Sydney Anglicanism

This post is by Brian Harris, whose contact information is at the bottom. Sydney Anglicanism is the rough parallel movement in Australia to the NeoPuritan or NeoReformed movement in the USA. Sydney Anglicans have become a forceful evangelical movement, and it has become also a common target of criticism. I asked Brian Harris, noted theologian and balanced, peaceful Christian leader and professor, to examine the new book sketching this new movement. 

Michael Jensen’s Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2012) makes an interesting read. Being a Baptist in Perth (about as far away from Sydney as you can get and still remain in Australia), I hope I was able to read the work with neither the self congratulatory ease of a convert, nor the spluttering wrath of a detractor. And let’s make no mistake about it, when linked together, those two little words Sydney and Anglicanism tend to provoke strong reactions.

Sydney Anglicanism is an insider’s defence of the movement – and with his father Peter Jensen a former principal of Moore College and current Archbishop of Sydney and his uncle (Phillip Jensen) the Dean of Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral, it is hard to imagine a more privileged insider than Michael Jensen. To be fair, Jensen readily acknowledges his lack of objectivity (7) and hopes simply to demonstrate ‘that the Sydney diocese is nothing like the monstrosity that its detractors think it has become, but also is not an idealized New Jerusalem of evangelicalism either’ (7). Only an insider would think that the second caricature was a risk.

I’m curious for responses to the review and to what’s going on in Sydney Anglicanism.

Lest you think that the book’s subtitle An Apology indicates an intention to say sorry for the hurt and divisiveness that Sydney Anglicanism has caused, think again. This is an apology in the classic sense, and provides a rigid rationale for the positions adopted by the movement. True, there are brief moments when Jensen wonders if things could have been done a little better, but anyone hoping for serious introspection or existential angst will be bitterly disappointed. As he writes, ‘the vigor of the opposition has made Sydney Anglicans battlehardened. They are toughened by bad news. They are used to ridicule. They are not shocked by invective against them. Insult them all you like; it makes little difference’ (174). And indeed, as you read the book you will hear Jensen acknowledge the occasional error, but the subtext is clear – ‘it makes little difference’.

So what are the charges Jensen defends this controversial sector of Anglicanism from? They are charges that flow from being a movement that clings to its historic distinctive of being a particular kind of Anglican: Protestant, Puritan and Evangelical, to choose Jensen’s terms. Within the evangelical label, one should add Reformed, opposed to the ordination of women and anti-charismatic. One should also note that this is a highly political movement, Jensen’s take on it being, ‘The subject of ecclesiastical politics is frequently associated with Sydney Anglicans, not because they invented it, but because they have been remarkably good at it’ (160).

Jensen starts by disputing that Sydney Anglicans are fundamentalists, noting perceptively that ‘“Fundamentalist” is a playground bully among words… it usually means “a religious person who is more conservative than me, and in an irritating way”’(13). Not that Jensen is immune to using his own bully words, and is quick to accuse opponents of being on ‘the extreme liberal wing’ (21). Jensen is content to be called a fundamentalist if that means ‘sticking to the fundamentals of the Christian faith and submitting to the authority of the Scripture’ (24) but worries that the ‘term is being wielded in order to marginalize the Sydney position on a number of hot button issues’ (24). These issues include the ordination of women (no, no and no again – Jensen calmly noting that after 15 appearances on the synod agenda since 1977, in 2006 it decided against even discussing the matter (126)); gay marriage (Archbishop Jensen provoked a widespread outcry over his statement on the Australian TV programme Q&A that ‘As far as I can see… the lifespan of practising gays is significantly shorter than the ordinary so-called heterosexual man” (10 Sept 12). Despite his protestations to the contrary, the statement was seen to be heartless and simplistic); and lay presidency at the Eucharist (which Sydney Anglicans affirm).

To fill out the portrait of Sydney Anglicans think of a movement wedded to the expository preaching of Scripture (57) and one which argues for propositional revelation – Jensen providing an interesting but not altogether convincing account of what he understands by that term in chapter 4 of the book. Pull this together and you have a view of scripture so high that Mark Driscoll suggests, only slightly tongue in cheek, that “For Sydney Anglicans the Trinity is the Father, Son and Holy Bible.”

Driscoll’s critique of Sydney Anglicanism, delivered in the Cathedral itself, is worth reading. He suggests that there are 18 things blocking Sydney Anglicans. . It’s typical Driscoll stuff with the occasional gem in the midst of many oversimplifications and much arrogance. His ‘what’s wrong with you’ points include  “Christian Australian Men are Immature” (point 4) and “Many of you are Anglican” (point 9)!

Driscoll’s feisty attack highlights a dilemma for Sydney Anglicanism. One would have thought Driscoll a sympathetic ally of the movement (and in his own way, he is) – but if this is how your friends speak of you, paranoia is understandable. In one way and another, Sydney Anglicans seem to have irritated almost everyone. Be it Driscollites, charismatic evangelicals (and Sydney is also home to Hillsong), moderate evangelicals (of the non-Reformed variety), or liberals, the stories abound.

Perhaps in a curious way the hostility constitutes a muddled compliment. Whatever you think of the movement, you can’t just ignore it. In most parts of the Western world, Anglicanism is slipping quietly away. You might well ask if Sydney Anglicans are actually Anglican – and perhaps they are closet Baptists. You might worry that Sydney Anglicans will ferment an irreparable split in the Anglican Communion – and the chances of that are high. You might even throw in a Driscoll-style criticism that there are a lot of number 2 guys in number 1 spots – which is probably true everywhere. Whatever your take, at some point Sydney Anglicans will capture your attention.

Ah well – enough said. Hopefully what’s written will whet your appetite to read Jensen’s provocative book.

Brian Harris

Dr Brian Harris is principal of Vose Seminary, Perth, Western Australia.

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  • Merv Olsen

    As a youngster my parents sent me to an Anglican church in Albury, NSW (Australia) where the liturgy was extremely `high church`. I was even pressured into being an altar boy but after a number of months gave the whole deal away. All my time in this church I was totally unaware of the real truths of the Christian gospel. I was truly converted watching a Billy Graham TV replay as a young school-teacher.

    Sir Marcus Lawrence Loane KBE (died in 2009) was the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney from 1966 to 1982 and Primate of Australia from 1978 to 1982. It was chiefly his work that got Billy Graham to first visit Australia in 1959. From that Crusade came many of Australia’s great preachers and teachers.

    Later on I came to understand that `low church` Anglicanism (mainly Sydney Anglican models) were very much more alive with the Gospel and resonated with much of my Baptist beliefs.

    As a Baptist Pastor for 27 years I frequently had people from Sydney Anglicans join my congregations because they didn’t get fed in the local high church Anglicans.
    I know that Sydney Anglicans have their weaknesses but they have also breathed fresh air in many places throughout Australia.

    Let’s not forget that one of the greatest N.T. scholars in the world today is from Moore College – Dr Peter O’Brien – his commentaries are astoundingly brilliant.

    Another great ambassador has been Dr Phillip Jensen, Dean of Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral – his 25 minute lunch-time time sermons are nothing short of amazing – he covers a huge amount of material simply and concisely. I led a men’s group 4 years ago that used those he did on Genesis 1-11. To a man everyone was blessed at his exegetical skill and lucidity. By the way these are available on the internet for free.

    Yes – Sydney Anglicans have some problems … but their blessing to Australian Christianity ought never be underestimated!

  • The thing I really struggle with is that on every point, when you question why Sydney Anglicans hold the position they do, you are closed down and dismissed as a heretic! That wouldn’t matter too much (I guess we all have that tendency), except that they claim the Bible as the rationale for all they do. When others engage in debate about what the Bible actually says, I’m sorry to say that many Sydney Anglicans are guilty of actually changing and distorting the text of scripture.

    This suggests that something other than the Bible itself is shaping their theology, and I think they just need to be honest about that.

  • Dans

    Umm. Was there supposed to be a review of a book in this piece? A balanced and peaceful one at that?

  • Worth reading Tony Payne’s excellent and incisive review in the latest Briefing. The definitive picture of Sydney Anglicanism has yet to be written.

  • scotmcknight

    Dans, if you have something to say, say that. You insinuate without substance.

  • Thank you for presenting me to these guys. I think I like them. And I like Driscoll too. Obrigado e um abraço!

  • scotmcknight

    Gordon, do you have a link?

