Australia says no to women bishops

Published November 1, 2004

Conservatives dominated the Anglican Church of Australia’s triennial General Synod, where delegates declined to allow female bishops, blessing ceremonies for gay couples and the ordination of homosexual men and women.

The synod, meeting Oct. 2-8 at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, also passed a motion supporting the traditional definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

The triennial governing convention also unanimously approved a set of national rules that will govern clergy and church workers who interact with children. The so-called “safe ministry check” will include a questionnaire with inquiries about criminal history and a code of conduct and behavioural guidelines.

One initiative that the conservative diocese of Sydney — with 52 members a powerful force at the 235-member conference — introduced did not gain wider support, that of allowing lay people to preside over the eucharist. The church agreed to continue the discussion, but no action was taken.

Synod also decided to limit the next primate to a three-year term while the church considers appointing a full-time national bishop with no diocesan responsibilities. The current primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley, who is also the bishop of Perth, retires in May. Currently, as in Canada, the primate serves for an open-ended term, with a mandatory retirement age of 70.

The vote on women bishops was close, with a total of 62.5 per cent of the delegates voting yes, but falling short of the two-thirds, or 66.6 per cent, needed to pass. Bishop Jeffrey Driver of Gippsland, who introduced the bill, said his support “comes from my reading of Scripture and a conviction about the gospel.” Dr. Muriel Porter, of Melbourne, told The Age newspaper that in defeating the initiative “the church has made a grave mistake. I won’t give up, I will keep struggling for it and praying for it.” The archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, led opposition to the move, saying that “what is at stake is the whole of our belief system — that is what holds us in place as a church of Jesus Christ.”

However, Bishop George Browning of the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn said his area will be seeking legal advice as to whether it may elect a female bishop anyway. “Our diocese is disappointed and even a little distressed because we have overwhelming support for women bishops,” he told The Age.

As for the votes on homosexuality, Rev. Jill Varcoe of Canberra and Goulburn, said that negative statements by the church increases violence against gays and lesbians. However, Rev. Sandy Grant of Sydney argued that “to deliberately hallow such God-forbidden relationships is to approve sin.”

After synod, the church’s general secretary, Bruce Kaye, acknowledged that synod had divided into factions. “We’re in retreat at the moment, definitely. We’re scattering. Yet as the theological politics and styles become more diffuse and fractious, at another level we are being forced together,” he told The Age.


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