Sunday, June 22, 2014

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia gathers together in one week’s time in Adelaide. I’ll be there, taking part and trying to keep you all updated on the business and (more interestingly) what’s going on behind the scenes of the business.

But the day before General Synod opens, a new Primate for Australia will be elected. The Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia sets out the procedure. There is a Board of Electors consisting of all members of the House of Bishops and 12 clergy and lay people elected by the General Synod. While the role is open to any eligible diocesan bishop, the reality is that the role will almost certainly go to one of the 5 metropolitan Archbishops. The official website has more [pdf].

With that in mind, who are the candidates and what should we make of their potential to be elected?
Phillip Aspinall is the current Primate and Archbishop of Brisbane. He’s announced his intention to retire which has led to the vacancy we’re now dealing with. From the more liberal side of the church he was involved in some of the Communion discussions over and with TEC, coming down gently in their favour in the way that he approached the issue. His replacement will have to deal with an Anglican Church that is looking to understand itself and its internal tensions between conservatives and liberals. The presenting issue over which those tensions are more than likely to appear is the question of human sexuality.
Roger Herft is the current Archbishop of Perth, although originally from Sri Lanka. Widely respected for his gentle manner and conciliatory style he has, nevertheless, received criticism from more conservative quarters for his tacit support of liberal Cathedral Dean, John Shepherd. He himself takes a conservative position on human sexuality, deferring to “the mind of the wider church” and made no friends amongs the liberal majority in his own diocese when he vetoed a progressive bill accepting homosexual behaviour. At the same time he was the first diocesan in Australia to appoint a woman assistant bishops.

Herft will retire in the next few years and, as a result, is highly unlikely to be elected Primate. It is hard to see the Perth synod not electing a replacement who will be liberal on the key issues.

Jeffrey Driver is Archbishop of Adelaide. He is seen by many as a man who dislikes the current tensions facing us. So much so that some insiders in Adelaide have suggested that it was a falling out with him that led the current Bishop of Grafton, Rev. Dr. Sarah Macneil, to prematurely leave her position as Dean of Adelaide Cathedral. She allegedly pushed the revision of sexual ethics and Driver saw her actions as too contentious.
With only a few years left in Adelaide it’s again unlikely he will be elected. Moreover there are 2 other candidates who the wise money is on as the main contenders; Davies and Freier.
Glenn Davies is the Archbishop of Sydney. Many previous Primates have been from Sydney. Sydney is by far the largest diocese in the country with much greater numbers of churchgoing. Davies is a conservative but perhaps more appreciated by the wider spread of the church in Australia than his predecessor Peter Jensen, despite the fact that he holds all the same positions on the major issues of contention.

The idea of a Sydney Primate would have been unthinkable a few years ago but the idea has been resurrected again. As the national church strives to find some form of unity, the election of a Sydney Archbishop would go a long way towards making peace. However, some in Sydney have expressed their opposition to the idea to me. If a fight breaks out in the national church over human sexuality (and the likelihood is it will when Perth gets a new Archbishop) then many conservatives would rather that Davies was fighting in their corner, not having to referee the match.
Philip Freier is the Archbishop of Melbourne and, in the estimation of the majority of the people that I talk to, the assumed favourite to be elected (if only by default). On the key issue of human sexuality he has operated a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in Melbourne. Running Melbourne diocese is, in many ways, a microcosm of the national church with many diverse parties. Both liberals and evangelicals have solid numbers and Freier walks a high tightrope balancing them all. Then again, perhaps that’s the job of the Primate of Australia and if the electors are looking for someone who will not actually come down finally on the contentious issues and seek to hold everyone together, well then Freier might very well be their man. He’s certainly my tip to get the top job.

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