Sydney Anglicans and the subversion of the Anglican Communion

Over the past two weeks, there have been two episodes which involve conservative Anglicans from overseas in what are attempts to subvert the Anglican church in Britain. Both these incursions have been made supposedly to help protect our church from its ‘apostasy’. The first of these was a proposal by GAFCON primates, meeting in Nairobi, to appoint a missionary bishop to Britain. He would provide conservative parishes in this country, who cannot work with their bishops, with pastoral support. This was reportedly thought to be urgent as the Scottish Episcopal Church may legalise gay marriage at their Synod in June. The second more recent event was the irregular consecration of Jonathan Pryke in Newcastle by two or more bishops from the Reformed Anglican Church of South Africa (REACH-SA). Both these events have the potential to cause disruption to the fragile bonds that link Anglicans together across the world. It is one thing to have ‘flying’ bishops legally appointed to work alongside diocesan bishops to support dissenting congregations. It is quite another to have bishops appointed by authorities overseas to work in this country and who possess no legal or canonical authority.

I see in these two stories evidence of ecclesiastical subversion from afar. To summarise this article, I wish to observe and point out the direct or indirect influence of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in each of these incidents. I should add that because of their timing, these disruptive events are unlikely to have been coordinated.

Those who are interested in the history of GAFCON will have noted that much of the energy and finance for the meeting in Jerusalem in 2008 came from Sydney Anglicans. Without rehearsing all the details of this organisation, GAFCON is a conservative alliance of Anglicans, mainly from the Global South, who wish to restore ‘biblical’ principles to an Anglicanism which is believed to be falling away from these values. The input of the Sydney Diocese and especially of Peter Jensen, the then Archbishop, was considerable. Before the financial crash of 2009, the Sydney diocese had been able to donate large sums of money to set up a secretariat for GAFCON. There was also the underwriting of the travel expenses to bring conservative Anglican Christians from all over the world to Jerusalem for the 2008 gathering. Although the Sydney diocese was quite badly affected by the financial crash of 2009, the work of GAFCON is still substantially supported with Australian money.

Many of the emphases of the GAFCON vision are closely aligned to the conservative fundamentalist agenda which has been the hallmark of Sydney Anglicans for decades. Apart from a handful of Anglo-Catholic parishes, the entire diocese is dominated by the strongly conservative theological outlook of Moore Theological College in Sydney. One particular theological position that is held, is to exclude women from priesthood on ‘biblical’ grounds. This perspective is, however, not accepted by all the other GAFCON provinces. Nevertheless, a visceral dislike of homosexuals and a rejection of any possibility of their ordination or marriage is held in common throughout the GAFCON community. All clergy who are appointed within the Sydney diocese have been trained at Moore College. The theological vision of the clergy will thus remain monochrome for decades to come. Moore College maintains close links with Oak Hill Theological College in the UK.

The influence of Sydney Anglicans on the breakaway Church of England in South Africa, now called REACH-SA is not widely known. The relationship, past and present, is so close that the South African church can almost be regarded a dependent satellite of Sydney Anglicans. Although the history of what became REACH-SA goes back to 1880, it was in 1938 that a constitution was adopted which formalised the split with the official Anglican church in South Africa. From the very beginning Sydney churchmen were active in support of this breakaway church, particularly when it was frozen out of the 1958 Lambeth Conference at the insistence of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. Howard Mowll the Archbishop of Sydney and later Primate of Australia was unflagging in his support for this group. Two Sydney clergy, Stephen Bradley and Dudley Foord were sent to serve this church as successive presiding bishops. Sydney Anglicans also were instrumental in helping to found a substantial theological college for the Church known as the George Whitfield College near Cape Town. Broughton Knox, the immensely influential Sydney theologian, spent three years of his retirement between 1989 and 1992 as its founder and first Principal. This sealed what was already a close relationship into one of total theological unanimity between the two groups.

