Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sydney election: one party state or pluralist democracy?

Next Monday 5th August is crunch day for the future of the Diocese of Sydney. That day the election for their next archbishop begins. Previously I had thought that the decision about its new archbishop was a decision between a hard conservative line and a soft conservative line. Now, following my visit to Australia I am thinking differently.

Effectively the election is about whether the Sydney Diocese operates akin to a one party state in which dissent is stifled or operates in a manner which begins to look like a pluralist democracy in which a variety of views are both encouraged and valued. At this stage there are only two candidates, Rick Smith and Glenn Davies, on whose candidacies I have previously written here.

Circulating around the Sydney Diocese at present is a document by Anonymous which argues that the dominant player in the election is Dean Philip Jensen, a point which is also made in published pieces by named writers. Thus:

Jeremy Halcrow, writing on the Canberra and Goulburn website observes:

"Rick Smith’s chances should not be under-estimated. In fact reading the high level endorsements it is clear he is actually in pole position, and the election is his to lose. Rick is the candidate openly backed by the influential Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen who is hosting private meet and greet sessions for electors. But more importantly Rick is being presented and increasingly perceived as the “mission” candidate and that counts for everything in Sydney. Whether this is truly fair to Bishop Davies and his oversight of church planting within Sydney’s northern region is another matter. 
... Both men are thoroughly conservative Reformed evangelicals. Their policies would be identical on the touchstone issues that divide Australian Anglicans such as the ordination of women as priests. The personal style of Rick Smith leans towards ministry-minded pragmatism. So I would expect that in the long run this will result in similar moderate outcomes in their approach to Anglican politics. Five years down the track Rick Smith will be his own man, and the ghostly guiding hand of Phillip Jensen will have long faded."
Julia Baird, writing in The Age also offers an observation about the role of Philip Jensen:
"The most interesting person in this election campaign might be the Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, who is deeply involved behind the scenes trying to ensure Smith will replace his brother, and hold the diocese in place for 20 years."
But what is Dean Philip Jensen himself saying? He has written two articles on the St Andrew's Cathedral website about the election (always disclosing his own role in supporting Rick Smith), here (1) and here (2). These articles are pretty unexceptional as they canvas the qualities required in an archbishop. I have no doubt in my own mind that Dean Philip is acting with the utmost sincerity and integrity in backing Rick Smith as the 'best man for the job.'
But one can do that sort of thing without realising that the issue of 'power', the question of who controls the reigning theological paradigm for the diocese (and how that control is exercised) is a greater issue than 'the best man for the job.' Thus the anonymously written document I mentioned above begins in this way (with my emboldening):
"The current Archbishop’s election for the Sydney Anglican church is not about the two candidates. It is more about power than the GospelThese are – in my opinion - the facts:•    
1.    Glenn Davies and Rick Smith are both good guys    
2.    Both have gifts and skills that make them great ministers of the Gospel   
 3.    But after this, there are all sorts of other issues that make up the true grid of what’s happening.
The document then goes on to outline the influence of Philip Jensen (described as 'the king') on the diocese and suggests that Rick Smith will be under the king's influence whereas Glenn Davies will not. (Note that this is a different estimation from that given by Jeremy Halcrow). The document also sets out in its own terms the manner in which people who think differently from the theological line of Dean Philip are deemed to have become 'cousins' rather than 'brothers.' Whether the influence of Philip Jensen as one individual is as pervasive as the above documents suggest, I suggest that there is a strong influence at work in the ethos of the diocese to promote one and only one line of thinking, a line which is agreeable to the Dean. 

I suggest (on the basis of careful listening and reading over many years) that what is wrong with this kind of influence is that it is not simply an influence for a particular theology, an influence which deploys resources of persuasive eloquence to promote that theology but also an influence which works against rival theologies. One effect of this work is that other theologies are suppressed, even those which barely differ from the preferred theology. Over the years I have met Sydney Anglicans whose conservative theology is more conservative than my own but who are out of favour with the inner sanctum because of small differences of viewpoint with 'the line.' (Another effect of the influence, in a different manner, is the support given to independent Bible churches being set up in areas which already have fine evangelical (but 'not like us') churches ministering there).

