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Handbooks of English Church Expansion


By the Rev. A. E. David, M.A.

London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1908.

Chapter X. Church Organization

THE Anglican Church came to Australia as part of the military system designed for the control of convict settlements. The chaplains were semi-military officers exercising magisterial powers and paid by the Government. No attempt was made at organization until the complaints levelled against Mr. Marsden led to the creation of an archdeaconry. Subsequently the archdeaconry became a bishopric, also under Letters Patent; and when the new sees were created, the appointment of Bishops was carried out by the same means, and the Bishop of Sydney was given the powers of a Metropolitan. Thus the Australian Church through State action was organized on the lines of an ecclesiastical province, as in India at the present day. The alliance with the State was complete, and the whole organization of the Church depended upon the maintenance of the connection. In the minds of all concerned, [201/202] the ecclesiastical establishment in Australia was regarded as a little piece of the Mother Church transplanted to the Antipodes. Local conditions might require special legislation, as, for instance, Bourke's Act for the formation of new parishes, but in the main the Colonial Church was deemed an integral part of the Church in England.

But the position was found to be unsatisfactory. The Bishops discovered that their powers, whilst absolute in theory, were ineffective in practice, and they naturally desired a more constitutional status in which their decisions, though less arbitrary, might be more authoritative. We have seen how this desire first found expression at the memorable conference of 1850; and that the true principles of ecclesiastical statesmanship were present to their minds, is shown in the words uttered by Bishop Broughton on that occasion. It was his earnest desire, he said, "That one uniform system might be established throughout all Colonial Churches (uniform, that is, as to all vital and essential observances), so that they might be bound together in one great system of unity." This policy, however, was, unhappily, never realized, for, instead of a single united system under a centralized authority, diocesan [202/203] synods sprang into existence and proceeded to act in complete independence of one another. The one tie which for the time being served to unite the scattered units was the Metropolitan jurisdiction of the Bishop of Sydney, but this rested upon Letters Patent, and when these were found to be valueless in self-governing colonies, this valuable link was swept away, and no effort was made towards its replacement.

The Australian Church now entered upon that phase of "diocesanism" from which it has never been able to recover and which throughout its growth has constituted a grave defect in its organization. Just as the newly-formed colonies proceeded to rejoice in separation from Sydney, to erect barriers against one another by the imposition of hostile tariffs, and generally to develop upon their own lines without relation to their neighbours, so the Church proceeded to split itself up into a congeries of dioceses, each one constituting an autonomous and self-contained whole. As a natural consequence considerable divergence in matters of vital importance emerged, which were destined to bear fruit in the future. The most serious of the differences occurred in respect of the relations to the State. In Victoria [203/204] an Enabling Act was obtained, through which the Church Assembly received legislative sanction to frame rules for the government of the Church within the Diocese of Melbourne. In South Australia, Bishop Short, acting under high legal advice, framed the constitution of the Diocese of Adelaide on the basis of "consensual compact." In Sydney a Church Act was passed which gave statutory force to, and legally fixed, a constitution set out in detail, which synod could not vary without appeal to the Legislature. Thus in a few years three systems were in practical operation. Divergence was no less marked in other directions, and the difficulties of the situation became apparent when the necessity for united action disclosed itself.

Diocesan synods were competent to deal with the domestic affairs of each diocese. They could hold property, and regulate such questions as patronage, pensions, ecclesiastical offences, etc., but beyond this there was a region of Church organization which they could not touch. There was no tribunal of appeal from diocesan courts, no tribunal which could try a Bishop, no body which could make rules for the formation of new dioceses, or check in the interests of the Church [204/205] as a whole the appointments to the several sees, or, again, provide for the formation of provinces, or the creation of primatial and metropolitical jurisdiction. Yet it was obvious that some provision must be made for concerted action upon these all-important questions.

