An updated attack

Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism
Muriel Porter
Ashgate, Famham, 2011, 190 pages.Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism

Muriel Porter has been attacking Sydney Anglicans for years. In synods, committees, and in print, she has vociferously opposed the position of the Diocese of Sydney on a whole range of issues. Never very far from the surface, though, is her anger at the diocese’s attitude towards female priests and bishops.

In 2006 she produced an extended attack on Sydney Anglican theology and practice entitled The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church. The review of that book in Melbourne’s broadsheet newspaper described it as “a little breathless and over the top”.1 Though it presented itself as a serious piece of scholarship (published by a university press, no less), it was really just the latest salvo in a propaganda war. She presented the diocese as eccentric and extreme, a phenomenon that any thinking person would want to resist and denounce.

The New Puritans has been revised and brought up to date with a new title: Sydney Anglicans and the Threat to World Anglicanism: The Sydney Experiment. As with the earlier volume, Porter acknowledges that she is “obviously not able to report on Sydney objectively and even-handedly” (p. xv). The acknowledgement is unnecessary; the highly polemical nature of the book—and a significant degree of distortion that inevitably arises from that—is obvious. The book is littered with unsubstantiated assertions introduced with phrases such as “Some have suggested…” (e.g. pp. 70, 107), “I suspect…” (e.g. p. 71, 75) and “Perhaps…” (e.g. p. 159). Unfortunately, it is also littered with factual errors, half-truths, and the attribution of false or hidden motives to those with whom she disagrees. Sydney Anglicans might think they are taking a stand on the teaching of Scripture, but she asserts that their motivation is much more sinister.

The book is organized around the premise that Sydney’s experiment with radical Protestantism—sourced in the theology of a maverick principal of Moore College, Broughton Knox, and given full expression in the episcopate of his student, Peter Jensen—represents a serious threat to faithful Anglicanism in both Australia and throughout the world. In order to support this contention, Porter needs to recast the doctrinal, ethical, and ecclesiastical innovations of the past thirty years in global Anglicanism (women’s ordination, revised attitudes on divorce, acceptance of homosexuality, the rejection of exclusive claims about Jesus and salvation, and a rejection of the thoroughgoing truthfulness and reliability of the Bible) as faithful discipleship, and the decisions of Sydney’s synod and archbishops as aberrant, un-Anglican, and ultimately a misuse of Scripture.

An instance of this appears early on:

The ‘uniqueness of Jesus’ is something that Sydney Anglicans—along with other conservative Christians—are passionate about. Jesus’ redemptive death on the Cross, they maintain, only redeems those who explicitly and consciously make a faith commitment to him. The classical Christian position is rather more nuanced: Redemption is only through Jesus, yes, but that does not require explicit faith in him, but rather is effective wherever God’s love evokes a response. (p. 22)

Under what definition of the ‘classical Christian position’ could this be true? Is it what Thomas Cranmer taught and embodied in the Articles, the Homilies and the Book of Common Prayer? Can it be found anywhere in the church fathers? Is it consistent with the New Testament? However, for Porter, only a radically conservative Christian would raise such questions. When it comes to the 39 Articles of Religion, she wonders why anyone would make them a “yardstick of orthodoxy” (p. 23):

To my mind the Articles are a quaintly-worded, seriously limited summary of Anglican understandings of faith and doctrine, scarcely relevant to modern Australian life. (p. 24)

The book takes aim at a number of targets, but it returns again and again to attack Peter Jensen and, as the source of the ‘aberrant’ theological stance of the diocese, Broughton Knox.2 An interesting array of sources can be found in the footnotes, but it is rather telling that some summaries of positions are taken from implacable opponents of Sydney: Duncan Reid from Melbourne provides a summary of Peter Jensen’s thinking on revelation; he and Peter Carnley (a previous Archbishop of Perth) provide a rundown of Broughton Knox’s views; Kevin Giles’ widely discredited attack on the theology of the diocese and its leadership is repeated. Even Peter Carnley’s ludicrous suggestion that TC Hammond was Arian is given a re-run (one would have thought that fabrication had been put to bed by David Wright’s courteous yet telling rebuttal in the St Mark’s Review several years ago).

In her treatment of the relationship between the Diocese of Sydney and the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, Sydney is cast in the role of the spoiler who prevents a united and long-suffering majority from faithfully exercising the ministry God has entrusted to them. The insistence that the machinery of the Anglican Church of Australia, including the Primate, act within the expectations of its Constitution is considered unreasonable. The constitution itself is described as “very limited” (p. 78). Porter is willing to suggest that instead of the constitution as it exists, it may have been “wiser to create a national church that did not include Sydney”:

An Australian church without Sydney, I believe, would have released enormous energy for growth and renewal in the rest of the dioceses, freed from Sydney’s relentless negative impact. (p. 48)

Porter’s characterization of the role of Sydney in the wider Anglican Communion is equally innovative. Of the alliance forged between ‘first-world conservatives’ and ‘third-world conservatives’, she asks:

Is it possible that backroom deals were also done to forge the winning alliance between conservative first-world leaders and their third-world friends? One deal might have been: “Don’t hassle us about polygamy, and we will back you on homosexuality”. (p. 54)

There is no comment about the faithful men and women who have been hounded from their churches for refusing to abandon the historic teaching of the Anglican Church. The scandalous use of the legacy of previous generations of Christians to prosecute those who object to the decisions of the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church is passed over in silence.