  • Mary

    It is interesting to note the new church planting movement rising from the soil of Sydney Anglicanism.

    Named Geneva Push – you can easily find them on the web.

    Not only does this new movement have an ex-Anglican Sydney Bishop Al Stewart as its Director, it also has many many Moore College graduates in it’s number. Moore College is the Sydney Anglican Theological School.

    Its leading members include men who served in Sydney Anglican churches.

    Read its website and it has not only 7 positive doctrinal positions and 11 more defining what being Reformed means and then 3 more that give their interpretation of what it means to be missional.

    BUT it has 18 (at the last count) things that Geneva Push entitles “What does the Geneva Push not ( not being in italics ) believe.”

    I find myself amused that number 16 starts off…”We are not polemicists….”


    What is fascinating is that Geneva Push is a little like McDonalds. Expect it soon to be opening a site near you…and I suspect it will not only be in Australia.

    It is interesting to note Their development

  • Mary

    The key speaker at Geneva Push gathering in 2012 was New Testament scholar Don Carson whose topic was The Implications Of Complementarianism for number six of Geneva Push’s “non-polemical” polemical statements is: “We are not Egalitarians but do believe that men should be heads of their homes and male elders should lead their churches with servant minded love like Jesus Christ. We believe that this is expressed in the public assembly by only inviting godly and gifted men to preach.”

  • Robin

    So from the review I can glean 3 things (1) they are against women’s ordination (2) they are against gay marriage and (3) they are reformed.

    Is that the entirety of the case against them? I am not familiar with this group but those three things seem to be the gist of the loathing.

  • Michael Jensen

    Well – it is nice to be read and reviewed, I guess: but Brian seems to be reading a different book than most reviewers! Indeed, as the comment from Gordon Cheng reveals, the book has been seen as less than satisfactory to many insiders because it is too self-critical.

    Despite Brian’s comments, I did actually write the book to provide what I hope is a clear-eyed and self-critical view of Sydney Anglicanism as well as a defence and clarification of their position on a number of issues – and even a call to adjustment and moderation.

    I only have one other protest: I think it is unfair to say I am ‘quick’ to use ‘bully-words’ in my one comment about extreme liberalism that I use of one of Sydney’s most aggressive opponents. I don’t think that person would necessarily see that description as an insult or a bully-word and might even describe themselves as such. I was (believe or not) extremely careful to use moderate language about Sydney’s opponents.

  • T


    Don’t forget anti-charismatic!

  • Michael Jensen

    BTW – I don’t mention gays in the book at all, or (from memory ) charismatics. So it is funny to have those issues raised here!

  • scotmcknight


    I’m not an Aussie, nor a Sydney Anglican (though I am Anglican), but many would say your “self-critical” is but mild and minor concessions. The recent dustup over women in ministry around John Dickson and Mike Bird did not, in my opinion, witness to the capacity for genuine self-critical thinking about the issues.

    Over the years I’ve had a few reviews where I wondered if the author read my book. Brian read your book and he reveals what I have myself learned: not only that people read from different locations but that there’s something to learn from those different locations.

    Give my regards to Joshua Ng if you see him. One of my all-time favorite students at TEDS.

  • As a fellow Baptist Perth-ite I have a distant though close view of the Sydney Anglicans. I’m a little baffled as to why QandA and Driscoll feature so prominently in the book review here, as they (from memory) were not mentioned in the book. It all adds to the snarl which seems unnecessary. In my opinion, Jensen is much more critical of Sydney Anglicanism than Brian seems to suggests, which I happen to think goes beyond the original scope of the book anyway. The book clearly and evenly explains what Sydney Anglicanism is and why, and it is for this reason it should be read, not because it is provocative. Here is my review of the book:

  • Michael Jensen

    Thanks Scot – the recent dust-up over Dickson (much less so over Bird) is interesting. I am not sure it is easy to make a call about it from across the Pacific, with respect! I think it was actually good sign, mostly: there was some mature reflection and discussion and most of it was carried on in a serious but dignified spirit. People hold convictions and strongly, and express them: well, whaddya know! That’s surely allowable. Sometimes it isn’t done well on the internet, but that’s standard everywhere. The fact that Dickson, himself one of the much-maligned set, wrote the book surely demonstrates that all is not as unreflective as it seems here in Sydney town.

