Friday, 16 September 2011

Review: Muriel Porter, Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism

From September's New Directions.
Muriel Porter, Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism — The Sydney Experiment: Ashgate Contemporary Ecclesiology Series (Ashgate Publishing: Farnham, 2011), pb, 164 pages + Bibliography, Subject Index, Foreword by Professor Martyn Percy (vii-xii) and Author’s Preface (xiii-xvi)

Back in 1993, when I was an overseas student at Moore Theological College, I became dimly aware through the media of someone called Muriel Porter. “Who is this woman,” I found myself asking, “And what has she got against the Diocese of Sydney?”
So regularly did she comment, I assumed she must be from that diocese. Only later did I discover that, although she was born and brought up as a Sydney Anglican, she had actually lived in Melbourne since the 1970s. Despite the distance of both space and time, however, something about the prevailing Sydney ethos had conceived and nurtured a fierce hostility.
In a sense, then, Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism is a monument to a lifetime of dislike. Even more so is this the case when we realize that it is, in fact, a revision of her recent work on the same theme: The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church, published in 2006 (indeed, some of it is the same material).
The title of the latter, however, reflects a dominant theme in Porter’s analysis, namely that Sydney Anglicanism is actually a form of ‘fundamentalism’. As Porter herself acknowledges, this charge was faced and rejected by Archbishop Peter Jensen soon after his appointment (p12). But the cap must be made to fit, and so Porter draws on sociological notions of a ‘fundamentalist mentality’ (p13) to enforce the theological critique.
Porter is not ashamed to admit and display her dislike of all things Sydney in general and surnamed Jensen in particular. At one stage, for example, she refers to how the ‘tentacles’ of the diocese ‘reach around the globe and throughout the Anglican church’. But it is this emotive approach which is the key weakness of the book.
Her obsession — for such it surely is — has one redeeming feature, in that there are a lot of details, should you wish to be acquainted with them. Yet there are repeated references to ‘anecdotal evidence’ and she says herself that she has avoided an ‘investigative’ approach.
If you do not relish Porter’s hostility, however, this is probably not the right medium from which to learn about such matters as the ambitious diocesan Mission, or the recent problems with its finances. A more sober (though now dated) account of Sydney’s history is to be found in Ken Cable and Stephen Judd’s Sydney Anglicans. Otherwise, online resources can supply the lack.
The underlying problem with her own approach is that Porter seems to be affected by the same problem she alleges in those she opposes.
An entire chapter on ‘Women: Equal but Different’ begins with the assertion, attributed to Monica Furlong, that the arguments against women’s ordination are not really as important as what the arguments hide. In other words, it is all down to psychology:
‘Is there a lingering correlation between the early assessment of Sydney’s convict women as “damned whores” and the reluctance to allow women into church leadership in that city?’ (p33)
Any sensible person would surely answer, ‘No’. But Porter’s quasi-Freudian approach finds unconscious motivations beneath every surface. Thus Archbishop Jensen’s recent speeches reveal a man ‘fearful that he has lost his previously unassailable position’ (p153). Yet although Porter has often encountered Jensen at the national Synod, I find no evidence of personal acquaintance in the book. ‘Why,’ the armchair analyst might then ask, ‘Does Porter so de-personalise those with whom she so strongly disagrees?’ As to the book’s title, surely paranoid!
However, the most casual reader will soon find that Porter’s own motivation relies to a large extent on her views about the rôle of women (a subject on which Sydney is, of course, intransigently conservative and on which she has written several other books) — that and a nostalgia for the lost world of her Sydney childhood (eg pxiii). But her theology is less than ‘traditionalist’. Thus she regards the Articles of Religion as ‘merely an interesting but dated historical record’ (p24) and is openly revisionist on the subject of homosexuality.
Porter’s book actually has some important points to make, but they are hard to digest through the torrent of polemic. Sydney Anglicans do need to ask, for example, about their own ‘connectedness’ with historical Anglicanism — just as do Conservative Evangelicals in this country. And in fact such questions are being asked, not least (as it happens) by Archbishop Jensen’s son, Michael, who is now on the faculty at Moore College.
For Sydney Anglicans, then, Sydney Anglicans might actually make useful reading. For the rest of us, however, its one-sided approach and constant delighting in Sydney’s failures makes it heavy, and sometimes unpleasant, going.
Early in the book, Porter writes, ‘An Australian church without Sydney, I believe, would have released enormous energy for growth and renewal in the rest of the dioceses ...’ (p48). In the final chapter she hopes that the ‘End’ of the Sydney ‘Experiment’ will bring ‘... a more reasonable, generous, kindly form of Anglicanism’. Yet by her own admission, in the midst of a deeply secular and irreligious culture, Sydney Anglicanism succeeds where other Australian dioceses fail.
Porter’s ‘vision’, ultimately, is for a traditional church redolent of her past. I doubt that it is what Australia needs today.
John Richardson
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  1. Canon Andrew Godsall17 September 2011 at 12:59

