On the avoidance of ecstasy

I recently had the privilege of living in London for an idyllic summer month. It was with some ambivalence that I attended some local parish churches for Sunday morning communion. I had seen enough of the magnificence of Anglicanism on earlier trips with orchestral mass at St Paul’s or evensong at the Abbey. I found myself anxious nonetheless about stepping into a community of worshippers that was not familiar, was not mine, even though the theory of Establishment means the local parish is open to all.

What I found was exceptionally ordinary; small but diverse congregations, priests whose good cheer was in inverse proportions to the number of congregants, grand old buildings that were out of all proportion to their contemporary use.

Each Sunday was straight out of an episode of Rev. There was the ancient lay reader, the environmentally conscious churchwarden, the intercessor self-cast in the role of vicar’s pet, the worshipper who wanted to be left alone at all costs, the couple who tidied up compulsively, the haughty server who was the only one who knew how liturgy really worked. In one case, there was a stunning choir of just four young voices who surely wondered why they were being paid to sing renaissance masses to God on behalf of a congregation of thirty.

Each Sunday I struggled to go. My excuses were myriad: these were not my communities; worship felt like hard work; I didn’t want to be the constant stranger; I didn’t want to be looked on hopefully as a future parishioner; I wanted to sing the bass line to the hymns and not stand out; when I say “holy” I say “wholly”, not “hoe-ly”, and in England you can hear it a mile away.

And yet, each Sunday morning, wondering what future there was for these struggling congregations, wanting to help that couple clear the space of the detritus of centuries, trying to discern the love of God and love of neighbour, I found myself in tears as the gospel light dawned, as the truth was glimpsed, as heaven and earth met together.

These were utterly unanticipated moments of ecstasy, in which priest and people were transformed in all humility into the image of what God calls us to be.

Gradually I realised the reason I found it so difficult to go was the revelation that this ecstasy, this divine communion, happens not because of deep roots in a particular community, or a worshipper’s strong ego or profound faith, or a priest’s guru-like capacity to inspire devotion, but solely because of the miracle of grace that God gives wherever two or three are gathered, even where they are strangers.

Some would explain away such ecstasy as a psychological response to natural phenomena, others would suggest it is unimportant because it is the intellectual assent to the precepts of scripture and the magisterium of the church that matters.

Such explanations miss the point. After all the experience of ecstasy is not something to be desired in and of itself. It is too exhausting, too challenging, even too embarrassing. In her novel Cousins (1983, p. 82), the late Monica Furlong wrote of her character Laura’s struggle with artistic creation:

A deep boredom had settled upon me as it always did towards the end of any major piece of work, just before the final burst of energy and enthusiasm and the delight of finishing. I had mentioned this once to a fellow-sculptor who had said, in the most matter-of-fact way “It’s to save yourself from the ecstasy, isn’t it?”

Laura and her fellow artists could not live with ecstasy all the time. Boredom – discipline? – is necessary not to prepare for, but to avoid the gut-wrenching, heart-rending experience which human beings cannot endure.

Furlong’s words remind me of the habit my parish seems to have of putting me down on the intercessor’s roster on Pentecost. In accepting this responsibility, I wrestle with my desire to avoid as far as possible using the words “Come, Holy Spirit”. For what if the Holy Spirit actually came? Anything could happen! And how could we ever endure that moment of ecstasy, of divine union, of complete transformation?

The truth is that this ecstasy is unavoidable, on ordinary Sunday mornings in ordinary communities, when the church does what it has always done in response to the command to remember the one who saves us. The Holy Spirit does come; the good news is proclaimed; and we are offered a glimpse of what truly is.

And this is why it is hard to go to church.

 

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Dear Bishop Richard

Dear Bishop Richard,

I learned today of your intention as an Anglican bishop to participate in the consecration of a new bishop to serve in Scotland, a bishop who will minister in opposition to the Scottish Episcopal Church because of that Church’s recent decision to permit the marriage of same-sex couples.

Your letter to your brother and sister bishops in Australia is admirable in taking responsibility for this decision, and addressing some possible outcomes. I know you understand that this action comes with grave consequences for your fellowship with the other Australian bishops, and has serious implications for our Scottish brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion.

