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 RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: