Category Archives: Southern Cross

Sept 2006 They failed to consult me again

Unaccountably the Standing Committee and synod of this diocese have failed to consult me. Again. This time it is over the decision to change the word ‘priest’ to ‘presbyter’ on some internal church documents.

As these church regulations are hugely unread by anybody even Sydney Anglicans (whose favourite publication remains the Sydney Morning Herald despite and probably because it is regularly denounced in the most correct line of pulpits), who cares?

Don’t get me wrong. There are probably enough people out there who know that a priest is defined in the dictionary as someone who offers a sacrifice, to make it worthwhile to change it. Jesus is our great high priest and we only need one. Agreed.

But presbyter? Why do we need weird churchy-sounding language, even if it is etymologically correct to say that ‘elder’ not ‘sacrificer’ was what the 1662 prayer book meant to say.

What about ‘pastor’ or even ‘minister’ – the words most people use anyway?

“Hi, I’m xxxx, the presbyter of the church that meets down the road,” doesn’t get my vote.  The local branch of the Church of Scotland might be a tad upset with us.

If a church that has bishops can be called ‘Episcopal’ (from the Greek for overseer) and that’s the word some Anglicans overseas use instead of ‘Anglican’, then a church with presbyters could be Presbyterian. And is – down the road from you.

Which raises an urgent point. Well, urgent for this column anyway.

Some of the best and possibly more biblical ways of labeling things have already been used by other people.

The Uniting Church have just voted to call their ministers ‘pastors’. 
And couldn’t we get rid of the confusion about calling our buildings ‘churches’, by calling them, let’s see… kingdom halls?

And seeing that ‘church’ means the assembling of God’s people together let’s call our local branches ‘Assemblies of God’. Well that one just might be free if the name ‘Australian Christian Church’ replaces it.

I have always liked the way some charismatic churches call their church committee ‘the oversight’. I would like to be the author of a pew bulletin (or in their case a chair bulletin) that had to explain a mistake. I would call it ‘an oversight by the oversight’. It might be worth sitting through the repetitive choruses for.

‘Oversight’ is another term that is sort of Biblical but hardly practical in English.

Still, let’s not get stuck into others. We have lots of funny language. How many people call their presbyter ‘rector’ or ‘vicar’ or even ‘area dean’?  Well only to fellow Christians, not to outsiders.

The Synod motion is politically correct in a reformed protestant sort of way but it doesn’t go far enough.

Let’s talk about church in a language understood by normal people (a good protestant principle).

One good place to start slimming down our language would be honorifics. Do we need the titles ‘the Reverend’ (for a local pastor), ‘the Right Rev’ (for a bishop), or even ‘the Venerable’ (for an archdeacon)? The last archdeacon I met didn’t look too venerable, he looked like a normal bloke. And to be fair I don’t think the locals use ‘the Ven’.

The old language is gorgeous if you are a fan of Trollope’s 19th-century church novels. But most of us want things to be clear and not pompous. Which makes the use of ‘presbyter’ unlikely to move far beyond the walls of the diocesan headquarters at St Andrew’s House.


June 2006 A cold shower for Triumphalism

How to put ecclesiastical sandstone to good use

IF you are friends with a well-known Sydney Anglican, any well-known one will do, here is an early Christmas present suggestion for you. What about a picture of a large, tall, faux-Gothic 19th- century sandstone building?

Think of dappled sunshine on pointed arches, the city against the pinnacles, golden Sydney stonework.

No, not the rain shelter you are thinking of, but one plonked down on barren North Head. A thousand miles from care.

These days it is a hotel training school.  But once – some pewsitters will have guessed the provenance – it was St Patrick’s seminary.  ‘The Priest factory’, as the title of Chris Geraghty’s memoirs calls it.

In the early 1960s it was so full of young Catholic men that they could not fit in the chapel stalls. It seemed that there was an inexhaustible supply of students. The place was overflowing.

But by 1995 Judge Geraghty returned to an echoing institution that had almost emptied of students and was about to be decanted into much humbler premises, an old Telstra training site built along the lines of a country pub in the inner west. The last student was about to turn out the lights, or snuff the last candle.

As Geraghty tells it a ‘naïve and trumphalist’ church had allowed itself to become frozen. A flood of vocations had encouraged complacency. “It had grown smug.”

It could never happen to us, could it? A few pictures of St Patrick’s towering above Manly might just help prevent it. They would be a reminder that the graph does not keep sloping up, just because it has developed the habit, recently. 

A photo, drawing, screen saver or a bas relief of St Patrick’s would remind us that our diocesan-wide ‘Uluru’ (church growth and decline) diagram would explain just like parishes, pleasurable decline will tempt all in our Diocese.

