Sydney Anglicans: An Insider’s View

Sydney Anglicans: An Insider’s View March 16, 2013

This review of Michael Jensen’s Sydney Anglicanism is by Arthur Davis,

Sydney is another country

A good friend of ours, a Sydneysider, was en route to Melbourne when she stopped at a roadhouse. Casually making conversation, she mentioned, ‘I’m from Sydney’. The response: ‘Ah, too bad!’

Our friend was a bit dumbfounded: it’s not that she necessarily sees Sydney as the be-all and end-all, yet Sydney was her world, and to find indifference and even hostility in another Australian was a cross-cultural experience for her. And it’s often a cross-cultural experience for other Australians to encounter Sydney. Sydneysiders — Christian or otherwise — can seem like a strange species to other Australians. There is a ‘Sydneyness’ that can be jarring to those outside Sydney.

My own contact with Sydney Anglicanism is through its exports. I’ve worked alongside Sydney expats in Adelaide and Melbourne, and Sydney expats have contributed to my own formation. I’ve admired their energy, diligence, and ability to motivate and organise people. At times I’ve been perplexed by their stubbornness, pedantry and inflexibility. I’ve been impressed by the coherence of Sydney Anglicanism as a movement, and as an expression of Australian Christianity. It’s organic but with a highly developed institutional backbone (e.g. Moore College, MTS, Matthias Media). There’s a strong self-identity coupled with a consistent style of self-talk.

Michael Jensen’s chapter about Sydney’s character as a city forms one of the most fascinating parts of Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology: ‘She’s a sea-beast wearing mascara; a snake showing a bit of leg. She has a come-hither gaze and a murky heart.’ There are tantalising cultural observations in these early pages as Jensen sketches the history of the city, its addictions to work and power, and the appeal of pragmatism.

In this melting pot, Sydney Anglicanism has grown up with ‘a one-eyed determination to survive — because the expectation is that no one else is going to cut you any slack.’ This is an intriguing insight of An Apology, and, to outsiders, this battler sensibility is one of the more bewildering features of Sydney Anglicanism. Jensen frequently urges his fellow Sydney Anglicans not to fall prey to defensiveness, and this is obviously a cultural challenge, not just a theological one. If there is something innately combative about Sydney Anglicanism, the cultural anthropology of Sydney could go a long way to making Sydney Anglicans more understandable to friends and detractors alike.

An insider’s view

An Apology is an insider’s view, and this is the book’s great value. Jensen writes as a ridgy-didge Sydney Anglican who’s comfortable in his own skin. An Apology isn’t just a string of rejoinders to critics, but an exemplar of how Sydney Anglicans actually think and speak. For example, the chapter on ‘biblical theology’ explores the evolution, content and method of Sydney Anglican theology. It’s fascinating to hear of Donald Robinson’s intellectual integrity and generosity of spirit as he responded to non-evangelical voices, and Jensen ends the chapter in the same spirit with several challenges to his home team. Anyone who wants to understand or interact with Sydney Anglicans should make use of An Apology as a recognisable point of reference.

Sydney Anglicanism’s detractors are the starting place for several of Jensen’s chapters, and Jensen spends a good deal of time answering published criticisms. In a sense, these detractors set the agenda for An Apology, but this is appropriate: this is an apology, a defence, and it was not written for Sydney Anglicans alone. For example, while Sydney Anglicans care a great deal about evangelism, this is not necessarily how others perceive them. Chappo was certainly a much-loved evangelist and storyteller, but the sort of character Sydney Anglicanism is known for is probably the Bible teacher or the trainer — so it’s appropriate that evangelism doesn’t really feature in An Apology. If insiders leave An Apology feeling unmoved, it could be because they’ve misunderstood the genre.

An Apology is not only a defense, however. Jensen writes in Sydney Anglican terms and categories. On one hand, this might seem strange to outsiders: for example, the chapter on expository preaching reflects a lively discussion within Sydney Anglicanism itself, yet it’s a discussion which outsiders may not perceive as important or even interesting. On the other hand, this enables Jensen to address Sydney Anglicans themselves, offering both encouragements and warnings. At several points, Jensen warns Sydney Anglicans against becoming the caricature which others attack. For example, he recommends that the term ‘propositional revelation’ is worth replacing, so that Sydney Anglicans do not fall into reducing ‘the business of God’s revelation of himself to the bare declaration of facts, to which the proper response is merely a kind of cognitive assent’. Where Jensen’s self-critique is perhaps most pointed is in regards to Knox-Robinson ecclesiology. Sydney Anglicans might take others to task for over-realised eschatologies, but Jensen shows how their approach to church may itself be overrealised: it is not thoroughly eschatological enough, so it doesn’t fully grasp the imperfection of our church gatherings, and therefore isn’t fully aware of the necessity of the Spirit’s transforming power.

Many of Jensen’s criticisms seemed muted from my point of view, but I’m not an insider, and I know (or at least, I remind myself) that it’s always easy to take pot-shots from the outside. It’s the insider’s voice that I want to respect here. Wider-ranging or sharper criticisms would probably not be understood by insiders, and I trust that Jensen knows his home team well enough to judge the angle. Outsiders probably won’t feel like they’ve had their say, but to ask for other criticisms would be a subsequent discussion, and a different book.

Sydney Anglicanism’s shrillest detractors don’t seem to be conversant with real live Sydney Anglicans. For the non-Sydney, non-Anglican reader, the great value of An Apology is in hearing a Sydney Anglican respond to criticisms in his own terms. There are of course questions to be asked of Sydney Anglicans, but if these are to be of any use, they need to be connected with a Sydney Anglican voice. This is exactly what An Apology provides: an authentic and fruitful starting place for conversation.

Arthur Davis is an intercultural worker living in Tanzania and writing at

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