In a democracy pushing for a particular theology is fine. But implicitly or explicitly suppressing other theologies is not so fine. The recent history of the Diocese of Sydney and of Moore College, its theological college, is a story of people falling out and falling away when they do not toe the party line. Such departures are gracious so few waves are made, but there are extraordinary stories to tell. The Archdeacon for Women's Ministries who moved dioceses to be ordained a priest and so forth. 

Within the diocese, I am told, people choose not to speak up and say what they really believe (e.g. about the ordination of women) for fear of affecting their future ministry. The intellectual atmosphere in Sydney, as I detect it, is suffused with fear. Why, I ask myself, when once in the library at Moore College, did a senior diocesan figure lower his voice to assure me that there was actually a variety of opinion held among the teaching staff there? (!!) When the then principal told me that there was particular form of doctrinal quality control exercised over postgraduate students sent away to universities overseas in respect of their possible future roles on staff, I felt I was being given the inner secret of a cult and not of a college devoted to the flowering of theological enquiry.

Thus I suggest this election is both about which of two fine men will be chosen to become the next Archbishop of Sydney and about whether the politics of the diocese will continue in a mode of one party line sweeping all before it or will begin a journey of transformation into a mode in which a variety of views are encouraged.

UPDATE: read Philip Jensen on unity and truth here. Once we start saying that people who differ in views from us are "fellow travellers" and worse than "enemies" we are in the territory of Communist parties and all Communist parties approach to government heads in the one party state direction ...


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I'm just back from a one day conference held at Moore College on Samuel Marsden and the launching of the New Zealand mission. There were nine papers presented and represented a variety of view-points and theological perspectives, albeit within a broadly evangelical tradition. They even gave the Kiwi the last word! I also offered to give them cricket lessons - but had no takers.

I'm not sure that attributions of hidden power and influence are all that helpful - because, despite anecdotal examples, it can never rise above the level of suspicion. Isn't it better to address the open and public issues involved? After all, what one person labels a hidden agenda, can just as easily be labelled a difference of opinion by another.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Malcolm,
Well, yes, but there are other anecdotes which are less easy to tell because they are other people's stories for them to choose to tell if they wish.

There is no doubt in my mind that the prevailing paradigm shuts down possibilities for reasonable theological contributors to be invited to speak in the diocese.

That you got to speak is a matter to be treasured. Not least because it offers you some sign of your impeccable orthodoxy!

Andrew White said...

As usual, Julia is hunting for shadows to jump at.

"deeply involved behind the scenes" suggests that there is some secret and sinister lobbying going on. Indeed, it's so secret and sinister that Dean Philip's four part article starts with an open declaration of his preferred candidate before (attempting to) set out the principles by which he came to this decision. Similarly, suggestions that there is a secret cabal who are playing their own game are based more in the suggesters' imaginations than reality.

Since it's come up, let me provide two extreme takes on women's ordination:
- it's the pressing social justice issue of our time
- it's an annoying distraction, much like someone demanding a redesign of the team uniforms during the half-time huddle.

One could run the same argument about diversity. "You've got it all wrong" is a serious claim, and one that deserves a hearing. "Let's stop what we're doing for a few years so that everyone can feel like they got a chance to speak" is a recipe for irrelevance. The most effective way to fight a foe that you cannot simply take head-on is guerilla warfare: bleeding his energy, momentum and focus with distracting attacks. I fear this description applies well to today's Church.

Humble Bunk said...

I think you are right on the ball Peter. I would be interested about what’s comprised of this letter which is being circulated but I guess the issues of fear and power is what it is trying to get at.