Porter acknowledges that Sydney Anglicans would argue that they are following the teaching of Scripture in their opposition to innovations such as the endorsement of homosexual behaviour. However, she does not believe them:

Biblical authority alone seems unlikely to be the reason why homosexuality has become the ‘line in the sand’ in world Anglicanism. I suspect it is respectable window-dressing for the exercise of blatant power-politics. (p. 75)

However, for all the forays into other issues, what Porter returns to in every chapter is the difference she has with the decisions of Sydney in regards to women’s ministry:

If the denial of full equality to women in the church is Sydney Diocese’s ‘great cause’, then the full equality of women in church leadership at every level is my ‘great cause’, a Gospel imperative that I believe cannot be denied. (p. 134)

She ridicules the complementarian position without, it seems, ever understanding it. She suggests that “the slogan ‘equal but different’ sounds close to one of the descriptions of the place of women in Islam: not inferior, just different” (p. 125). She cannot see how submission and equality can coexist:

And what about the ‘difference’ they claim? This seems to be a matter of ‘distinctive roles’, though that is not spelt out other than the opaque, nonsensical terminology of ‘loving, self-denying, humble leadership’ for men and ‘intelligent willing submission within marriage’ for women. It is not apparent just what loving male leadership means in this context, let alone intelligent and willing submission. It is a rhetoric that belongs to an earlier age… (p. 126)

Once again Porter questions the appeal to the plain teaching of Scripture in support of the decisions taken by successive Sydney synods on this issue. She repeatedly points to other interpretations of cited Bible passages, some by evangelical scholars, as evidence that Sydney’s position is untenable (e.g. pp. 65, 71, 73). This completely ignores that a plurality of interpretations need not be indicative of ambiguity or obscurity in the biblical text. Just because a variety of interpretations currently circulate in Christian circles does not mean they should; not all interpretations of Scripture are valid. Rather, all interpretations need to be tested by their faithfulness to the text in its context and according to its nature as the written word of God (and this goes for the interpretation adopted in Sydney as much as any other).

Porter believes the Sydney experiment is faltering. The financial crisis and the absence of a recognized successor to Peter Jensen provide, from her perspective, a sliver of hope that Sydney will abandon its radicalism and join the rest of the Anglican Communion in a bright new future. Evangelicals in Sydney and elsewhere hope for something quite different.

  1. Barney Zwartz, ‘The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church’, The Age, 18 March 2006.
  2. Porter’s chief complaint against Knox is, unsurprisingly, his tenacious opposition to the ordination of women. As the book draws to a conclusion, the Sydney experiment is relabelled “the Knox experiment” (p. 163).

7 thoughts on “An updated attack

  1. Dear Dr Thompson.

    I understand her full name is Dr Muriel Porter.

    Goes to show anyone can get a PhD.

    As a former Syndey Anglican, now based in Melbourne, I can thankfully report there are many evangelical Anglicans and churches.

    But nowhere near what it’s like in Sydney.


  2. Mark,

    All I can say is, “Wow!” I can never quite get used to the fact that presumably intelligent people can write with such obvious and persistent disregard for logic or facts. Likewise, it astounds me that a person of reputed Christian faith can so freely attack the character of other human beings merely on her suspicions. Thanks for the review of this book which clearly should never have been written!


  3. … the absence of a recognized successor to Peter Jensen …

    At the moment, yes. But it’s hard to see the Synod picking someone who doesn’t have a similar theology. What will be interesting in 2013 is to see how those of Porter’s ilk react when what they call “Jensenism” is seen to be a far more widely-held theology: plain and simple evangelicalism.

    • David,

      I note that the book features your Twitter photo. I hope that is being done with your permission…


      • Indeed, Ken.
        The picture is, alas, we’ll beyond copyright. I suspect that people use it in order to claim some sort of affinity with Cranmer and what he stood for. Others will have to judge whether I or Mrs Porter have a greater claim to that legacy ;)

  4. Well written article Mark.
    Keep defending our Faith –
    2 Tim 4:2-4 2 Be ready to spread the word whether or not the time is right. Point out errors, warn people, and encourage them. Be very patient when you teach.
    3 A time will come when people will not listen to accurate teachings. Instead, they will follow their own desires and surround themselves with teachers who tell them what they want to hear.
    4 People will refuse to listen to the truth and turn to myths.

    Its ironic that critical attacking people say you are criticizing
    when you are just defending our faith as Anglicans, that has been around for hundreds of years, Instead of causing division by their alternate beliefs,
    these others should just go and start their own church.

    God Bless
    Well and Truly Alive
    Bible Believing
    Evangelical Anglican

  5. That ‘not all interpretations of Scripture are valid’ cuts both ways though doesn’t it? Principles of interpretation can be used by the advocate to support a variety of positions, all relying on the ‘authority of Scripture’. It isn’t beyond the bounds of reason to accept that people in (or out) of a political establishment appeal to some objective ‘authority’ to legitimize their position. The age old question is, how finely can you dice up Christian doctrine and how precisely can you define exact and absolute rules using some reliable interpretive principle? What are those reliable interpretive principles, with which no one disagrees? Surely if no such principles exist, those absolute rules interpreted out of some other less reliable interpretive principles, seem a little less credible.

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