Let’s pause here to allow some of you to point out reasonably enough that we are not Roman Catholic, clinging to Latin, and there is no Vatican II coming down the track to swamp us.

Rather it is to be expected that our temptations might come from a more contemporary direction. ‘God has been good to us’ is the pious mantra we hear when the numbers dance upwards. 

And it is true. When this happens our heavenly father has been, just, heavenly.

And an army of mostly unknown heroes has laboured for this harvest.

Yet close by these good things lurks the prosperity gospel (Sydney Anglican version). It goes like this: somehow we must be doing the right thing because God has blessed us.

Okay, we don’t actually think this, but there are times our thoughts drift that way. Or at least mine do. I might be the only one…

Naturally we would not think of money as proof of God’s favour on us. But an increase in Sunday attendance? The biggest church in the district – or the fastest growing one? You don’t have to be a Zebedee to want to be recognised as a good leader. 

So consider a gift of St Patrick’s for the study wall. Think of it as a virtual cold shower for our triumphalism.

Oct 2005 Already sick of the ’emergent church’

Is it just me, or is the news that America’s latest guru on how-to-do-church, Brian McLaren, is to tour Australia next year kind of ironic?

McLaren (who has sharp things to say about how colonialism has distorted the church) is a figurehead in what is being called the emergent church movement, and it is a sure bet that some of us will be sick of the word ‘emergent’ sometime during 2006, or earlier – possibly by the end of this column.

It is a broad movement, ranging from people who tinker with the look and feel of church for the millennium generation, to those who rethink theology. 
The theology begins to look like something you’ve read before, somewhere. That theological polymath, Don Carson, has written the self-explanatory Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, which is on the bedside tables of our trendier clergy. McLaren seems to me like so-last-century-liberal in some of his theology.

But of course, this column is not concerned with weighty stuff, rather the frippery of emergent church.

They don’t like church-as-performance. Mega church is not mega for them. Instead, they want participation. Some stuff that looks like ritual, or structure. They want to devise Sunday themselves.

The studied informality of the seeker church looks artificial to post-boomers.  It is not surprising that what might work for baby boomers would not work for those who come after.

It will be interesting to note how flexible those of us who have changed things prove to be when it is our changes under challenge.

Not unusually for this pewsitter, I made a leap of logic a moment ago. I summarised Don Carson’s book as though he had done the conventional thing and listed what was wrong with this movement. Instead, he tries to have real engagement with it.

He recognises that it is multi-stranded in a post-modern way and is ready to commend any good stuff they do. 
Carson is much admired in Sydney. I think his approach to emergents, who may well be flirting with problematic ideas as well some ideas that are useful, is worth adopting.

This is a time when conservative evangelicalism could be outgoing and confident. That’s one benefit of the diocesan mission. Like Carson, we don’t have to be defensive in the negative sense of that word when we meet something new.

In short, I wish Southern Cross had thought of the title of McLaren’s book first. It’s calledGenerous Orthodoxy. It sums up what we should be and are at our best.

Sep 2005 Beware bizspeak

Aged care is core business.” That’s how an Anglicare press release described their commitment to hundreds of staff and patients last month.

This press release was aimed mostly at Christians. But we are strangers and pilgrims in this world. And we speak a traveller’s dialect.

What about ‘we are committed to our aged care ministry because 1 Timothy 5 makes it clear that Christians must care for the elderly’? Or ‘providing aged care is how we honour the elderly’?

Biz speak is easy – ready made clichés for every situation. But maybe Christian organisations should not rush to use it. For Christians business is never ‘business as usual’.

‘World’s best practice’ is something we should be suspicious of, because the world is passing away. We have something better than the world’s best practice!

Business and church are different. Humility is prized in one, and not so much in the other. Biz speak is the language of measurement and control, which sometimes are magnificent tools. But they should not determine the vocabulary we use to talk about each other. We have a richer language, the language of the Bible.

We don’t have bosses and customers. We have deeper relationships: we have shepherds or servant-leaders and brothers and sisters. Our leaders don’t lord it over us. Yet it is a rare CEO that doesn’t have the big office or the big car. I know there are some and I hope Southern Cross readers are among them.

The Bible uses language that reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into our world. Sometimes, to this pew sitter, the deadly, bland language of biz speak reminds me of that other place.

Now some of you might be thinking I am too hard on biz speak. It is the language many of us use at work. Considering the demographics of Sydney Anglicanism that is almost certainly true for pew sitters, more than clergy.

But for every person in this town for whom the language of business has formed a soundtrack to some success in their career there are those for whom its circumlocutions have delivered much pain. The ‘downsized’ person, for example.

