenched sect-like fundamentalism that has taken control of Sydney (‘this most complex and secretive of dioceses’) and its cathedral, after years of nasty politicking and stubborn intolerance of others. The rise of the Jensen brothers, Peter the Archbishop and Phillip the Dean, signals a dramatic change in Sydney’s relationship with the rest of the Australian church, and gives new meaning to Trollope’s ‘creeping nepotism’.

Muriel Porter makes no bones of the fact that her book is polemical. The targets are those in the Sydney church who threaten the very diversity of Anglicanism, seen as its genius ever since the Elizabethan Settlement – Catholic and Reformed living together in relative harmony. For Porter, the polemic is based on personal frustration and anger.

She is angry at the loss of the broad Anglican practice of her own upbringing and the gradual takeover of a narrow, prescriptive religion, unrecognisable as Anglicanism. Angry at Sydney’s harsh opposition to feminism and homosexuality. She is frustrated at how Sydney’s fundamentalist tendencies have turned into ‘Bible-believing’ tenets that threaten the Communion at large. Frustrated at what she sees as the introduction of lay presidency as payback for the victory of women’s ordination. She writes, ‘the conservative evangelical attitude to women … would shock most thinking Australians if they understood its full significance.’

Moore Theological College is the sole training school for ordinands in Sydney, a fact that limits diversity of tradition and open discussion. Sydney will not ordain women. Porter tracks Moore’s huge influence on Sydney thinking, especially through its two patriarchs, T.C. Hammond and Broughton Knox. ‘Scripture alone’ is a first principle, a Reformation position more familiar among Calvinists and Baptists. Indeed, ‘Sydney’ is facetiously tagged Anglo-Baptist by some observers, perhaps to contrast it with the readily identifiable Anglo-Catholicism. In the Jensens’ version of ‘Scripture alone’, ‘anyone who does not accept the Christian Gospel on their very specific terms is not really Christian.’

This is arrived at by Knox’s theory known as ‘propositional revelation’. Theologian Duncan Reid defines this: “Revelation is fundamentally propositional, and the proper attitude of the Christian believer is obedience to revelation.” This approach to the Bible disallows variant readings and is potentially Gnostic, a form of Protestant scholasticism that closes down discussion. What follows is biblical inerrancy. We have the right version, we’re right, everyone else is wrong.

Sydney is putting itself most at odds with the rest of the church though, not so much by its rejection of ritual or its anti-feminist stances or questionable channelling of money, as by a doctrinal teaching known as subordinationism. This was used during the debates over the ordination of women, asserting that the woman is subordinate to the man in the same way that the Son is subordinate to the Father. This is very poor theology. It is also a replay of the 4th century heresy known as Arianism. Porter’s dry humour comes to the fore when she remarks, “to call someone an Arian is a term of significant abuse in theological circles.” As anyone knows who has the slightest encounter with Christian belief, the persons of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal, not subordinated. This makes for interesting times ahead, which is an undeclared purpose of the book, not only to explain but to warn. Not all readers will be persuaded that there is a clear and present danger, but we have here a clear diagnosis of causes and effects.

For Anglicans, the book condenses essential knowledge about the ‘Sydney’ problem and its anomalous existence in the Communion. Sydney is overtly the wealthiest diocese in Australia, grows at quite a rate compared to the rest of the country, and is seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the other dioceses. Non-Anglicans can read it as a remarkable case study of what happens inside even a mainstream church when an inward-looking section of its membership gains and abuses power for its own ends. When was the last time you heard of an Archbishop who doesn’t believe in archbishops? The general reader is provided with a central reality of Sydney history, one rarely spoken of. The very extremism of this hardcore ultra-conservative movement is of a piece with the image of Sin City, where diehard ‘puritans’, hedonists and libertarians co-exist.

Porter combines the skills of a journalist with the scholarship of an historian. Polemic is by definition short and sharp with, sometimes, more heat than light, but I would have preferred a longer book. It shows the need for a comprehensive, non-partisan history of Sydney theology. It is great social history, mainly because Porter trusts her own memory and has a fine grasp of how 17th century Christian radicalism can be alive and well in 21st century New South Wales, but I wanted more on the historic changes. Like the present volume, such books would have to be published in Melbourne.

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