Now, I am neither a bishop nor a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, so the politics of what has been described as a cross-border intervention have less direct resonance for me than they may for others. But I acknowledge that my own counsel to other bishops, faced with what they have understood to be a first-order gospel issue, has been to act on principle, in contexts as diverse as the ordination of women or the support of refugees and asylum seekers.

My prayer for Anglican bishops worldwide has been that they – that you – might be articulate, aware, and heard as you explain your actions. Recently I wrote of my hope that, in this tender and furious matter of sexuality, Anglican bishops might recognise that “acting with integrity and honesty would be a good start.” (Peter Sherlock, “Making Decisions”, in Kaleidoscope of Pieces, ed. Alan Cadwallader, Adelaide: ATF Press, 2015)

I acknowledge that, while we disagree on this matter, you are indeed acting with honesty and integrity. I know you wrestle daily with the scriptures, and take your episcopal calling with the utmost gravity it demands. I pray that we may remain in fellowship – before, during, and after the consecration ceremony later this year.

And so, please be assured of my prayers and love in Christ for you, for the people of Tasmania whom you are called to serve, for your colleagues in the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, and especially for Scottish Episcopalians.

But if I may, I ask that in all that lies ahead, you might find ways to invite same-sex attracted people into the heart of your deliberations. Modelled always on the witness of Jesus, who brought the margins to the centre, may you not merely listen, but wrestle with us about the costly questions of sexuality and theology, and be willing to learn from us as we, too, wrestle with the high price of unity in Christ.

Yours in Christ,

Peter Sherlock

Petertide, 2017

 

 

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Testament of Mary

I first encountered the work of Irish author Colm Tóibín in January 2013. I was on holiday in wintry Dublin, looking for a book that might draw me away from my usual delight in lengthy plot-driven novels to something more poetic, where beauty might be found in a single phrase that could be revisited. The Testament of Mary fit the bill perfectly. Its underlying narrative tension was further fired for me by the theological question as to whether this literary invention was a destructive assault on Christianity or an authentic reflection on its deepest truths.

It was thus with a mixture delight and trepidation that I attended the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the Testament of Mary in February 2017. Was the text as gripping and confronting, terrible and true as I recalled? How would witnessing this performance in the company of others change my reaction to Tóibín’s Mary?

The wonderful Sydney Wharf Theatre created an unanticipated opportunity to eavesdrop as other patrons took their seats. Naturally enough, these self-appointed experts exchanged their perspectives on Mary.  In a week dominated by the testimony of the Catholic Archbishops before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it was no surprise that the Catholic church was ridiculed. (Protestants also got a pretty good serve for avoiding the subject of Mary altogether.) Christendom’s Mary was perceived as the product of power-hungry men who idolised Mary, placing her on a pedestal with robes and crown, and inventing strange doctrines concerning her birth, pregnancy, and death to explain how she was unlike any other woman.

Well, fair enough, although my inner cultural historian wanted to interrupt to point out how often Church doctrine on Mary has followed, rather than led, popular devotional practice.

More interesting was the absence of any discussion of whether Mary had ever actually existed. Thus, even before the play had begun, the audience had prepared itself to hear the “authentic” Mary of history.

And so we began. Alison Whyte’s performance was utterly gripping, building a emotional crescendo of revelation from beginning to end. This was theatre at its best; some simple props, minimal choreography, and thoughtful use of sound and light that kept a tight focus on performer and text.  What emerged was an authentically conflicted voice that revealed Mary as, above all else, a human being. Whatever bonds others put upon her behaviour, her words, her thoughts, this Mary exercised her free will to make sense of her own life.

Theologically the play engages directly with Christian understanding of divine inspiration in scripture and tradition. Tóibín argues that the biblical canon was deliberately framed by men. These zealous disciples wished to control and purify the content and meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching in order to change the world into a kingdom made in their image. Mary, in contrast, remembers the detail and emotion of actually being there. Her ulterior motive is not to build an institutional identity but solely to record her memories of love, loss and grief. I found myself thinking of recent scholarship and devotional writing that has recovered the untouchable Mary to reappraise her as the first disciple, as conflicted and confronted as subsequent generations of Christians.