    You mention being an Anglican: I think that’s an aspect that Brian’s review didn’t really dwell on. Much of my account of Sydney Anglicanism was to do specifically with its ‘Anglicanism’ – is it validly Anglican and so on. Unsurprisingly, this was not of much interest to this reviewer.

    Of course, what you say about different reviews and locations is right.

  • scotmcknight

    OK, Michael, an offer: find an appreciative review and I’ll post it on this blog.

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, what in the world time is it over there?
    By the way, while I do respect your location in Sydney I don’t think the dustup over women showed anything even peculiarly unique. This is an old debate with new faces and distinct locations, but it’s still about hermeneutics, exegesis, and pastoral theology.

  • Michael Jensen

    Sure, Scot –

    Graham Cole’s is not uncritical, but generally positive:

    I wasn’t seeking that kind of offer, I hasten add. It is very nice to have someone like Brian take the time to read and write and for you to think it is worth posting about. My comments are simply meant in the same spirit in which the review is offered. If you don’t want to get critiqued, don’t write books!

  • Michael Jensen

    It’s 2:30 am here!

  • scotmcknight

    I’m thinking of something not yet published.

  • Both the praise and criticism of Sydney Anglicanism is strongly connected with its coherence as a movement. For example, Steve Addison (a Baptist-background church planting thinker) makes similar points to Brian’s above, yet includes Sydney Anglicanism as a positive example of “commitment to a cause”, one of his five characteristics of a missionary movement (his other example in this case is Methodism). His words are pretty apt here: “Movements clearly define who they are and have an agenda for change. That brings them into tension with others.”

    The challenge that Sydney Anglicans pose to all of us is not so much, “Do you have a more credible Christianity?” but more, “What impact is your Christianity having?”

    (I’m an Aussie, non-Sydney, non-Anglican, who’s worked with Sydney Anglican exports in Adelaide and Melbourne.)

  • Mary

    In response to Arthur Davis I have to ask: 1. How many decades after a movement do we determine: “What impact is your Christianity having?”

    On that basis forget about good theology let’s just find whichever preacher gets the most response and go with him. Anyone for following Benny Hiinn?

    Sorry Arthur but not only do we see the implications of movements decades after a movement, but there also is the negative impact from any Christian movement. And only the Creator Covenant God of Israel, Father, Son and Spirit, knows which negative reaction is from the hardness of human hearts and which is from a wise or not so wise theology or perhaps a humble or not so humble epistemic humility.

    For myself I have a like/frustration response to Sydney Anglicanism. There is a list of “likes” for me and an equally long list of (sometimes acute) frustrations. While not a Sydney Anglican nor Reformed theologically they are the most influential and more rigorously thoughtful environment I find influencing my immediate geographically-circumscribed worlds.

    On the top of the long list of “likes” is a move I see among some of their influential younger scholars towards a posture of epistemic humility…this is so important to any virtuous theology.

    But there also is a frustration that whether in student circles or church planting some of their enthusiasts ( as opposed to scholars ) seem to manifest the complete opposite of epistemic humility…

    And therein lies a major paradox…one can only hope that folk exhibiting epistemic humility – John Dickson and Michael Jensen – being two that come to mind, can soften the strident certainty that so often is offensive. I have no difficulty with the Gospel giving offense but too often among some evangelicals it is not the Gospel giving offense but the epistemological underpinnings of their particular “non-theological hermeneutic” which is more the child of the Enlightenment than realize.

    Perhaps my most important

  • Andy

    I am a pentecostal (with a seatbelt) from Australia (not Sydney). I’ll be honest I think this review does focus on the negative rather than the positive. I think the influences of Sydney Anglicanism and Moore College have generally had a very positive effect on our country. Look I support women in every ministry and I am strongly arminian (with flourishes of open theism here and there). I also embrace the spiritual gifts for practice in everyday life. So these perspectives stand at odds with many of the Sydney Anglicans.
    However SAs have stood for Jesus (as God and King) when many other Anglicans in Australia have leaned towards the watered down mush of Spong.
    Sydney Anglicans have also produced great Christian resources (that don’t have a reformed bias) for students and schools. In Australia…schools are allowed to offer scripture discussions and classes for parents that choose this option. The vast majority of schools across Australia that offer this option for students…uae the resources from the Sydney Anglican youthworks program.
    SAs have blessed our country in this way.
    Sydney has also been the breeding ground for intelligebt men like John Dickson. In Brisbane, the Anglican Churches that I personally know that are worth attending (e.g. don’t water down the resurrwctiom or embrace some kind of poetic pluralism) are led by Moore graduates.
    Anyway thay’s my two cents…from a NT Wrifht loving, equlaity in ministry endorsing ,Arminian.

  • Martin Kemp

    Mike, Tony’s main issue wasn’t that you were too self critical, it was that you missed the centre of who we are because you allowed the detractors to set the agenda. While we all agree that you made excellent rebuttals of our major critics, (achieving what you set out to do) I think Tony’s points were legit and ring true in their description of what’s actually driving much of what happens here. As such, Tony’s description is probably an even better place to start when criticizing what’s happening both inside and outside the diocese.

    The briefing review will be published online sometime later in the month.

  • Brian Harris

    Good to see that this post has generated a fair amount of discussion, and great that Michael Jensen has also participated.

    A few clarifying comments. Rightly or wrongly, my understanding of my brief was to review Michael’s book and to do so while giving a bit of a feel for the broader context of Sydney Anglicanism – especially as many might be unfamiliar with it. So my comments did indeed go beyond the strict boundaries of the book, though I thought it was fairly obvious when this was the case (for example, when pulling Driscoll into the mix). I was also given the option to write either a careful theological critique of the book, or for a more general audience, and I opted for the latter. This helped me to select which aspects of the book I highlighted.

    Is the review essentially negative? Perhaps I could have spoken of the positives a little more, but as I am not in the habit of suggesting people read books I consider to be rubbish, I felt that my closing encouragement to read the book was significant praise. Lest it was missed, let me say again, I think this is a book worth reading.

    I am a little surprised that Michael and some others find the book more critical of Sydney Anglicanism than I suggest. I can only say that I found the critique moments to be essentially minor – perhaps that reflects my bias, and my assessment that the overhaul needed is fairly major…

    And Michael, I definitely read the book – on a flight back to Perth from Sydney to be precise. So be flattered that I found your book more interesting than the many available movies.

  • Merv Olsen

    Thanks Andy (24) for giving good examples of how SAs have blessed our country of Australia.

    As a Baptist pastor involved in Religious Education in Primary (Elementary) Schools, I too can bear witness over a number of decades how SA materials have been used by many school communities on an ecumenical basis i.e. all the denominations follow the same RE curriculum.

    Two names very much associated with SAs are John Chapman and Michael Bennett – their evangelistic tools have been used by thousands of Christians over a wide variety of denominations.

    From 1968 to 1995 the late Rev John Chapman was an evangelist and during this time he was deeply involved in many aspects of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. His evangelistic booklet “Two ways to live” has been used by thousands of Australian Christians to present the `King Jesus Gospel`.

    Rev Michael Bennett (SA trained) is the author of the evangelism course `Christianity Explained`, which is now spreading around the globe. In a country like Australia where a best-selling Christian book may top 5,000 copies, `Christianity Explained` has been purchased by over 50,000 Australian believers. More significantly, feedback indicates thousands have come to Christ and joined the church through its low-key, user-friendly approach over the last 20 years.
    Christianity Explained gets away from the quick one-off presentation of the gospel which has characterized much of our evangelistic efforts in the past. Based on six studies from Mark’s gospel, this ‘manual’ is a tried-and-tested tool for evangelism. It presents the challenge of Jesus in a way that is non-threatening and concentrates on the facts concerning the person and work of Christ. It begins with the assumption that the hearer knows absolutely nothing about Jesus or the Good News.

  • Michael Jensen

    Can I also clarify: I didn’t suggest you hadn’t read the book (at all), I was just noting how different your review was to others. Sorry bout the misunderstanding there.

  • Agreed, Mary!

  • Joshua Guo

    It seems like Jesus walks into the realm of the Federal Parliment Canberra …
    kingdoms crash into each other,
    and outcome
    yet to be assessed.

  • Leslie

    You’ve asked for a response to this review and an opinion on what is happening with Sydney Anglicanism. I’ve not read the book, so I hesitate to say to much about the review, but I do have an opinion on Sydney Anglicans.

    I am now Sydney Anglican, and have been so for about three years. We moved here from Texas seven years ago. My husband and I love our small groups, and we are thankful that our children have found a small community of friends that attend church locally. Our church congregation is lovely and largely unaware of Sydney Anglican leadership squabbles.

    Sydney Anglicans are most advantaged by beautiful buildings in wonderfully strategic locations in a crowded city with little parking. They are also helped by an influx of enthusiasm of laypeople from the very charismatic movement their leaders eschew. And a host of Christians that have relocated from overseas and across denominational lines into their “low Anglican” churches. In the recent church life study our solidly Sydney Anglican congregants classified themselves first as evangelical and then second as charismatic! Their leadership seems very unaware of these two sources of momentum inside the Anglican church. I find the people from these churches to be wonderfully good samaritans within our community though their ministers might think they lack the solid theological foundation of the Priest or Levite.

    Austrailians as a whole do not do a very good job of family ministry. Their ministers are not trained to do the kind of teamwork that kind of ministry involves. We realise this every time we take our children back to Texas and attend church with my Baptist family and other friends who attend megachurches in the Dallas and Austin areas. Churches in Texas better equip parents to disciple children. Anglicans use private schools which do a standard job of educating and evangelising the children of economic and religious elites–Those who can afford to send their kids on hour and a half commutes across town to very expensive Anglican private schools. Their private schools, though, on the whole probably result in a net loss to the Christian community, when it comes to discipleship. They are incredibly expensives, taking away family resources of time and money that could better be spent at the local church.

    I also found this link instructive:

  • Martin Kemp

    Hi Mike,

    I feel that I went after you a bit in my last post. Needlessly. Sorry.

    What I like about your book is that you are generous in your response to those criticizing the diocese, and to do that well we need to listen and hear their complaints and be prepared to learn from what they say. We are then in a better position to defend ourselves. As you’ve said, both types of apology are needed.

    I guess what struck me about the Briefing review is that the suggestion of ‘gospel’ being the key organizing principle for an understanding of the diocese is, in my opinion, a good one, and offers for me a good next step in continuing the process of self-reflection that your book has started.

    You must feel a bit battered with some of the grief you’ve copped, but you have provided some very useful responses to our detractors. Keep writing!

  • mike wells

    as a SydAng minister, can I thank Leslie for the outsiders/insider perspective. Especially the observation that much of the energy in our congregations may come from quarters that are a little maligned by the leadership. I know personally our congrgation benefits from people from many different church backgrounds (not least the fact that they seem to appreciate ‘anglicanness’ more than those who have been there their entire church lives). God bless Leslie.
    Ps, what kind of stuff are the texan baptisits doing for the discipling of children? What can we learn from them?

  • Mike Doyle

    Michael J – you say “Indeed, as the comment from Gordon Cheng reveals, the book has been seen as less than satisfactory to many insiders because it is too self-critical.”

    I’ve read the Briefing review – and I can’t see anything in that review (or Gordo’s comment) that suggests your book is less than satisfactory to “insiders” because it is too self-critical.

    The base criticism of the review was not that it was too self-critical, but it left out the beating heart of our diocese.

    I am sure a book that is critical that pushes us to be more gospel centric would be welcomed by many.

  • Leslie


    I would not limit what some churches are doing in the area of family ministry to Texas Baptist, I think the churches that have adopted a family ministry approach (as opposed to ministry silos for children, youth, women, men) are having better success at evangelising their communities. And I think these churches exist in many forms and fashions. For one thing, they tend to be more focused and aren’t running their volunteers ragged. The best resources are coming from North Point Community church in Alpharetta, Georgia and their “spin-off” The Orange Group. One of the best innovations is having youth disciple children’s small groups. And small groups with a consistent leader that interacts with the same kids and the parents for at least two years at a time begins at age three. That way the child is fully integrated into the community by the time they enter High School. Also check out how they do infant dedications (infant baptism is the same opportunity.). They begin casting a vision for a strategic partnership between parents and the church at birth.

    Another book that is interesting is called “born believers” by Justin L Barrett. I think that title might put off Sydney Anglicans, all I can say is that whatever you initially think it is about … it isn’t.