June 2005 Agree to disagree

Is silence the only option for dissenting Sydney Anglicans?

When the New York Times predictably portrayed the new Pope as a tyrant, conservative polemicist Michael Novak riposted: “Catholics do not praise, admire, or aspire to unquestioned obedience… since God implanted in us the drive to understand (even little children are born with the drive to raise questions) it would be a sin against nature to stifle questions”.

Can we substitute Sydney Anglicans in Novak’s statement? Like the new Pope we are painted by some as narrow and controlling. Like him we have strong views that are unpopular in the world.

Sometimes being in an organisation while holding strong views can be uncomfortable. At the end of a Moore College lecture on women’s ordination I caught up with a fellow student outside. “I wanted to ask a question,” she said, “but my husband is a Sydney candidate”. For her, holding strong opinions was definitely uncomfortable at that time.

It would take a surveillance organisation as large as East Germany’s Stasi secret police to remember every lecture room question at Moore. But it’s fair to say that setting up a branch of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in the college would not win you a popularity award.

On the other hand, wise leaders in Sydney Diocese see the dangers in trying to have too narrow a focus. Long time Anglican Church League guru Bruce Ballantine-Jones told Chris McGillion (in McGillion’s new book The Chosen Ones) ‘hotheads’ made a major error in leaving supporters of Harry Goodhew off their ticket for Standing Committee in 1993. As predicted it lead to the formation of a rival ‘blue ticket’ in the elections.

If you happen to disagree with what you perceive as the ‘Sydney Line’ from time to time – and realistically, who doesn’t? – then you have a couple of options.

The first is to be aware that you may be wrong. When I have been in this situation I have got stuck into the Bible to really check things out. Secondly – a distant second in the case of this columnist – you might still be convinced you are right after a fair bit of step one. Then you will need a place to express your point of view and hammer things out.

A third option is ‘silence is dissent’: You may have a minority view – for example a belief in seven-day creation in a church that doesn’t tend that way – and for the sake of unity you choose not to talk about it. This is true submission.

Respectful disagreement in a church community can be a good thing. As the Proverb has it, ‘men sharpen men as iron sharpens iron’. Our clergy are well trained to debate whatever we pew-sitters can throw up. A mission-oriented church has to be good at inviting questions, so start practicing now.

John Sandeman has been making smart remarks about Sydney Anglicans for years. This column might force him to be more careful. But as a long term Fairfax employee he is used to being put on trial for his faith, sometimes gently. His regular pew is at St James’, Croydon, which is not to blame for his attitudes.

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