The deepest challenge for many churchgoers comes when Tóibín’s Mary discloses that she fled from the Cross just before Jesus had died. This shatters the traditional image of Mary the faithful mother, the mother who endures through the cutting pain of her child’s suffering and death to the bitter end. The theme of stabat mater dolorosa remains – many in the Saturday audience, myself included, shed tears as Mary described what it was actually like to witness the crucifixion – but it is cut through with the betrayal of the mother who leaves to save her own life knowing her son’s will shortly end.

For some Christians, this is where Tóibín goes too far. Doesn’t the inerrant Bible teach that Mary witnessed her son’s death? Actually, strictly speaking, it doesn’t.

The Testament of Mary is heresy only in the ancient sense of the word: choice. It constitutes an open invitation to reimagine Mary and the earliest Christians as humans whose concerns were at once larger and smaller than our own. It is a work of art that is both terrible and beautiful in its commentary on the hatred and love that we unfailing find embedded in all human societies. And it is profoundly theological. The play’s final words confront directly one of the most difficult truths of Christianity – why would God save this?

If I had one criticism of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production, it would be to ask that next time this show is performed, it’s done in a church, and scheduled during Lent. Mary deserves no less.

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Retrieving the Ancestors

Almost as soon as I could read and write, I displayed a keen interest in genealogical research. I distinctly remember being about 6 years old, taking a texta and large sheets of butcher’s paper, and drawing up family trees from the book of Genesis. It was only much later I discovered this was actually quite a common practice in early modern Europe. Indeed, I retain a great fondness for Archbishop Ussher and his seventeenth-century contemporaries who used scripture, archaeology, and ancient genealogies to try to produce a comprehensive chronology of ‘world’ history from Creation to the present day. An early interest in Egyptian history was related as much to obsession with pharoanic genealogies as to the glittering attractions of golden masks or towering pyramids.

This desire to see how the pieces of the puzzle could be visualised and connected was undoubtedly related to that other great memory of childhood – reading the scriptures. Our evangelical parents had conducted family prayers for as long as I could remember. But my brother and I could not understand why we jumped around from one bible chapter to another, when our bedtime stories were read from cover to cover, front to back, left to right. So at about the same time as I began drawing biblical genealogies – in the spirit of what I would come to know as the expository preaching of the Reformation – we demanded of our parents that we treat the scriptures like any other book, begin at the beginning, and read a chapter a day right to the end. (We stopped about three years later, I think, somewhere around Ecclesiastes.)

When I was 9 or 10 and living in the USA, I read Alex Haley’s Roots. While I only dimly comprehended its narratives of slavery, race and the American dream, I responded strongly to the sense of tradition, of memories that survived the degradation of time and oblivion, to explain who we are and, perhaps, where we might go next. My parents purchased a corresponding board game from one of those countless great American cultural institutions, in which players had to name a particular ancestor (‘your maternal grandmother’).

This led to asking some simple questions. What were my grandparents’ names? My grandfathers I knew: Charles, because my father was Charles Jr, and Mick, because he had died before I was born. But my grandmothers were Nana and Grandma, and it was only then that I discovered they were  Emily Elizabeth and Joyce Marjorie Hope. What wonderful names! almost as good as Methuselah or Keren-happuch.

On returning to Australia later that year, we made the ritual pilgrimage to Sydney for Christmas. Grandma gently and generously told me what she knew, which was considerable, of her family history, including names of parents, grandparents, cousins and occasionally second cousins. My aunt Sandra introduced me to library research, and the treasures of birth, death and marriage records that in those days could be revealed by the miracle of a microfiche reader. Great-uncle Mel provided copies of family newsletters and correspondence that linked us back as far as the sixteenth century. And so the great obsession was born.

Thirty years and a couple of history degrees later, I am still retrieving the ancestors. Digitisation, automated indexing, online communities and now DNA testing have transformed the practice of genealogical research. Yet I remain compelled by those earliest questions: where did we come from? how do we connect to each other? what were the turning points that brought us into being? And, as I now watch the next generation grow up, how do we hand on this knowledge? How do we tell the stories of our ancestors in new ways that meet the needs of our own times?

