Sydney Anglicanism: church or cult?
The Second Letter
A follow-up letter by Keith Mascord’s to his Open Letter to the
Standing Committee of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney
Dear Archbishop and members of Standing Committee,
As you are aware, a letter sent by me to Standing Committee for consideration at its December 11, 2006 meeting was also sent as an Open Letter to clergy and lay people throughout the Diocese. Many, many people responded to that letter in terms that ought to be of interest and concern to you. In this, my second letter, I intend to draw on the concerns and perspectives contained within those responses as I reiterate and elaborate on what I wrote in my first letter.
In trying to understand the significance of these many responses, I invited the following to be my advisers: Dr Alan Craddock, a senior lecturer in Social Psychology and former lecturer in Pastoral Psychology at Moore Theological College, Canon Dr Robert Withycombe, a Canberra-based lecturer in church history and historical theology who in the early 70s was Dean of Students at Moore, Michele Adair, a specialist in organisational development and human resources, Rev Dr Bill Salier, Vice Principal of Moore College and a teacher in the Ministry and NT Departments, and Louise Greentree, a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at UTS, a lawyer and part-time PhD candidate researching conflict resolution processes in the Anglican Church of Australia. The skills, experience and perspective that these five have brought to this task have been invaluable in helping me (and hopefully you) to better understand our Diocesan life and how we might improve it. They have also each written an independent report.
1. Are things as bad as the Letter suggests?
What I called for in my first letter was a more loving, humble and open Diocese. Some who have criticised me for making my call so public have rightly pointed out that we can always do better in these areas and that it is not surprising that people have responded so positively to my call. One could also argue, with some justification, that love does characterize our life together – from the leadership of the Diocese down. I personally have been the beneficiary of love. Peter and Christine, for example, have been wonderfully self-giving in the way they have loved and cared for Judy and myself over the years. Love is hard to quantify, but doubtless there is lots of love around within Sydney Anglicanism. Similar things could doubtless be said about humility and openness to alternative points of view.
Is it possible that the Open Letter has overstated the problem? That possibility has crossed my mind more than once over the last eleven months. However, any such thoughts have been quickly overwhelmed by evidence moving in the other direction. Many people have said that I have understated the problem – and that may also be the case.
2. Reasons to think we do have a significant problem:
2.1 The Open Letter process
Such is the nature of internet technology that information can be disseminated rapidly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Open Letter has travelled far and wide, and quickly. No sooner had the letter been sent out than responses began to pour in. The letter was sent in part to ascertain whether the level of concern that I personally felt and had often heard expressed by others was as widespread as I suspected it was.
The responses to the Open Letter suggest, at the very least, that further investigation is called for. Almost all of the letters acknowledged that we do significantly lack in the areas of love, humility and openness to difference. Moreover, in letter after letter people claimed to be speaking for many others as well, that their concerns also ‘distilled countless conversations.’ To date, I have had e-mail and other conversations with 133 clergy people and 202 lay people. I have received over 300 e-mails with a cumulative word length of 138,000 words, almost all of it supportive of the Open Letter’s thesis and call. Only 2 of the letters argued that we are doing OK in the areas of love, humility and openness to difference.
2.2 Evidence emerging from responses to the Open Letter
If someone asked me, ‘How would you sum up the concerns communicated to you over the last 11 months?’ I would reply, ‘Most are expressions of concern about a culture or sub-culture, or, perhaps better, an impulse within the broader culture of Sydney Anglicanism,1 that they find disturbing or that they have been hurt by in one way or another.’ People from right across the life of the Diocese, its teachers, its leaders, those who might be considered as on the inside, as well as those who feel that they are on the margins have expressed these concerns.2
In what follows, I will attempt to describe this culture or impulse. It has a long history, by no means confined to the last 6 (or 10 or 20) years. Its form is varied and evolving, and although it is true that some individuals will exemplify it more than others, my intention is not to focus on individuals, but on this culture.
3. The description of a culture
3.1 A fear driven culture
The culture I refer to is a fear-driven culture. The fear involved is the realistic fear of losing or compromising one’s faith, or ‘the faith’. Conservative, reformed evangelicalism here in Sydney (as in the rest of the world) has faced a series of significant challenges to its existence over the last few hundred years, increasing in intensity and effect over the last 60 years. These perceived and/or real challenges have come in the form of Anglo-Catholicism, modernism, feminism, Pentecostalism and, more recently, post-modernism. Reformed, conservative evangelicalism has struggled to maintain its character and defining beliefs in the face of these onslaughts.
The Anglican Church League here in Sydney has been committed throughout the more than 90 years of its existence to ‘maintain the reformed, protestant and evangelical character of the Anglican Church.’ Its present leadership is committed to preserving, in fact, to strengthening the‘reformed, protestant and evangelical’ character of Sydney Diocese. The commitment is to preserve and conserve in the face of significant challenges.
