Assistant bishops in the Diocese of Melbourne

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The Synod of the Diocese of Melbourne recently passed legislation which allows for the consecration of women as assistant bishops in the Diocese. I dislike the terms ‘women bishops’, ‘women priests’ and ‘women deacons’ because a person is either a bishop or not, a priest or not, or a deacon or not – their gender is immaterial. There isn’t a special group of bishops who are ‘women bishops’, just as the same as there is not a special group of men who are ‘male nurses’. There are women who are bishops, and men who are nurses. Beside point, however.

The reporting from the official diocesan sources (the media office and the Diocesan magazine The Melbourne Anglican) was quite triumphalist. I guess it is somewhat of a victory, and probably a good thing. I support the ordination of women to all levels of ministry. I don’t support riding roughshod over the concerns and objections of our concerned sisters and brothers, and I think the reportage’s tone suggests a real lack of concern for those people.

Here is the very carefully crafted, politically astute, report from The Melbourne Anglican:

Let’s do it! Dr Muriel Porter urged, and Synod did. By passing legislation which Dr Porter described as “the last stage in a process begun in this Synod 30 years ago” the final obstacle to the appointment of women bishops was removed. The Assistant Bishops’ Canon 1966 – which incorporated an obsolete definition of canonical fitness ruling out not only women but those with a deformity! – will no longer operate in the Diocese of Melbourne. New provisions inserted into the Assistant Bishops’ Act 1985 use the definition of canonical fitness given in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia: a person must be baptised, in priests’ orders and at least 30 years old.
Among the women who make up more than a fifth of this Diocese’s ordained clergy there are about 70 who would pass the test for fitness to be a bishop under this definition, Dr Porter said.
Speaking to a motion welcoming the Appellate Tribunal’s recent decision that there is no legal impediment in the way of women bishops, Dr Porter gave thanks for 21 years of ministry by ordained women in the Diocese and looked forward to their Episcopal ministry in the future. She also called on the Council of the Diocese to prepare submissions on protocols for pastoral ministry for those unable to accept women bishops’ ministry.
“We have been, and are, greatly blessed in this Diocese by the ordained ministry of experienced, gifted, wise and godly women,” Dr Porter said. “First and foremost today, we give thanks to God for this rich blessing.
“Now we are ready to move to the next and final stage, the stage that brings back together the three-fold order of ministry that had sadly become severed during the long, conflicted debate of the past few decades. Our Church has always held to the three-fold order, and seen it as a seamless garment. Although every deacon would not become a priest, it always remained a possibility, if not the norm; and every priest was able to answer the call to the episcopate, should it ever come.
“Now, with the welcome opinion of the Appellate Tribunal that women are not barred from the canonical fitness definition, the three strands of ministry can be knit back together again.”
Seconding Dr Porter’s motion, Archdeacon David Powys said that 10, or even five years ago, he would have had difficulty in doing so. His reservations however had not come, as some might believe, from the biblical texts.
“I, with many, concluded that certain of Paul’s instructions applied only to the peculiar time and setting in which he ministered, when some behaviour connoted things which none here would say they connote today,” Dr Powys said. “I found other passages with enduring, though difficult application – these speak of the husband’s leadership in marriage, though not, I believe, of male leadership of the church.
“The latter theme possibly bears only upon a situation where a wife exercises spiritual leadership in relation to her husband – and could be an issue for women vicars or priests-in-charge with husband parishioners, but not really anywhere else – including I suspect women bishops with husbands in their episcopal care. In reality in a loving Christian marriage issues of leadership, let alone headship, rarely if ever are relevant.”
He had been a “slow embracer” because he found some of the past arguments advanced in favour of women bishops “unconvincing and even unhelpful”, Dr Powys said.
“It was sometimes suggested that the move towards the ordination of women as bishops was advancing too slowly. The first women were ordained priest in 1992. I found this argument unconvincing in the late 1990s and not very convincing at the Brisbane General Synod in 2001 – less than nine years after the first ordination. But it is now 15 years. That is well and truly sufficient time.”
He had also worried about the risk of illegality, Dr Powys explained, but such a concern had been removed by the General Synod ruling of September that there was no legal impediment. Finally, there had been “most positive arguments for proceeding becoming evident for all to see:
“We have seen women lead parishes effectively and well for the time that matters – the long term!
“We have seen women exercise diocesan leadership competently and with particular female grace – over the long term!
“We have witnessed the leadership,” the Archdeacon concluded, “which shows that women can and should be bishops amongst us!”

Here is a response from Bishop Michael Hough, of the Diocese of Ballarat, which has a very different take on the matter:

The beginning of the end of a Province?

The Melbourne synod recently met and among its activities was a decision to declare that a provision in the Provincial legislation no longer applied to Melbourne. This was a part of the requirements for canonical fitness for the appointment of assistant bishops. What Melbourne is trying to do is to prepare the way for an appointment, early next year, of a woman into Episcopal ministry.   That woman is, I am sure, already chosen. But that is not the point.

Why the Province is going to struggle to survive is that the Diocese of Melbourne went ahead and unilaterally decided that a piece of provincial legislation no longer applied to them. It was an inconvenience but rather than take it to a Provincial Council and seek a change, they simply declared that they would no longer be bound by it. Not bad that, though I see much the same logic applying to far too many in Melbourne when it comes to the Bible as well.

What Melbourne should have done was consult its Provincial partners. However, that did not suit Melbourne as they are driven by the politics of the day and there are people down there who see the side issues of Church as being far more important than the first level issues – Proclaiming the Gospel.  

That is nothing new. For the last six years (and possibly longer) Melbourne has ignored the rest of the Province – with the exception of some much appreciated drought assistance. All attempts at working together to shape effectively the structures of the Province for mission have been shelved, mocked or ignored.   It is almost impossible to have regular Bishop’s meetings as one or other of the Melbourne regionals are busy, have to leave early and almost inevitably arrive late (and then we have the constant telephone calls dragging people out, helping us to appreciate that city ministry is far more important than rural ministry). 

The notion of a Victorian Province has been a sham for some time. Melbourne’s recent processes just hasten the inevitable and we will have to look for different ways of allying ourselves.

We live in interesting times.

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