With these questions in mind, and with a desire to practise a discipline of daily writing, I am reviving this blog. My aim is to tell some more of these stories, in a way that hopefully communicates across time, place, culture, and generation, and, I trust, attends to differences of context, judgment and meaning.

And if I do find a link back to Adam and Eve, I’ll be sure to draw you a chart.

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Second to None: A Tribute to Barbara Darling

Barbara Darling died last Sunday, 15 February 2015, aged 67. Like so many others, I am mourning the sudden and untimely loss of a friend, mentor, colleague and bishop.

For me, Barb Darling had always been there. She is the first person I remember outside the family, as she lived across the stairwell from us at Ridley College when I was three. Barbara the Queen’s Guide was there for my first day of cub scouts. Barbara the historian was there for my first book launch. Barbara the Senior Canon was even there to present me for installation as Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in a moment neither of us could have foreseen. To me it seemed only natural that Bishop Barbara was, if not my godmother, my Mother-in-God.

Because of who she came to be, Barbara’s life is inextricably linked with the extraordinary story of the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, a theological event that defined her vocation and ministry. Some twenty years ago I interviewed Barbara as part of research I was conducting on the early ordination debates. I am still struck not only by how ready she was to tell her story, but also by how articulate she was about what it all might mean.

Barbara was deeply conscious of being first. Yet, in a world obsessed with women who came first, it is worth recording that Barbara Darling often came second.

In 1986, she was in the second group of women ordained to the diaconate in Melbourne. The ceremony, held on Ascension Day, was mercifully free from the bomb scare that disrupted the first ordination of female deacons. And as this second ceremony was less likely to be subject to yet another legal challenge, Archbishop Penman was daring enough to whisper ‘and sisters’ every time he addressed the ordinands as ‘brothers’ .

In 1989 when she became deacon in charge of the parish of Ascot Vale, she was the second woman in Melbourne appointed to run a parish, following in the footsteps of Marjorie McGregor at Northcote. And finally, in 2008, she was the second woman to be consecrated a bishop in Australia, just a few days after Kay Goldsworthy was consecrated in Perth.

As I reflect on the years that led to these life-changing events, I see that Barbara was second to none in facing up to the great challenge of the first generation of ordained women. It is difficult to explain how profoundly challenging it was for these women to respond to God’s call on their lives when for so long the Church was unable to understand and then to honour that call. This calling flew against the received wisdom of both Church and world. Receiving a renewed wisdom required an extraordinary degree of openness, a preparedness to question assumed truths about the scriptures. This process of discernment pushed Barbara and her sisters into leadership roles for which there was no precedent.

Barbara was unusual in being willing to discuss her own struggle with the question of the role of women in the church with others in public. When the newspapers came around to Ridley College in 1975 and 1976 to ask why on earth highly educated women in their 20s were studying at theological college with no prospect of ordination, she was prepared to answer honestly their well-meaning but baffled questions. This honesty set her on the path to becoming a role model. This was a ministry she fostered and grew throughout her life, and an identity which empowered her to step up to new challenges for the sake of those who might follow.
In 1995 Barbara offered me this observation:
I didn’t have any role models of women within the Church, and I think that’s something about the whole early group of us … there were women around, but it wasn’t that you saw women in parishes … And I see that as one of my roles, of the roles of the others of us who were also first, to be role models, for the other, younger ones that are coming through. And that’s exciting.

Being a role model was at the centre of Barbara’s ministry. Since her death, many women have spoken of her encouragement, her support, and her criticism in the hard work of discernment. But crucially, Barbara understood that the Church was not a place to stand still. The point of being a role model was not to turn future generations of women into clones of herself, but to open the gate to new possibilities, new ministries, and new ways of proclaiming the gospel. Barbara was open to what the second, and third, and fourth generations of clergywomen might be called to be:

And they’ll be different, and they are. And they often want to go a lot further than we did, because we think it’s extreme to get to certain places and then they take that for granted and they want to go further on. That’s interesting.