It is well known that Sydney possesses a defensive agenda in protecting the Gospel at all costs. The main threat being secular liberalism (the main issues being ordination of women opening up the slippery slope to ordaining openly gay priests).
My guess is that any differentiating views from Phillip’s theological line would be around the doctrine of Eternal Subordination which is used to justify women submitting to their husbands. Any difference in opinion would possibly lead to the slippery slope mentioned above.

Tactics are used such as stifling any dissenting views on theology by preventing any room for open dialogue regarding difference in opinions. This is the kind of culture that the majority of people who are backing Glen Davies would like to change.

From various sources Glenn has been known to be a more gracious man who is open to respectful dialogue.

Both candidates are considered godly and theologically sound so there would not be a radical shift in theology. I guess it’s more to do with the culture than the theology

Anonymous said...

By the way, can anyone show me where diversity and democracy are advocated in Scripture?

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but this will be my last day of posting here. This has nothing to do with the blog or recent troubles it is simply a matter of time. Very soon I will be working two jobs, and along with all my other responsibilities I just have no time left to read through and adequately respond to threads or peoples points in a fair way.

Blessings to all!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Shawn
I congratulate you on your two jobs and would love to know (sometime) what they are.

My concern about diversity and democracy are about whether a variety of Christian viewpoints may be expressed in a Christian context. There are a variety of Christian viewpoints in most contexts, even in Reformed Evangelical contexts. It is a pity when suppression of that variety occurs.

There is much to put in order in NZ dioceses, but NZ dioceses are not immune from the thinking which emanates from Sydney and thus there is reason to take time from the affairs of our house and express hopes about the future of other houses.

Scott Mackay said...

"There is no doubt in my mind that the prevailing paradigm shuts down possibilities for reasonable theological contributors to be invited to speak in the diocese."

Peter, this sort of blanket statement really is an unfair caricature of a very large and complex diocese. 'No doubt'? and 'shuts down possibilities'? You must have a fairly good knowledge of the workings of a diocese of hundreds of parishes, dozens of diocesan organisations, etc, to make such a ridiculously definitive statement.

Incidentally, the conference hosted by Moore College which Malcolm mentioned, which I also attended (as a current student here), included a Roman Catholic on the podium, and other academics from outside the Sydney diocese whom I understand are not evangelicals. A few years ago, N.T. Wright was invited to speak at Moore College, and the College hosts many other academics from other theological colleges around Australia and internationally on a regular basis (just last week I spotted the OT scholar John Walton making his way to address a 2nd year OT class).

I can't speak for the rest of the workings of the diocese, but from where I sit as a Moore College student there is plenty of opportunity for interaction with other voices. The theological library is the largest in Australia, and our set-readings include theologians and biblical scholars from right across the spectrum (I'm currently doing a course on the Atonement which includes readings from Moltmann, Pannenberg, John McLeod Campbell, Gustav Aulen, plus readings from the church Fathers, among others.) In fact, next month a bunch of us are headed to New College (an Anglican university hall of residence) to hear Stanley Hauerwas give a series of lectures there.

Frankly, I think a Moore College student has just as much exposure, if not more, to a wide range of scholarly and theological views, as any theological college student in NZ.

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Shawn
Thank you for your comments made overnight.

I may be confused about what constitutes 'ad hominem' and I may be inconsistent in my moderation of comments which people feel are 'ad hominem.'

I ask that you consider the possibility that I may reach a different evaluation of what constitutes 'ad hominem' from you and thus in some instances a possible approach is that we "agree to disagree." One such instance would be on the use of a term such as 'cultural Marxists' as a description of people who otherwise are motivated by Christian theology. (There are genuine cultural Marxists around who are motivated by Marx to change the world by changing culture. Etc).

I am trying to be open to all viewpoints on these matters. To give one instance: I am realising that a more subtle 'ad hominem' slant occurs in certain comments here (not by you) which demands a level of vigilance which is new to me. But I am trying ...

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Scott
I am very glad to hear what you say and to learn of such theological interaction at Moore College. The library and its breadth of books is impressive (something I noticed when I was there).

