FRACTURES in the Australian Anglican Church on the issue of gay clergy are set to boil over at a national meeting of bishops in early March, prompting Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson to miss the event and accuse Sydney diocese of leading a breakaway conservative movement.
The emergence of a “para Anglican Communion” was underway, Bishop Thompson said in a letter to Anglican Primate Archbishop Philip Freier in December, in which he declined to attend the annual bishops conference in South Australia from March 6 because it would give the impression of a united church that conflicted with reality.
He accused Sydney diocese of demanding other dioceses sign up to Anglican protocols on homosexuality, or Sydney would not attend any further national bishops’ conferences.
Bishop Thompson’s letter followed a Sydney Synod resolution in October against Australia’s first female Anglican Bishop, Kay Goldsworthy, for appointing an openly gay priest in a long-term relationship with a man to a parish in her diocese of Gippsland.
Bishop Goldsworthy was considered an early candidate for the diocese of Newcastle in 2012 before Bishop Thompson’s appointment.
The resolution in October noted Sydney Synod viewed the actions of Bishop Goldsworthy as “a breach of collegiality and fellowship at a profound level and which deeply grieves us”. The resolution included that it be circulated to all Australian Anglican bishops and assistant bishops.
Sydney Synod also singled out Bishop of Wangaratta, John Parkes, for breaching “collegiality and fellowship” and “grieving” Sydney diocese after he told the media same sex marriage was compatible with scripture.
Prominent evangelical Sydney Anglican priest David Ould described the Sydney resolution as “robust”, in a blog in which he said Bishops Goldsworthy and Parkes were “undermining the Biblical doctrine of marriage and human sexuality”.
The resolution included “praise to God” for the recently formed Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) in Australia, associated with the global Confessing Anglicans movement based on strong rejection of female and gay clergy and same sex marriage.
The Sydney Synod resolution “recognised, encouraged and supported” Anglicans who felt “disenfranchised” by the actions of Bishops Goldsworthy and Parkes.
Reverend Ould said the reference to the FCA in the resolution was deliberate and “reminds those reading that alternative structures, both formal and informal, are now available for those disenfranchised by these actions”.
The Sydney Synod resolution was “obviously substantial” and would “impact upon the growing tensions over this debate within the Anglican Church of Australia and particularly within the Bishops’ meeting”, Reverend Ould said.
In his letter to Archbishop Freier in December, Bishop Thompson said while the fellowship of bishops was important, “the environment at the bishops conference is not conducive for furthering our shared sense of ministry together in the Anglican church”.
“I note the recent demand by the Diocese of Sydney to sign up to protocols or they will not attend any further national bishops’ gatherings,” Bishop Thompson said.
“This is a little inconsistent given the protocols of courtesy and recognition of jurisdictions by the Diocese of Sydney which have ceased many years ago.”
Bishop Thompson noted that Sydney Diocese had actively supported the development of conservative and evangelical churches on the Central Coast and in the Hunter without consulting Newcastle Diocese.
Newcastle Assistant Bishop Peter Stuart will represent the diocese at the conference.
Bishop Thompson has strongly supported the need for cultural change within the Anglican Church after evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children over decades, knowledge by church leaders, and the failure of the church to adequately respond when survivors sought help, support and compensation.
In a public apology in June last year to survivors of child sexual abuse in the Hunter, Bishop Thompson said: “Not only did we not support them when they came forward, but we fostered a culture that intimidated them and kept them silent.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is investigating the diocese’s handling of abuse cases over decades.
In a statement in response to questions from the Newcastle Herald, Sydney Archbishop Glenn Davies confirmed the Sydney Synod resolution had been circulated to all Australian bishops and archbishops.
“They are all aware of the concern, not only of Sydney but also of bishops in other dioceses, about the alleged departures from Faithfulness in Service and the protocols,” Archbishop Davies said.
While the bishops conference was not a Synod, and he did not expect a similar resolution to be voted on, Archbishop Davies said “we certainly expect the issue to be fully discussed, as the bishops always seek to work collaboratively and respectfully in collegial fellowship”.
The archbishop did not respond to questions about Reverend Ould’s claim the reference to the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in the Sydney resolution was deliberate, and it provided an alternative for Sydney diocese if it left the existing national church structure.
In a statement Archbishop Freier said he was not aware of any proposal to organise an alternative bishops’ conference.
He had “no reason to suspect that the environment will not be conducive to a shared sense of ministry”.
“Of course it is important that the Church is a safe place, including for bishops. But discussion at these conferences, while sometimes robust, has always been respectful,” Archbishop Freier said.
“The bishops enjoy meeting together and find it useful. Archbishop Freier expects that to be the case at the March meeting.”
Bishop Goldsworthy did not respond to a Herald request for comment.
The gay Anglican priest appointed to a Gippsland parish in August, Reverend David Head, said he was distressed by the “ongoing harassment of myself and the bishop”, although he had been a priest in good standing within the church for decades, had worked in parishes in Melbourne, and had been in a relationship with his partner for 20 years.