Lay presidency vetoed in Sydney

Published December 1, 1999

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia has refused to give his assent to a vote to allow trained lay people to preside at Holy Communion. In a two-to-one secret vote on Oct. 19, the Diocese of Sydney became the first in the history of the Anglican Communion to vote to allow lay people to preside at the Eucharist on a five-year trial period. But Archbishop Harry Goodhew said “having carefully and prayerfully weighed these matters I have decided to withhold my assent to the ordinance. I hope that members of the diocese will understand my reasoning even if they cannot share it. I hope that those elsewhere who may be pleased with my decision will exercise similar restraint when dealing with the moral issues on which the bishops at Lambeth expressed such a clear view.” Archbishop Goodhew said three matters were most important in coming to his decision. The first was the strength of the synod voting. “It certainly has great weight with me,” he said. The second is “my role as a bishop in this church.” As a diocesan bishop he said he is “bound to uphold the constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia.” The Archbishop pointed out that a 1997 opinion of the appellate tribunal, the highest legal body in the Anglican Church of Australia, said that an individual diocese did not have the power to pass an ordinance of this kind without the authority of a General Synod canon. “The impact on the Australian [Anglican] Church and the wider Communion” is the third area which weighed heavily on the Archbishop’s decision. Since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Goodhew has been active with a number of other archbishops and primates from Asia, Africa and South America, in calling on ‘liberal’ bishops in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. not to act unilaterally in giving approval of certain moral issues, which include the ordination of practising homosexuals and of church recognitions and ‘blessings’ of same-gender unions. “I am particularly sensitive on this point because I have been engaged since Lambeth with other parts of the Communion arguing against unilateral action over crucial moral issues and attendant theological norms,” Archbishop Goodhew said. “To act unilaterally myself and without wide consultation would undermine my credibility in those ongoing debates.” The ordinance, which has been on the synod’s agenda for some years was passed through its final stages on Oct. 19, the final day of sitting for this year. It passed with a strong vote in favour in both the House of Laity (224 for, 128 against, 1 informal vote) and the House of Clergy (122 for, 66 against, 2 informal votes). Since Archbishop Goodhew has declined assent to the ordinance, it lapses and will not come into effect. There is provision for a diocesan synod, if a bishop declines assent a second time, to refer the legislation to a meeting of the NSW Provincial Synod. If a synod makes such a reference and the NSW Provincial Synod votes for it, the ordinance would come into force even though the bishop declined assent. However, observers say this is unlikely to happen with Sydney’s ordinance, since there is no guarantee it would receive support in the Provincial Synod. At the October synod meeting, the author of the bill, Rev. John Woodhouse of St. Ives, stressed the importance of consistency in dealing with lay ministry. He said that, with increased lay involvement in the life of the church, “there is no sound reason” to prohibit them from presiding at the Eucharist because that “obscures the Gospel we preach.” He emphasized that “there are times when forms must change.” During the debate several participants expressed deep concern for the implications of the bill. Bishop Paul Barnett of North Sydney said that, while he was basically in favour of the bill, he worried about the impact it would have on the diocese’s relationship with other evangelical dioceses in the Anglican Communion. “Lambeth showed that the real strength of Anglicanism was in Africa and Asia. But the African and Asian churches derive their orthodoxy from the Book of Common Prayer and the basic conservatism,” he said. “My fear is that, by taking this step, we will effectively take ourselves out of the place of influence.” The issue has been simmering for several years and met with significant opposition. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has dismissed such a development on several occasions. And the House of Bishops of the Church of England, in its report on Eucharistic Presidency in 1997, affirmed the distinctive ministry of the ordained. The bishops said that there is an “essential link” between leadership in the community, for which a bishop or priest has been chosen, and presiding at the Eucharist. The report concluded that there are strong theological arguments for sustaining the inherited tradition that the person who presides at the Eucharist needs to be an episcopally ordained priest. “There is nothing in Scripture, tradition or reason to justify such a move,” said Dr. William Franklin, a layman who is dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. “It will obscure the important distinction, the distinctive character, of the office. It is part of the strength of Anglicanism that we make those distinctions,” he said. He quickly pointed out, however, that it is not a matter of one order being superior but it would irreparably harm the polity of Anglicanism to blur the distinction.”


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