Essay

Beyond the cathedral doors

ST ANDREW'S CATHEDRAL, the symbolic heart of the Sydney Anglican Diocese, has an enviable location in the centre of the city's CBD. On George Street next to the grand Sydney Town Hall, it is just a stone's throw from the main public transport networks, Sydney's major shopping complexes and the tourist precinct. In the past, the passing crowd in George Street could not fail to notice its main doors standing open in warm invitation.

Not any longer. In 2000, in a major restoration of its magnificent 136-year-old neo-Gothic interior, the cathedral was reoriented. Now its doors are positioned on the opposite side, facing an internal plaza connecting the cathedral not with the city, but with diocesan headquarters.[i] These days, a casual visitor could find it a daunting experience even to locate a cathedral entrance.

Granted, the reorientation has returned the cathedral to its original design, but the now-defunct George Street entrance had functioned since 1941 to open the mother church to the wider world. The cathedral's recent inversion is a telling metaphor for what has happened to Sydney Anglicanism. In the 21st century, the diocese has become a closed system operating by its own increasingly idiosyncratic rules and codes, displaying many of the characteristics of a sect instead of the open, inclusive and tolerant hallmarks of historic Anglicanism. The diocese is now in several key respects fundamentalist, though this is a badge it detests.

The term "fundamentalism" originated in the early years of the 20th century from a series of tracts, The Fundamentals, as a "new statement of the fundamentals of Christianity".[ii] The tracts were one expression of a conservative movement within Protestantism that began in the late 19th century, particularly in the United States, in reaction to evolutionary theory and biblical criticism. It was a movement that grew rapidly in the 1920s, spawning heated controversy and intense rivalries within Protestant denominations.

There is considerable debate about what exactly constitutes Christian fundamentalism and how it should be defined. The best definition is probably that offered by a prominent British critic of fundamentalism, James Barr. Barr has identified "the most pronounced characteristics" of fundamentalism as being: a "very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible"; strong hostility to "the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the Bible"; and "an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really 'true Christians' at all".[iii] Barr has argued that the core of fundamentalism is not actually the Bible but "a particular kind of religion". He writes: "Fundamentalists ... suppose that this kind of religion is theirs because it follows as a necessary consequence from the acceptance of biblical authority". Rather, he argues, the reverse is true: "a particular type of religious experience, which indeed in the past was believed to arise from the Bible, has come to be itself dominant".[iv] In other words, people adopt a fundamentalist approach to religion and then adapt their response to the Bible accordingly. Some would say people are attracted to fundamentalism out of a particular psychological need – of which more later.

Sydney Anglican leaders vehemently reject the fundamentalist label – indeed, most fundamentalists do, because the term has become so pejorative. In his first major address after his election as Sydney's archbishop in 2001, Dr Peter Jensen insisted that he and his diocese were evangelical Christians, not fundamentalists.[v] The very word, he said, was "ugly", with fundamentalism today implying "an anti-intellectual, backward-looking and ugly zeal in the cause of religion". The key difference between the evangelical and fundamentalist position is that while he reads the Bible literally – "that is, on its own terms" – he does not read it "literalistically", he said. It is a highly nuanced distinction. Australia needs, he argued, "a Christianity which is classical but not fundamentalist". In contrast to fundamentalist literalistic reading of the Bible, "classical Christianity", while giving the scriptures full priority and authority, nevertheless made full use of both traditional interpretation and "the genuine advances of the more recent historical approach" in interpreting the Bible. It was also prepared to learn from contemporary thought, he said.

There is nothing there that most mainstream Anglican leaders would not agree with. But there is more to fundamentalism than a "literalistic" reading of the Bible; there is also a "fundamentalist mentality", which Barr and others have identified in conservative evangelicals of the kind who now characterise Sydney Anglicanism.[vi] There is a vast academic literature on this topic, and considerable debate swirls around it, but in short, there are some key markers of a fundamentalist mentality: a rationalist mind-set, a "Calvinistic zeal to root out error and preserve doctrinal purity",[vii] charismatic and authoritarian leadership, behavioural requirements[viii] and a tendency to separatism. There is not the space here to offer evidence to support in full my contention that Sydney Anglicanism now increasingly reflects this mentality, but I will refer briefly to several of these "markers".

First, separatism, a charge which Sydney Anglicans would reject on the basis that they have no intention of withdrawing from the modern world, as classical fundamentalists do. They would point to their over-arching program in the 21st century, their "mission" to the city and nation. Under Jensen's leadership, they have launched an ambitious program to ensure that within a decade, 10 per cent of Sydney's population will be attending "Bible-based" churches.[ix] This mission inevitably involves high-level interaction with the secular world, but it is important to note that this involvement is on their terms. In Jensen's own words, he is "impelled" by his understanding of the death of Jesus Christ "to enter the world as a missionary".[x] The express purpose, then, is not to serve the needs of the wider community primarily, but to convert those outside the "Bible-based churches", and thus make them "insiders". Hence the metaphor of the reoriented cathedral: Sydneysiders are now really only welcome to come in when they have learnt the right password.

