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.


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.).




Filed under Uncategorized

10 responses to “Reforming Australian Anglican Governance: A Proposal

  1. To Table 12,

    From where was Melbourne colonised? The Province of Tasmania (Tas+Vic)!


    Table 27

  2. Samuel Blanch

    These proposed changes seem logical and workable.

  3. Justin Denholm

    If we’re going to get serious about reforming the ecclesial and governance structures of the church, let’s also get serious about reforming the lay involvement in structures also. At present, the structural involvement of lay people is largely limited to governance; it is institutionally evident that lay people are seen as able to contribute to discussions of superannuation and church law, but not with mission and ministry. Our church structures largely imply that lay people might be capable of participating in ministry, but not in meaningful oversight and leadership. We include the laity as wardens and in councils, whose work is focused on compliance rather than missiology.

    These structures do not adequately reflect our theological foundation as a reformed Church, with a robust understanding of the priesthood of all believers. The opportunity of refocusing our Diocese on smaller, more missional roles, is also an opportunity to consider how lay leadership can contribute to a stronger, more locally relevant expression of the gospel.

    In the new structure, dioceses are headed by a bishop, with a role emphasising the pastoral and missional care of their respective locales. We should also establish a group of godly lay people (elders? ) to work with each bishop, to pray, lead and provide advice regarding the strategy and conduct of ministry within the diocese. Such people should be faithful, active in lay ministry and knowledgeable about local conditions of ministry, in order to both contribute to the work on the gospel and appropriately assist others in doing so.

    This body would mirror the parish council at a diocesan level, which would itself also be freed to focus to an increasing degree on parish ministry through a reduction in administrative burden from the restructured provincial level. Part of its role could be to provide pastoral and ministry support for parish councils, as well as its primary function of strategic guidance of diocesan ministries and partnership with the bishop.

    • Justin, I agree with your comments.

      I think we might not even have a parish council, just a diocesan council that picks up many of the functions of a parish council, and maybe has lots of mission committees … but to your key question, I reckon the corporate body doing the management on behalf of the church would largely if not entirely lay, and be chaired by a lay person. We need the bishops, priests, and deacons to be focussed on the church’s core business – and be ready to call lay people equipped for ordained ministries into those roles too.

  4. What might this proposal mean for the episcopate?

    If there were around 50 dioceses in Australia, focussed on apostolic mission, each with its own diocesan bishop, then the episcopate would be radically transformed. Bishops would be more equal – no archbishops, no suffragan bishops, no assistant bishops, no regional bishops, no coadjutor bishops, no big B bishops, no small b bishops. Just one bishop, one diocese.

    Bishops would be both less and more important. Less important, as there would be more of them. More important as they would be more directly responsible for mission and ministry at the local level. The prestige of episcopacy would diminish in favour of responsibility, but it would also see a drop in anti-episcopalian sentiment. This would mean we could train and develop bishops properly, even prepare promising clergy properly for episcopal ministry.

    • I think this is a really interesting perspective. If there’s one thing I notice more than any other in the difference between the role of assistant minister and vicar, it is that vicars have much less time for the very things they trained for and desire to be involved with. I can only imagine the shift to being a bishop reflects that experience x 100 or 1000. I think a proposal like this could free up bishops to be bishops. It will also allow us to select bishops for their godly character and ability to pastor and lead missional initiatives – not whether they are good at dealing with property trusts and HR law.

  5. Walter

    I agree with this completely, especially when one takes into account significant regional differences within some of the dioceses, and the ‘old boys’ mentality firmly entrenched within our current system

  6. Dorothy Lee

    I think this is a great proposal, Peter. But would bishops and clergy in general be prepared for so radical a re-making of the current very hierarchical model? I certainly think your model is more gospel-focussed and closer to real servant leadership.

    • Dorothy, thanks. To me this proposal isn’t radical, but it’s good to be reminded that it is! And I long for an Anglican Church in which the bishops, priests and deacons are, in humility, radical, for it seems to me this is what is demanded of us by the scriptures and apostolic tradition. Theological education and formation for ministry is obviously critical to shaping this culture throughout the church …

  7. Fay Magee

    thanks, Peter – great effort; I would agree that theological education and formation are critical and not just some sort of initiation into a ‘tribe’.

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