Sydney Anglicanism

Sydney Anglicanism March 1, 2013

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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