As with the cathedral entrance, this is not how it used to be in Sydney. The diocese has always been predominantly low-church Anglican with a conservative evangelical commitment. It has historically eschewed the rituals of high church or Anglo-Catholic forms of worship, along with their associated theological perspectives. Small "l" liberal and relativist views, such as those espoused in extreme form by the American bishop and prolific author Jack Spong, have always been an anathema to them. But the diocese was undeniably part of the Anglican mainstream both in Australia and worldwide, though in a minority position compared with the then prevailing Anglo-Catholic and liberal streams. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that the seeds of what Sydney Anglicanism has become were planted decades ago, principally through the Calvinistic and often idiosyncratic teaching provided to Sydney's trainee clergy through the diocese's Moore Theological College from the late 1950s.

 

AND WHAT HAS it become in the 21st century? In a nutshell, it has lost almost all of the hallmarks of historic Anglicanism. Anglican visitors from most other dioceses around Australia and the world would be puzzled, if not shocked, by what passes for worship in any number of Sydney parishes now. All the formalities of traditional Anglican liturgy have disappeared. Instead of distinctive robes, clergy wear street dress. There are no prayer books, hymn books or organ music. In direct contravention of longstanding Anglican rules, worship is usually extemporary. Choruses – with words projected onto a screen – are accompanied by bands. The altar or holy table is sometimes pushed out of sight. In St Andrew's Cathedral it has been put on wheels and relegated to a side aisle except for celebrations of "The Lord's Supper" (now the preferred Sydney term for what used to be called Holy Communion). Increasingly, worship services are called "meetings", the older-style terminology of sects. Parishes that retain traditional, low-church forms of worship that were until very recently the norm in Sydney, are now fast becoming as isolated as the few longstanding Anglo-Catholic shrines, such as two major city churches, St James' King Street and Christ Church St Laurence, Railway Square.

To demonstrate their "zeal to root out error and doctrinal impurity", hardline Sydney clergy refuse to allow women to play any significant part in the main Sunday services (sorry, meetings). Women, the Sydney argument goes, were created by God "equal but different", that is, they are equal to men in God's eyes, but are required to play different roles in the Church and the family. In both these institutions, the Bible says, men alone can exercise leadership ("headship"), they claim. It is on this basis that Sydney has so vociferously and strategically led the opposition to women in the priesthood and as bishops in this country. While the other Australian capital city dioceses, as well as most rural dioceses, have been ordaining women priests since 1992, Sydney remains resolutely opposed. At the 2004 General (national) Synod, it was Sydney's opposition, principally, that scuppered legislation for women bishops. Male "headship", it should be remembered, is a key teaching of fundamentalism.

As to behavioural requirements, Sydney has long exercised a harsher set of rules concerning personal morality than most other Anglican centres. Remarriage after divorce remains problematic and is unacceptable among the clergy, a significant difference from the rest of the Australian Anglican Church. The diocese has also always held a stricter view than others on homosexuality. In the 1970s, when dioceses such as Melbourne called for the revocation of criminal laws banning consensual adult homosexual sex, Sydney was insisting the laws remain on the statute books. But in recent years, attitudes have hardened even further. Homosexual people are officially barred from even the most lowly parish ministries, such as choir membership or arranging the flowers (in those parishes where such quaint customs still prevail, that is!).[xi]Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is now highly unlikely a single man will be appointed rector of a parish. Internationally, Peter Jensen has become a key leader of the so-called "Global South" coalition that has threatened schism over the ordination in 2003 of an openly gay man as a bishop in the US. In fairness to Jensen, however, it must be pointed out that his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Goodhew, a man who meticulously observed Anglican rules and conventions and who seemed to come close to accepting the priestly ministry of women, was very conservative on the issue of homosexuality. He openly supported conservative minorities within the American Episcopal [Anglican] Church during his time as Sydney's archbishop.

Sydney Anglicans, however, would retort that the significant changes that have occurred in their diocesan and parish life have paid off. While Anglicanism is declining in 19 of Australia's 23 dioceses, in Sydney it is booming.[xii] Overall, nominal Anglicans in Australia declined by 3 per cent in the past decade, while weekly church attendance figures dropped by 7 per cent. Rural dioceses suffered a staggering 20 per cent decline. And the church is "greying" at a faster rate than the rest of the population. Some of the decline in particular areas is due to demographic and migration patterns over which the Anglican Church has little control.

Sydney, however, has a vastly different statistical profile. Its attendance figures are up by 11 per cent. That could be construed as suggesting Sydney has attracted the Lord's favour. Maybe. The answer is probably much more mundane. Sydney's particular "message" – black and white certainties promulgated clearly and directly by authoritarian male leaders with powerful charismas, such as Peter Jensen and his brother Phillip, now dean of St Andrew's Cathedral – is assuaging the anxieties and longing of many in our community. It is no accident that Sydney Diocese has, apart from the Northern Territory, the lowest proportion of older people among its worshippers. Sydney is strongest in its youth and young adult attendances – the under 39s account for 48 per cent of its congregations. That's the figure for the 60-plus age group in places such as Adelaide and Brisbane. Sydney's older churchgoers, on the other hand, amount to just 26 per cent.

This is a statistic that should not be overlooked. I believe it indicates that Sydney's message resonates best with the younger generations that have a deep psychological need for certainty. These are the generations most afflicted by divorce, family break-up, loss of father figures, frequent house moves, job dislocation and the anarchic strains present in our contemporary culture at all levels. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect the under-39s being attracted to Sydney's proto-churches are people who are disillusioned with the party and drug scene, with rampant consumerism and recreational sex. While they are far wealthier in material terms than any preceding generation, their prosperity hangs on a thread: they have limited job security but have still over-reached themselves in terms of debt. With the zeal of converts, they are more than ready to embrace a cause that provides them with the psychic security of a concrete, conservative and all-embracing system of meaning that eases their inner anguish. The pseudo-contemporary entertainment events used to market the take-it-or-leave-it teachings have made it easy for these seekers to be drawn into the church. This is not unique to Sydney Diocese, of course. Pentecostal churches, including the phenomenally successful Hillsong Church in Sydney's north-west, are attracting strong attendance figures in the same demographic and for the same reason.

It is also true that ours is at all levels a newly conservative society. Look at the results of the federal election. John Howard's conservative 1950s image has struck a chord with the wider community. The Family First Party has emerged through some strange alliances and at every level we are witnessing a backlash against the prevailing views of the '70s and '80s: against feminism, abortion availability and the rest. Integral to this new conservatism is, I believe, an abiding anti-feminism. There are many, and not just those who oppose the ordination of women, who would like to turn back the clock on women's rights. I suspect that it might be because there are any number of men who, at a subconscious level, have been deeply disturbed by the dislocation of the ancient sexist order. That extends to the recent societal acceptance of homosexuality. So the "fundamentalist mentality" in 21st-century Australia has newly fertile ground in which to grow.

Most Australian Anglicans have long regarded Sydney Diocese as an aberration, albeit a nuisance, when it exercises its considerable voting power in the national synod. They have felt sorry for those mainstream Anglicans marooned in Sydney Diocese but in general they have not regarded it as a threat to their own internal diocesan or parish life. They have assumed that given time, issues like women bishops will eventually reach a happy outcome, and that Sydney, too, will come on board. But it is time they reconsidered. In the contemporary Australian climate, the Sydney position will look increasingly attractive outside its own boundaries, while the highly motivated, well-resourced and seemingly unstoppable current Sydney leadership appears already to be looking further afield to extend its missionary activities. Under its influence, there is a real danger that many more Anglican churches around the country will be turned inwards.


[i] Since Muriel Porter's article was written in December, Sydney Cathedral authorities re-opened the George Street entrance, as a secondary entrance only. The main entrance remains the new doors on the other side of the cathedral, away from the public eye.

[ii] Harriet A. Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp.26-27.

[iii] James Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM Press, sec.ed., 1981) p.1.

[iv] ibid, p.11.

[v] Peter F. Jensen, presidential address to the 2001 Sydney Synod, October 26, 2001.

[vi] Harris, op.cit., p.11.

[vii] ibid, p.4.

[viii] See ibid, p.327.

[ix] "Bible-based" churches have been identified by Archbishop Jensen (in his 2004 presidential address to Sydney Synod, p.6) as those denominations that, along with Sydney Anglican Diocese, belong to the evangelical NSW Council of Churches: the Baptist Union, the Christian Reformed Churches, the Churches of Christ, the Fellowship of Congregational Churches, the Presbyterian Church and the Salvation Army. The NSW Council of Churches is not part of the mainstream ecumenical National Council of Churches, which includes those denominations not regarded by Sydney Anglicans as "Bible-based", for example, the Catholic Church, the Uniting Church and the various orthodox churches.

[x] Jensen, presidential address, 2001 op.cit., p.2.

[xi] David Hilliard, "Gender Roles, Homosexuality, and the Anglican Church in Sydney", Gender and Christian Religion, Studies in Church History, Vol. 34 (Ecclesiastical History Society, Suffolk, 1998), pp.509-523.

[xii] See Wayne Brighton, "Church Attendance & Mission 1991-2001" in General Synod 2004 Preparatory Material Book 3A, pp.102-131.

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