I have no doubt that one of the most devastating aspects of her untimely death is the knowledge that the Church has lost a role model, a mentor, a great encourager of others. We know in our hearts that new generations of women – and men – will now be deprived of the benefits of her counsel, her challenge, her support.

Barbara’s commitment to being a role model flowed directly from her own experience. Like her sisters in ministry, she took an incredible risk to study theology full-time without knowing where it would lead. She was a school teacher and librarian with a promising career ahead of her, and yet at the beginning of 1975 she resigned her job to move to Melbourne, away from family and friends, to take up a place at Ridley College. As she put it:

It was a real step of faith … I was giving up a really good job with really good pay and nice holidays to go off to pay to go to College to learn about, you know, Sunday school stuff.

Within two years, she found herself with a ThL and on the first of a series of one-year contracts as a lecturer and librarian at Ridley, that led to another ten years working in theological education. As a staff member of the College, the Principal, Dr Leon Morris, expected and encouraged her to preach, a new experience for her – and for the College.

Barbara took up the task of preaching with a humble authority, willing from her earliest sermons to reveal her own hesitations. On 22 August 1976 she preached at Ridley College Chapel on 1 Corinthians 12, and took as her theme the role of women. She reviewed the well-known New Testament texts on the role of women in the Church and home, and on the relationship between husbands and wives, men and women. It is one of the earliest surviving records of her theological reflection on the issue of women’s ordination. This is what she recorded in her speaking notes:

I can see a role for women helping men by exercising gifts of preaching, teaching, and encouraging others and to me this does not go against the great Biblical principles of Genesis 1:22 and Galatians 3:28 – that we have been created by God in His image and that we are all one in Him. I can see a role for team ministry – but husbands have authority over wives – wouldn’t deny that – but joint together in Christ. Not denying Pauline passages within a family situation. Need for the freedom to trust and submit. Therefore culturally and socially I together with many others wouldn’t like to see a woman over men in control of a parish single handed – but no theological reasons against it.

Barbara’s views on these matters continued to develop and change in future years, not least before she herself first accepted the call to be in charge of a parish, single handed and with authority over men. The significance of this sermon is that Barbara was willing to express her doubts, to criticise her own cultural assumptions and to work through a rigorous theological process, even in the earliest days of her preaching ministry. As she put it on that occasion, ‘Still thinking this through – pray you will do so too.’

Barbara was passionate about searching out and proclaiming the gospel – the good news – for women and for men. Her sermon on the role of women began and ended with this passion, providing the context for her consideration of the New Testament injunctions concerning women in the Church. This is how she began:

[We are] created male or female – like to look tonight at the gifts God has given the church: to men and women – for upbuilding of church.

And this is how she ended:

Pray that above all we may be united in the spirit, working together to build up God’s kingdom using the talents or gifts God has given us.

The challenges faced by Barbara and her sisters are evident in the story of her 1981 selection conference for the Diocese of Melbourne. Melbourne had been selecting women as ‘candidates for ministry’ since 1974. The problem was, no-one really knew what they were being selected for, and what they would do once the period of training was completed. As Barbara put it:

I really prayed that by that stage the diocese might encourage and tell me where to go. Then I had a sense of call but didn’t quite know what it was, and they didn’t quite know what it was either, so in the end I became a trained woman worker which as we tell people is better than a “licensed lady” which is what they were going to call us … It was a two-day selection conference, and they really didn’t quite know what to do with the women … I remember going to see the Archbishop … and he said “well, what are we going to do with you?” and I said “well I was hoping you’d tell me that” and he said “I was hoping you’d tell me that”. So we sat and looked at each other and he said, how about trained woman worker.

Ordination was not possible for another five years. The faithfulness of Barbara and her generation is exemplified in this willingness to enter uncharted waters, confident only in the belief that God called all people to build up the kingdom using their gifts no matter how strange or new the means.

After ordination as a deacon in 1986, and accepting the parish of Ascot Vale in 1989, Barbara faced a period of waiting. She waited for the Church to decide if and when it would ordain women as priests. She waited for the day when she no longer had to call on a team of ‘rent a priests’, male priests who could say the ABCs (absolution, blessing, consecration) at the eucharist. In the end she waited for four years, displaying an incredible patience with the Church she loved.