It is this commitment which partially explains the fear that is a driving factor in this sub-culture of the Diocese. It is the fear of falling into error, of losing the gospel, of wandering away from the truth. It is an understandable, in fact, a justifiable fear, but it has helped to create a culture that many of us are concerned about.
Evidence of this fear and its effects is seen in the rhetoric of some of our Diocesan leaders. Peter Jensen has more than once explained to audiences his fear that the Diocese might slip into theological liberalism in the belief that we are only ever one generation away from succumbing to this threat.3 On the ACL web-site, John Chapman notes how New Testament churches, even though founded by the apostles, quickly fell into error, losing the gospel in the process.4
The image that comes to mind when thinking of this fear is of a mountain path with progressively steep drops on either side. The only way to avoid danger is to remain in the middle of the path, not letting oneself be enticed even a little way towards the slippery slope. In this scenario, the people who you need to be most afraid of are those who are near you on the path, but who have begun to stray towards the slippery slope. They are the ones most likely to pull you towards that slope from which there is no return. It is the ‘soft’ evangelicals that are the greatest threat to evangelicalism. That certainly is a common view among those who describe themselves as ‘hard’ evangelicals.
3.2 A suspicious culture
If it is the case that those closest to us are the most dangerous, then we will need to be suspicious. We will need to always be vigilant, always on the lookout to see whether the person walking with us is truly ‘one of us.’ We will need to know whether we can trust them; that they won’t lead us (or others) towards the slippery slope.
This culture of suspicion manifests itself in various ways, for example, in attitudes to Tom Wright. Tom Wright is one of the world’s leading evangelicals, but because of the perception of subtle and therefore dangerous differences of interpretation, he is labelled as unsound or dangerous or a heretic. Even being a Moore College lecturer, student or graduate does not immunise one from suspicion or from being rated ‘untrustworthy’.5 At a deployment meeting for clergy looking for curates, Phillip Jensen was heard to warn the gathered clergy to be careful of students graduating from Moore College as not all of them ‘think the way we do!’6
In letter after letter and conversation after conversation, people have told me of encountering this attitude of suspicion and non-acceptance. Rather than being warmly embraced as brothers and sisters they are kept at arms length. The sad thing is that pretty much everyone gets this treatment. Those who are closest theologically to those who exemplify this culture are being taken aside and told, ‘We are not sure we can trust you or that you are one of us.’ Those further out are quickly and easily dismissed as unworthy of engagement or respect, often not even considered Christian. I have even heard them described as ‘cousins’!
3.3 A politicized culture
Fear and suspicion are the drivers of a highly politicized culture. For many years, the Anglican Church League has been committed to putting its own candidates onto Diocesan committees and into positions of influence in the Diocese. In this endeavour, it has been spectacularly successful. Diocesan committees are now filled with people who are either members of the ACL or ACL approved.7 Synod debate is dominated by people approved by the ACL, and although it is true that Synod is normally conducted in a good spirit, and is chaired with grace and humour by the Archbishop, it has become an increasingly compliant body and less so a place of robust debate.
The politicisation of the Diocese goes beyond its committees and Synod. Back in the 1990s, REPA initiated a strategy of cleansing the boards of other institutions to make them more acceptable to the dominant Sydney ethos; for example the boards of St Catherine’s, Waverley, New College and Robert Menzies College, or of organisations such as AFES and SU.8
What is so worrying about this politicization of culture is that politics and political means can too easily usurp Christian principles of leadership and relationship, resulting in a kind of gospel utilitarianism. If the outcome is a good gospel outcome, then the means are justified!
3.4 A monochrome(ising) culture
Fear, suspicion and politics are helping to create an increasingly monochrome Diocese. The residual colour and variety of the past is gradually but surely being extinguished. Alternative models of church life are harder to find, and will be in the future if something isn’t done to turn this culture of fear around, if current policies around the appointment of new rectors are not reviewed.9
There is increasing pressure to conform to ever more narrow definitions of acceptability. I keep on hearing stories (and have encountered some of these first hand) of people being ‘warned off’ other people or churches, being told not to attend events where ‘unacceptable’ people are speaking or where alternative points of view are being put. Not only is this unacceptably paternalistic, it inhibits open and honest scholarship and contributes to a culture of fear. People are afraid to associate with people who are different; are made to feel that they are wrong even to listen to alternative points of view!
3.5 An un-self-critical culture
The final characteristic of this sub-culture that I and many others find problematic is that it is more adept at criticising others than it is at accepting criticism of itself. From liberalism to post-modernism, from the New Perspective to the Emerging Church movement everything is critiqued. But what I have found to be seriously lacking is robust and non-defensive self-criticism. We (and I include myself) have been blind to our own weaknesses and limitations.