    The Bishop of Repton, Humphrey Southern, wrote a piece for the Church Times back in 2004 called 'The new Puritans down under'. It presented a chilling picture of the very un Anglican religion practised in some parts of the Sydney Diocese and concurs with much of what Muriel Porter says. As Mary Ann Sieghart wrote in the Times not long after::
    "THINK OF SYDNEY and what springs to mind? A beautiful, cosmopolitan, liberal and laid-back city with a flourishing gay community? You would be only half-right. This wonderful Australian city now also plays host to the most narrow-minded, puritanical and zealous brand of Anglicanism, a new puritanism that is trying to establish itself over here.
    Worried? You should be. These hardline fundamentalists are using all the tools of entryism familiar to students of the Labour Party in the 1980s. The diocese of Sydney - and its outposts abroad - can now be seen as the Church of England’s Militant Tendency.
    I can't find Bishop Humphrey's piece online sadly - but it was a clear analysis from one of our own teachers of the faith.

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

  2. As the previous Rector of St James' King Street, Peter Kurti doesn't exactly take a rose-tinted view of Sydney evangelicalism. Yet by the same token his review of Porter's screed was far from flattering.

    Turnus d'Rutili, Mount Olympus.

  3. Andrew, behind the emotive language in Porter's book, with its talk of 'tentacles' and 'fundamentalism', I seriously wonder what is the real fear. In his favourable review of Porter's book in the Church of England Newspaper (9th September), Paul Richardson acknowledges that her figures point to, "a level of growth that would be a major morale boost in any other diocese".

    Surely this is good, is it not?

    Sometimes, as a recent article in an Australian newspaper seemed to indicate, the fear is about a loss of the familiar - like evensong, in that particular instance. But Jesus Christ did not come to build choral evensongs.

    The real worry about Sydney sometimes seem to be that it just might succeed where others have failed.

  4. Hi John,
    As well as looking at Muriel Porter's childhood recollections of Sydney, I think you have to go back to the women's ordination battle of the 80s and early 90s to explain her Sydney obsession. She was, if not the general, one of the leading colonels of the pro-ordination camp. As Sydney often does in church politics, it played to win that particular debate and some of the attacks levelled at the women's ordination people were pretty awful. The wounds from that battle probably still haven't healed.
    What I find repulsive about her analysis is that the more resources Sydney pours into mission and evangelism, the more they plan and implement effective strategies for leadership training and discipleship, the more they seek to engage in the future of the Communion, the more she attacks them. I don't agree with all of their theological positions, and sometimes think they should choose their battles more wisely, but I can rejoice that the Spirit is at work among them and that, like your book suggests, they are taking seriously the goal of converting their city to Christ.

  5. For all the shrillness in her attack, and the misplaced vehemence in her language, there is one point on which Muriel Porter and Archbishop Jensen completely agree. That is their passionate belief that if the Anglican Church in Australia is to not only survive but grow it must change.

    Muriel Porter wants to keep the traditional practice but is willing to amend the beliefs (downplaying the uniqueness of Christ and adopting a sexual ethic little different to the secular society) in order to achieve relevance. Archbishop Jensen is quite willing to sacrifice the practice (though he personally may have more appreciation for the prayer book and Anglican patrimony than many of his priests) but has held firm to the traditional beliefs. In practice neither has led to growth, but in Sydney's case it is at least maintaining its numbers. Australians, not just in Sydney but in the other dioceses, have left Muriel Porter's form of Anglicanism in droves. Perhaps the shrill tone is little more than an angry recognition that no-one particularly wants the form of Church that Muriel Porter champions.

  6. BTW, the better history of the political dynamics of Sydney Anglicanism is found in Chris McGillion's book "The Chosen Ones: The Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church" (Allen & Unwin, 2005). McGillion could be criticised for concentrating too heavily on the politics of the Standing Committee and the election of Archbishop Jensen. However, the merit in his book is the degree to which he allows key players to give voice to their own understanding of the diocese. In many respects this element of direct oral history overpowers any analysis but it gives are more faithful and representative account than Muriel Porter's hyperbole.

  7. There are also some biographies of key leaders around that give helpful insights into the history and particular ecclesiastical culture of anglicanism in Sydney. John Chapman, Marcus Loane and Broughton Knox are the three that I've read.

    McGillions book is an interesting read, especially because of the number of key players who granted him interviews, although where he does engage in 'analysis' he sometimes demonstrates that he doesn't understand his subject matter as well as he thinks he does.