Barbara was proactive in this long period of waiting. Besides taking her part in synods and councils, making the case for change, she made waiting useful. Barbara learned how to be a leader, a team player, an enabler of others, a focus of unity. The visitor to Ascot Vale had no doubt about who was in charge, even as the awkward shuffle took place at the holy table every Sunday when the vicar briefly stepped aside for the male priest. She rejoiced in the fact that the campaign for the ordination of women brought together Christians of a wide variety of backgrounds – feminists and traditionalists, catholics and evangelicals, men and women – who discovered a deep unity in Christ as they changed the way the Church did business.

Throughout her faithful ministry as a trained woman worker, as a deacon, priest, and bishop, Barbara showed us that the ordination of women truly was God’s gift to the Church. Barbara’s greatest gifts were her willingness to take risks, to expose her hesitations, doubts and struggles, to encourage and enable others to find and grow into their calling, and always to be hopeful, focussed on the gifts and talents God was giving to the Church. Admitting women to the priesthood and episcopate made it possible for an even greater abundance of talents to be offered in the service of God, and opened an astonishing, unexpected avenue for giving glory to God.

I will miss her terribly. While we wait to meet her again with all the saints, I know that the best way to honour her memory is to follow her example: to wait fruitfully, to encourage others, and above all to be open to the amazing new things God is doing through us and around us every day of our lives.

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Reforming Australian Anglican Governance: A Proposal

This essay is based on discussions held around table 12 (Melbourne Diocese) during the 2014 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. It is offered here by way of a discussion-starter, primarily for General Synod members, and as such is focussed on strategy, not overcoming hurdles. Peter Sherlock, 1 July 2014.

Summary

Restructure the Anglican Church of Australia for the future:

National: Fundamental declarations, representative role

Province (6): Corporate governance and shared services

Diocese (50): Mission and ministry of the church, overseen by a bishop, empowered by a team of clergy, across a wide variety of activities and congregations

1.         Background

The Anglican Church of Australia faces critical challenges to its identity and mission. Reports to the General Synod on finance, viability, and unity, raise key questions about the capacity of the national church and its twenty-three dioceses to survive in their present form, or indeed at all. The evidence of these reports is a strong indication that dioceses are at risk of corporate failure, leading to an inability of the Anglican Church to fulfil its mission in large parts of Australia, and that the solution requires at the very least a ‘shared services’ approach to corporate governance.

This paper attempts to articulate the key questions and proposes a model that offers a solution. It does not address underlying issues such as theological difference or mistrust. Instead it aims to focus debate on specific proposals for new forms of governance. Further work would require attention to the circumstances of individual dioceses, distribution of clergy, and financial implications.

2.         Questions and issues

2.1       How big or small should the various units of the church be? In particular, how big should a diocese be – a bishop and 20 – 30 clergy (the current rural model) or a bishop and 100 – 700 clergy (the current urban model)?

2.2       How much governance do we need? What would this look like at each level: parish / local; diocesan; provincial; national; global?

2.3       How can the church separate corporate matters (property trusts, external compliance) from spiritual matters (mission, pastoral ministry, education), while retaining its integrity?

2.4       Can a solution be found to these challenges that does not require major revision of the complex web of legislation, not only within the Anglican Church’s many parts, but also across the Commonwealth and State Parliaments?

3.         A proposal

3.1       Dioceses: The diocese is the key unit of the church and is an apostolic, missional community. It is small enough for familiarity and big enough to inspire. The distinctive identity and mission of the church is undertaken through the dioceses. Each diocese has one bishop who oversees a team of 20 – 50 clergy. The dioceses are based on the existing rural dioceses and urban deaneries / archdeaconries.

3.2       Dioceses would be made up of a series of local congregations, some geographically based (parishes), others with specific mission purposes (agencies, fresh expressions, focus groups), some flexible, some temporary, some long term. The diocese would resource these diverse localised activities through the team of clergy empowering all the baptised under the oversight of the bishop.

3.3       Provinces: Corporate governance and compliance is undertaken at a provincial level, based on the original colonial dioceses. These activities would be temporal, relating to the church’s functioning as a twenty-first century institution. Resources would be lean but those necessary to do the job properly on behalf of the diocese. Areas of focus would include: shared services (finance, property), and government compliance (OH&S, insurance, workcover). Suggested Provinces: Perth (WA), Adelaide (SA), Melbourne (VIC + TAS), Sydney (south NSW), Newcastle (north NSW), Brisbane (QLD + NT).

3.4       National: The General Synod will be made up of the bishop, a clerical representative, and a lay representative from every diocese (around 150 people) plus a secretariat representing the corporate governance provided by the provinces (around 12), plus a Primate (a full-time national church role) and a Secretary (a full-time national church role). The national church’s role through the General Synod is to maintain the Fundamental Declarations as a framework for basic unity, and to provide a representative function nationally, ecumenically, politically, and internationally.

4.         Implementation: How do we get there?

4.1       Assign responsibilities clearly and exclusively to each level: national, provincial, diocesan.

4.2       Focus on cultural and theological change, not legislative change. Drive this through a defined training program for all bishops, new and old (around 50?), including team-building and spiritual accountability.

4.3       Delegate corporate functions from the dioceses to provincial bodies where they already exist, or to the existing metropolitan diocese where they do not. Provide sufficient resources for these shared services to achieve their tasks but no more.

4.4       Affirm the rural dioceses, and in the urban dioceses establish the new dioceses through autonomous ‘regions’ by appointing assistant bishops, without legislation as a temporary workaround.

4.5       Reduce synods to small, high-level bodies, held infrequently to deal with major corporate change. Use standing committees or executive bodies for other corporate business. Establish diocesan visitations and conferences to further the mission of the church in each diocese.

4.6       Assess change in 2020 and if successful, formalise legislative changes where necessary to remove workarounds (number of dioceses, provinces, membership of synods, etc.).

 

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How to conduct future elections in Australia

The 2013 federal election is over (well, almost – there’s still a bit of complicated counting to complete).

I am yet to hear anyone claim that the election campaign was palatable or productive for the nation. The politics of personalities, endless debates about the financial cost of policies rather than their intrinsic merit, and the assumption that Australian voters were kindergarten children left much to be desired.

I believe that our electorate is possessed of far more wisdom, curiosity, and critical thought than is widely assumed. I also think that most of our politicians are intelligent women and men who are capable of much more thought and debate than present opportunities allow.

So in reflecting on this election campaign, and the abysmal quality of political debate in the last twelve months, I have tried to imagine a better way. What follows is idealistic, and many details would have to be worked out to avoid totalitarianism or censorship in an election campaign, but I’d much prefer it.

1. Performance Review: Begin the election campaign with a proper review of the performance of both government and opposition in the previous term. Let’s look at the initiatives the opposition blocked, the reviews the government didn’t implement, and hold them and ourselves to account.

2. 10 Theses: Give every political party standing for office the opportunity to set out ten theses – one sentence per thesis, no more than one page in total – being the principles that its members will follow in making decisions, whether to set strategy or to respond to crises.

3. Hypotheticals: Hold a weekly publicly broadcast hypothetical in which parties are given a scenario and asked to work through what they would do, by applying their principles. What if climate change turned out to be much slower or faster than anticipated? What if Darwin were invaded? What if the bottom fell out of the Australian property market? Make this a team effort rather than a leadership debate so we can see how the whole team performs, not the leader, applying their expertise to their portfolios, and giving the electorate the opportunity to see how they work together. Get rid of the worm and replace it with a survey monkey at the end emphasising whether they stuck to principles, and assessing whether the results were effective. The ABC has provided the means in Vote Compass. 

4. Promises: Take the focus of election promises, and keep it on the principles. If promises are inconsistent with principles, haul the parties over the coals in the media for genuine hypocrisy. If the promises can’t be kept when a party is in government, check the action against the principles instead.

Oh, and let’s get rid of above-the-line-voting and bring in optional preferential voting for the Senate.

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