The theology favoured by the sub-culture I have been describing is reactive in character, but what so often happens with even justifiable reactions is that they become over-reactions. I was amused and saddened recently to hear of a young preacher who was preaching on a passage filled with references to the Holy Spirit and didn’t once mention the Holy Spirit (presumably for fear of being thought of as Pentecostal)! The problem with such over- reactions is that the Christianity produced is truncated and diminished. Fear of Pentecostal emotion creates emotionally constipated forms of faith. Fear of liberal slipperiness stifles theological creativity and inquisitiveness. Fear of the social gospel leads to socially disengaged, compassion-lacking and environmentally apathetic churches. Fear of feminism creates conditions where women are again repressed and their gifts devalued. Fear of postmodernism and the emerging church movement cements into place modernistic and intellectualist forms of Christianity. All such fear impedes the ability of a church to engage in healthy and on-going reformation of its life and doctrine – in line with the spirit of Luther’s adage, ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’.
What I find most disappointing, however, about this culture that I have been describing is that it appears to be unaware of how divisive, unloving and hurtful it is. The fear of one’s nearest theological neighbour is fracturing the unity that we have in Christ, a unity that we are enjoined by Scripture to express, strengthen and celebrate. Fear of theological difference and its consequences has produced a dismissive and disrespectful culture where people’s feeling and beliefs are too often being trampled on.
The overwhelming theme in almost all of the letters and conversations I have had both before and after the sending of the Open Letter is that people are disturbed by the continued existence of the culture I have described. This includes people within the administration itself. In fact, I can only think of a handful of Christian leaders within the Diocese who are happy (or at least unambiguously happy) with this culture that I have described. For me, that is a very positive sign. It means that our Diocese is actually filled with people who would like another way – who would like to be encouraged to embrace their brothers and sisters, even those they have differences with; who are ready to acknowledge their own weaknesses and shortcomings of belief and practice; who want to be known for their love (as Jesus said his disciples would be known). A friend of mine recently came back from a conference overseas, and at this conference were Christians of all colours and shades. My friend was blown away by how warmly he was accepted as a Christian brother. His comment, ‘They were looking for what unites rather than what divides.’ Our Diocese could be like that!
What do I think is the way forward? Strangely enough, I think the way forward is already being taken by increasing numbers of people within the Diocese. The way forward is for all of us to renounce fear and to embrace love, grace and trust – trust in God and trust in each other. Join me in praying that God would increasingly fill us with the fruit of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, humility, gentleness, self-control, and that by having this fruit in greater abundance Christ would be honoured and his mission advanced. Pray that God would make us a love driven rather than a fear driven Diocese.
Rev Dr Keith Mascord
- This impulse finds expression in individuals and organisations within the Diocese or connected (loosely or otherwise) to the Diocese, for example, the ACL, MTS or Matthias Media.
- For detailed summaries of the concerns, see the reports of the 5 advisors.
- Sharpening this fear has been a book by Fr James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), which describes the gradual, but irreversible secularization of formerly Christian colleges and universities in the US, a significant factor in this being the acceptance of ‘soft’ members who were open to extra-Biblical influences; effectively compromised gospel directed scholarship.
- A former student of Moore describes his experience: ‘I found a general level of competitiveness and ‘you’re out till you’re in’ that made college a hard and bruising place. A couple of conversations I had fairly early on knocked the wind out me, so to speak. Friends and people I had looked up to … were, I was told, ‘on the outer’ and ‘not to be trusted’. When I asked why, it was on the basis of others saying that this should be their approach. I was shocked that the network had such a powerful effect. This wasn’t people merely being ‘not liked’. They were considered dangerous, heretical, etc with no basis I could see (they continue in fruitful ministry in the diocese now).’
- At this June 2006 meeting, a big part of the session was devoted to pointing out a range of unacceptable positions with implicit pressure put on the assembled clergy to be suspicious of students ‘influenced’ by the Tom Wright or the New Perspective or Karl Barth or anyone at odds with the approved Sydney position.
- An estimate from someone who has tried to work this out is that 70% of all contested positions (on Standing Committee for example) are members of the ACL.
- The existence and effects of this strategy could easily be documented. I know of numbers of people who heard it articulated.
- Parish Nominators are instructed to begin their search for a new Rector within the Diocese or, if unavoidable, among those who have come from the Diocese. Only if this search fails, an other evangelicals be considered. Exceptions to this policy apply to existing non-evangelical parishes, but the experience of these parishes when they have sought to find a Rector or curate is that the Diocese has been anything but helpful. Moreover, current Diocesan policy is that if any of these parishes becomes non-viable, an evangelical will be appointed, which, more often than not will mean a Sydney evangelical.