They may not figure as much as they should in our denominational rolls, but those who are poor in the eyes of the world have been chosen to be rich in faith. And such people are the focus of Anglicare. 

The Bible reaches people biz speak never will. So Anglicare, I must crave your patience in being twitted about your language. But we wouldn’t be Sydney Anglicans if we didn’t care so much about words, would we? 

August 2005 Is there an empty pew that needs you?

The warden from the Western Suburbs church was blunt. “Mate, it’s like being the ugly sheila at the dance.” He was answering a question from an assistant minister who had asked him how a church’s search for a parish minister was going.

“It was that comment that made me look hard at this church,” he says now, talking about the church he has since become minister of. He went home asking “Who needs me more: X [where he was happy as assistant minister] or Y [in the West]?

It’s a story that does this minister much credit, which is why he doesn’t want me to use his name. He doesn’t want to come across as a hero. That’s because he enjoys ministering to his people.

The dance goes on. Of the 12 parishes which missed out on hiring an assistant minister this year, six were in the West and three were in Wollongong.

This pew-sitter is forced to the reluctant conclusion that there are unfashionable pulpits in our Diocese. A moment’s thought is all it takes to begin to understand why. Some parishes are hard: poorly resourced with money and talent. With the new emphasis on mission and measuring numbers there is a new disincentive to serve in places where growth will be difficult.

Now just around the corner there’s the ‘Brendan Nelson’ solution. Just like the forceful Minister for Education, who has founded new medical schools to solve the country doctor shortage problem, Sydney has ramped up production of ministers. SMBC and Moore are bulging. And that’s really good news.

There’s 35 ‘candidates’ for Sydney ministry graduating next year from Moore. A bumper harvest.

Numerically, it appears that the problem will be fixed. Does this mean everyone gets to dance?

Yes, a dance or two. But we need longer-term romances. There’s a tendency for clergy not to stay in the West or other unfashionable places. To some extent they reflect the rest of us, moving house for better schools, or because of burnout.

Thankfully, some senior clergy have moved West. Dudley Foord (St Ives to Liverpool via South Africa) and Jim Ramsey (Bexley North to Liverpool) come to mind. Good on you.

Now some clergy persist in reading this pew-sitter’s column. So I know some readers will be thinking; “What about you lot there. Want to make a difference? Come to a parish that needs you.”

All of us in the pews should wonder whether there is a plastic chair that needs us more. Really.

July 2005 Why Southern Cross is a load of propaganda

We’re defensive about failure and this newspaper isn’t helping

“Lake Woebegon. Where all the children are above average.”

That’s the sign-off to US raconteur Garrison Keilor’s monologues about fictional small town life. It also fits the way we think in the un-fictional small town called Sydney Diocese.

“Southern Cross is just a load of propaganda” – the words came hurtling across my dinner table a few weeks ago. From a theological college lecturer, no less. I gave a feeble answer – much like this column – but I knew instantly they had a point.

All the children are above average in Southern Cross: the church plants never fail, evangelism always works, people in profiles never stuff up, and the Mission rolls on.

But we all know that isn’t true. It is time we had more failure in SC.

More stories of failure. More on how not to do things.

Some of this problem IS Southern Cross’s fault. Tougher questions – “What’s been your biggest mistake so far Archbishop?” – could be asked with more warts painted on the portrait.

But some of it goes to a curious defensiveness we Sydney Anglicans have.

An example is the reaction to the ‘Uluru’ survey that has been doing the rounds in some regions of Sydney. That’s based on the curious graph which looks like Uluru that has appeared a few times in this paper.

The survey divides churches into growing, plateauing and declining groups based on attendances and finances.

It is not a tough test. To be a growing church you need a 15 per cent increase in people and dollars over five years.

However, the results are a rude shock to some, and simply rude to others.

And boy did Southern Cross get a fierce reaction when it reported that certain parishes were in the not-so-good categories in the first two regional surveys.

So when a third round of Uluru came out this paper wimped out and only reported the parishes that did well. All the children were above average that month.

Nobody was well served by that. Not even those whose blushes were spared. Mission involves moving out of our comfort zones. So a newspaper that serves the Diocesan Mission will give us pew-sitters a true picture about what is going on.

It is unedifying to read only success stories. It not only discourages those of us who stuff up (like me) it also induces complacency in the rest. And finally it breeds cynicism.

A little brutal honesty would do more than spark up Southern Cross. It would make us more effective in mission as we deal with reality not fantasy. 
Let’s learn to celebrate our mistakes then learn from them. Then let’s go out and make some new mistakes.

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.