Nevertheless I remain questioning of the enveloping paradigm. Could NT Wright be appointed to the faculty? Why does the Diocese (if not the College as well) invite certain distinguished scholars in its midst to address issues? Could a member of the faculty at Moore reach an honest scholarly conclusion in favour of the ordination of women, publish that and remain on staff?

Why does Moore College work within its own accreditation arrangements with the government and not fall under the Australian College of Theology, a body set up by the General Synod of the Australian Anglican Church?

To end, however, not on a questioning note, I underline that it is very good to hear what you say. That questions remain (in my mind, at least) needs to sit alongside rather than detract from all that is good in the theological life of the College.

Scott Mackay said...

Hi Peter,

I'm not trying to defend Moore College as if were infallible. I was simply questioning the ease at which you felt able to write off the openness of an entire diocese.

In response to your questions, I could simply ask - would Mark Thompson or others of the Moore College faculty be appointed to the faculty of St John's College, Auckland? The same question could be multiplied for a range of different Colleges and organisations. Just because a College has a particular character does not mean it is less scholarly or less willing to hear differing views.

As for institutional accreditation, Moore College recently received self-accrediting status from the Australian government in recognition of the strength of its own internal processes (40 of 44 such bodies in Australia are universities). I'm not sure of the details but I imagine it has far more to do with administrative advantages than some conspiracy. Dependence on other accrediting bodies is simply a necessity for most Colleges.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Scott,
My point (lest through unclearness I my part I have imputed something I do not want to say) is not about scholarship per se (the track record/publishing output of Moore scholars speaks for itself) but about freedom of people to speak what they believe.

I quite agree that colleges appoint according to an ethos/commitment which they wish to establish and maintain but I suggest many colleges do that in such a way that once appointed staff feel a freedom to say what they believe without fear of consequences.

Rather than speculate on the chances of a named scholar being appointed to SJC (for that could lead us into discussion of what that person may or may not actually believe), I would simply say that SJC is a pluralist college open to appointing a variety of people holding diverse views. I think they could easily appoint a "conservative" scholar, but that has not been tested much lately (as far as I am aware) in terms of recent appointments (one of which I was part of appointing).

Re Moore and ACT: no imputation of conspiracy etc is intended on my part. I am raising the question of why Moore (in the past, for that was when the decision was made) would not go in with a congenial, collegial Anglican arrangement. No doubt the answer is complex in terms of factors prevailing then.

If the diocese is indeed open to many points of view I look forward to that being demonstrated in the years ahead under new archiepiscopal leadership!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
I am not going to publish a comment which says that another Christian has been "unkind".

Father Ron Smith said...

This sounds a little like semantics, Peter. I wonder if you would consider my use of the word 'unfelicitous', would that help you to reconsider publishing my comment, that certainly could not be call 'ad hominem'.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
I am both Chief Semanticist and Chief Grammaticus around here.

I don't think "unfelicitous" is a word, is it?

Either way, take care with judging fellow Christians, especially those whose ideas displease you.

John Sandeman said...

it is worth noting that while ACT was set up by General Synod most of the colleges currently affiliated with it are Baptist, Presbyterian or interdenominational and evangelical. See http://www.actheology.edu.au/colleges.php
Laidlaw college is a member for example. Two Sydney Anglican colleges are members. But Aussie Anglican colleges with a similar ethos to St John's are not.
ACT is undoubtably congenial, but not overly Anglican.
As I understand it Moore wished to design its own courses for government accreditation, rather than work within the ACT course outlines. It is a very technical decision. Moore could afford to run its own accreditation process, smaller colleges find this too expensive, which is part of the attraction of ACT. John Sandeman

Father Ron Smith said...

Alright, Peter, you win. The word should have been 'infelicitous'. But obviously, you still will not print my comment - even though it was not improper. You're the boss around here! I accept your ruling.

Peter Carrell said...

That is helpful clarification, thanks, John!

Ron, Yes, in this instance, I am not giving way.