Broughton Knox whose career included time in both Sydney and South Africa is an interesting figure. His influence on Sydney Anglicans is such that his biographer describes him as the ‘Father of Contemporary Sydney Anglicanism’. His theological perspective was formed through his doctoral studies in England on the early Reformation in the early 1950s. The bulk of his career was spent at Moore College where from 1959-1985 he acted as Principal. Knox could be said to have almost single-handedly set the theological agenda for the entire Sydney Diocese for his generation and the one that came after. Although he was possibly the most highly educated theological voice in Sydney, if not the whole of Australia, Knox’s perspective on theology had a somewhat dry legalist feel to it. As with other theologians whose detailed area of study is the 16th century, something of the Reformation polemic and intransigence emerges in Knox’s writing. We see in the discourse that even today is put out on behalf of REFORM and other Sydney inspired organisations a similar inflexibility and even harshness. It is difficult have dialogue with theological perspectives that are unable ever to consider that they might have something to learn. Sydney Anglicans for good and for ill owe a massive debt to this single individual but there is little recognition that his legacy may be a flawed one. Knox’s thinking and somewhat legalistic theological method are still felt like a shadow in the current divisive events that threaten the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion.

Sydney Anglicans are implicated directly or indirectly in both the incidents that have taken place over the past two weeks in Newcastle and in Nairobi. The activities of GAFCON appear to remain very much under the guiding influence of their paymasters in Sydney. It is also hard to imagine that the as yet unnamed REACH-SA bishops involved in the Jesmond Parish Church consecration would have done so without the tacit support of their theological allies in Sydney. We do not know about all the preparations that took place for the illegal and irregular consecration of Jonathan Pryke. But it is not unreasonable to assume that the current Archbishop of Sydney and others in his diocese knew about the proposed consecration.

Each of the recent incidents we have referred to has the potential to cause considerable disruption to episcopal authority within the Church of England. Anglicans have always been tolerant of a wide variety of theological opinion. They have been less accommodating to incursions by foreign bishops who use the word Anglican as part of their self-description. There would seem to be a number of legal options for resisting these invasions. If my analysis for claiming that both these incursions from abroad can be traced back to Sydney, then we need perhaps a better understanding of the nature of Sydney Anglicanism. We cannot allow Anglican thinking and practice in Britain, which is marked by breadth and variety, to be overtaken by the narrow and dry fundamentalist vision of Sydney Anglicans. This must be resisted with whatever means are at our disposal.

(Apologies to my regular readers if I have repeated some material from the last blog. The purpose for my writing this piece an attempt to get my reflections to a wider audience over this serious issue of illegal consecrations. I have added material from my reading about the Australian church. The issue of Sydney Anglicans who want to destroy the Communion and rebuild it in the own image is a serious one. Some of the material I have included is not well known. The bullying of our Anglican church by an overseas Anglican diocese, Sydney, is a matter that concerns me and the issues of the blog.)

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “Sydney Anglicans and the subversion of the Anglican Communion

  1. Good morning Stephen,
    Although I am sure you are substantially right in what you have said here, much of the money financing GAFCON comes from the States. Not long after it was set up, Chris Sugden, then one of the main organisers, I forget his official title, said to me that “I can do what I like. I can get all the money I need to do anything, from the States.”
    One of the points that I find very puzzling about the Jesmond consecration by REACH-SA is that Jonathan Pryke is on the Executive of AMiE, but it would seem that the other members of the AMiE executive, from the statement they put out, knew nothing of the consecration until after it had happened.
    What I am most sure about in this whole unhappy saga is that the Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby need our prayers as they discern how to deal with it all. The legal issue is not as clear as we would like to think it is, as can be seen from what I can only describe as the threat issued by David Holloway, the Rector of Desmond Parish Church. Others, more qualified than I, have been looking at the legal position. Thinking Anglicans (thinkinganglicans.org.uk) have links to all the relevant documents and statements.

  2. Thank you for your comment about American money. I am think I am right in remembering from Muriel Porter’s comments that a lot did come from Australia. Chris Sugden’s capacity to create upset in the Anglican Communion is surely wider than GAFCON and the whole of his outfit in Oxford is, I know, funded from the States. There is lots of money floating around which wants to destroy denominations in favour of independent units of right wing leaning Christianity. Anglicanism and tolerance are not the flavour of the month in Trumpian America. Exclusion of gays and other minorities together with heroic independence are are what is required to fit in with the assumptions of the Religious Right. I am reading a book entitled Christian Jihad which says something along these lines!

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