Past And Future Of An Anglican Diocese

A book of papers to mark the 150th anniversary of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne has just been published: People of the Past? The Culture of Melbourne Anglicanism and Anglicanism in Melbourne’s Culture, History Department, University of Melbourne 2000. It was edited by Colin Holden, a senior fellow in the Department of History at the University of Melbourne and priest in the Diocese of Melbourne. While the orientation of the book is historical, a number of the papers pose questions for future directions of the Diocese – questions relevant to many denominations and churches in Australia.

Colin Holden’s introductory essay raises the question as to whether a distinctive Anglican culture has developed in Melbourne. He notes that, from the beginning, there were strong evangelical influences in Melbourne, as there were in Sydney. At various times, conservative evangelical forces have held sway in the Diocese. Nevertheless, Holden argues that their evangelicalism has never had the adversarial nature of evangelicalism in Sydney. There has been a greater tolerance of diversity than in many other Dioceses, evangelical or catholic in orientation. In another paper, Paul Nicholls, a Melbourne historian, describes the tone of the Diocese as ‘non-persecuting low church’. Nicholls’ history of the Diocese suggests the leadership of the bishops has had a great influence on this tone.

Perhaps the tolerance of the Diocese of Melbourne has contributed to the characteristic of being reactive rather than proactive. For example, Peter Sherlock, a graduate of the Department of History, argues that in relation to the issue of the ordination of women, the agenda was dominated by the Sydney Anglican Diocese. From the earliest discussions, the Sydney Diocese has consistently held that women could not be priests or bishops because they could not have the authority over men in the church. They saw certain passages in the New Testament barring women from exercising ‘headship’ in the church. The Melbourne Diocese responded by the rejecting the argument. Its primary statements were hardly proactive, however, revolving around the idea that there were no theological barriers to the ordination of women.

Other themes arise in the essays including the following.

1. Inclusion and exclusion

On what grounds may some people be excluded from positions within the church or from involvement in the church? Is it right to exclude people from leadership on the basis of gender? What about sexual preference or sexual behaviour? Should homosexuals be allowed to participate in the life of the church or take leadership? An essay in People of the Past? explores responses to homosexuality in the Diocese in the 1970s. The author, Graham Willett, notes how, in attempting to resolve the issue, members of the Diocese drew on a wide range of traditions within the church and beliefs about how church and society should interact. For some, the primary issue has been relevance to a tolerant, liberal society. Many have argued that moral and legal questions should be separated. Others have turned to Biblical passages to re-affirm opposition to homosexuality.

2. Worship,

Geoffrey Cox provides a descriptive history of church music in the Diocese between 1847 and 1997. He describes the early focus on professional choirs, and how that gave way to greater congregational participation in music. He notes the various musical traditions of sung psalms, plainchant, and influences from the Oxford movement. In many ways the Diocese followed trends in England, although developing distinctive Australian expressions. He notes the influence of the charismatic movement on singing in the 1970s, and concludes that there is a greater diversity of styles and approaches than ever before within the Diocese.

The issue of worship is a theme of my own contribution to the book. I argue that the traditional forms of worship reflect a structured view of the world which few people born since 1960 share and the persistence of these forms of worship has probably contributed to the decline in attendance which is evident throughout the Diocese. A study of healthy churches in the Diocese found that some of the growing churches had a ‘high church’ style, while most other growing churches were charismatic in style. The important factor would seem to be that churches take seriously the people to whom they seek to minister, that they provide opportunities for worship which use their cultural idioms and reflect the world-view which underlies how they approach life.

3. Organisation

Stephen Ames takes up the issue of the organisation of the Diocese in terms of the tensions between centralisation and regionalisation. In 1934, the first assistant bishop was appointed in the Diocese. The reason given was that the job was too large for one person. The tasks of the assistant bishops varied over time. In the 1960s, the assistant bishops had specific roles, one to oversee ministry relating to health and welfare, another responsible for educational issues.

In 1970, it was decided to establish regions within the Diocese, each region having a regional assistant bishop and conducting regional conferences. Part of the motivation was that there would be greater pastoral care of the clergy within the region. Yet, this raised substantial problems as to how these regions related to the Diocese as a whole. How would the oversight of the Diocese as a whole be related to the oversight of the regions? What role should regional bishops have to take initiatives and think through the development of mission in the region? Who should have control of budgets?

In 1992, regions were given the responsibility of formulating strategies for mission in the region. Regional councils were formed to engage the skills, insights and resources of the clergy and laity within each region. Ames argues that the relationship of the archbishop to the regional bishops, and the regional councils to the general synod of the Diocese was not altogether solved, either theologically nor practically. In effect, a new layer of administration was added which had no clear theological foundation nor clear organisational responsibility.

At the same time, the Diocese grappled with the size of the Diocesan Synod which involved 1100 people including representatives of all parishes plus all clergy. Many saw the body as too large and unwieldy. Yet, attempts to change the forms of representation met with considerable resistance.

Ames suggests that a solution could lie in the formation of a large provincial Diocese, covering the whole of the State of Victoria. Regions would be formed of up to 40 parishes, each with its own regional bishop who would then have the capacity to know the lay leaders and many of the attenders personally, as well as the clergy within their region. Regions would have their own budget and a small regional staff. There would be some client-focussed units providing central services, assisting the regions in matters such as property and finance.

4. Society

The way that the church relates to society is an underlying theme in many of the papers in this book. Ellen Warne tells the story how the Mother’s Union took up the challenge of sex education through the early years of the twentieth century as a way to create ‘a sexually safer environment’ not only for their own daughters, but for all the women of Melbourne. They persisted in this task despite some who held that sex education would only develop desire and that it was better for children to remain in ignorance. Warne sees the early sex education campaigns as a demonstration of the way Anglicans tried to tackle issues pertaining to the broader community.

Churches have also responded to social needs through the development of charitable organisations to care for those needing special assistance. The first mission of the Diocese, the Mission to the Streets and Lanes, was founded in 1884. A home for ‘Neglected Children’ was established in 1894. A paper by Shurlee Swain follows the development of such institutions, including the problems which arose from accusations of inappropriate treatment of children at a home for boys in the 1930s.

Through the 1970s there were attempts to bring about greater co-operation between the Anglican welfare services. However, the moves achieved little as most of the services appeared to be intent on preserving their own resources. Only in 1995 was the vision of a new organisation, building on the heritage of existing agencies, but with an identity independent of them, passed by Synod.

These papers enunciate some of the crucial questions for the future. But apart from the paper of Stephen Ames few provide suggestions for the future. People of the Past? indicates clearly that changing times and social environments are raising new questions.

1. What does the church do about inclusion and exclusion – in leadership and participation?

2. What do the churches do about worship – as cultural expressions change?

3. How should the church be organised as forms of communication and patterns of community change?

4. How can the church best relate to society – both in terms of advocacy and in terms of welfare?

These questions will continue to exercise the churches in the coming decades.

Philip Hughes

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