It was in these circumstances that the body which is called a General Synod was established in 1872. The title is misleading, and it is unfortunate that no other name should have been adopted. It is not a synod like the General Synods of the Churches of Ireland or New Zealand, but a confederation of Bishops and diocesan representatives sitting in two houses for the purpose of preparing legislation which may be subsequently adopted and promulgated by the diocesan synods. In other words it has not been endowed with plenary legislative powers, and, to use a description of Bishop Barry, it is "a plain ecclesiastical anomaly only accounted for, and partially excused by, the irregularities of the historic growth of the Church (in Australia)." An endeavour was made by Bishop Tyrrell to set up a body with powers such as those exercised by the General Synod of New Zealand, but the question was complicated by [205/206] the existence of a province in New South Wales established by legislative enactment, also by diocesan jealousies, and by the hesitation of different dioceses to surrender their autonomy to an organization of which they knew nothing. In the end the above-mentioned federal council of dioceses was established with power strictly limited to dealing with certain defined questions, but subject to the proviso That no determination of General Synod is to be binding upon any particular diocese until that diocese has accepted it."

Notwithstanding its anomalous position, the General Synod has initiated and procured the adoption of a useful body of legislation consisting of an appellate tribunal for hearing cases on appeal from diocesan courts; rules for the trial of Bishops; rules for the formation of new dioceses and provinces; rules for the confirmation and consecration of Bishops and election of Primates: and has taken steps in such administrative matters as the promotion of foreign missions and the regulation of relations with other branches of the Church of CHRIST and other religious bodies, together with such matters as may have been submitted by diocesan synods for its [206/207] consideration. Mention should also be made of a provision for the formation of a Council of Reference in England, to which matters, by consent of General Synod, might be sent for consideration.

The inherent weakness of General Synod, however, owing to lack of coercive jurisdiction, became at once apparent when it attempted to deal with the privileged position of an autonomous diocese. This defect declared itself in connection with the question of the Primacy, when the Diocese of Sydney declined to yield to the claims of the other dioceses for a more effective voice in the election of the Primate. The adjustment of the rival claims of diocese and Church was undoubtedly a difficult matter. In the first instance two alternative methods of election were proposed, the former of which was adopted, whereby it was thought that the interests of diocese, province, and Church would be mutually preserved. The Diocese of Sydney was given the right of selecting three names for election, one of which should be struck out by the Bishops of the Province of New South Wales, and a second by the whole bench of Australian Bishops, the survivor in this process of exhaustion to be Bishop of Sydney, Metropolitan, and Primate. This method has [207/208] been twice tried, and proved not only cumbrous in working, but also to unduly limit the voice of the Church as a whole. Later on attempts were made to secure the adoption of the alternative proposal, providing for the appointment of two committees, one representing the Sydney diocese, the other representing the rest of the Church, the election to be by concurrent majorities with an appeal to the Mother Church in the event of a deadlock. But this method was declined by Sydney; and in despair of any other solution which would maintain the Primacy at Sydney, General Synod in 1900 determined to sever this connection, and passed a series of amended rules making any Metropolitan in Australia or Tasmania eligible for the Primatial office, and vesting the power of election in the House of Bishops. This solution of the vexed question is not wholly satisfactory, for an itinerating Primacy is open to serious objection; but, as already indicated, the establishment of a Federal Capital within one hundred miles of Sydney may open the way towards the formation of a Primatial See.

The establishment of provincial synods dates from 1869, when the provincial synod of New South Wales, consisting originally of the Dioceses [208/209] of Sydney, Newcastle, and Goulburn, met for the first time. Here, again, the same defect in organization is conspicuous. Notwithstanding the opposition of the Bishop of Newcastle, a clause was introduced into the Church Act limiting the powers of the provincial synod, and in effect making it subordinate to the diocesan. This topsy-turveydom in ecclesiastical affairs has rendered the action of the provincial organization singularly ineffective. Moreover, it has rendered nugatory one of the most important functions which a provincial synod is intended to discharge, namely, to serve as a check upon that narrowing of outlook and interest which regards diocesan affairs as paramount. So unlimited is this "diocesanism" in Australia that recently a diocesan synod passed a resolution in favour of the principle of marriage with a deceased wife's sister! The pity of it is that in New South Wales particularly, Metropolitan jurisdiction had been exercised before the establishment of synodical action, and that Bishop Tyrrell should have felt his hands tied through fear of jeopardizing the passage of the Church Act through the Legislature. He yielded, against his better judgement, in order that the Church might [209/210] present a united front in obtaining Parliamentary sanction to its constitution.

The formation of three new dioceses in Victoria and of the See of Carpentaria in Queensland enabled the Church in those states to adopt provincial organization in 1905. Proposals were originally made in Victoria to establish a provincial synod with coercive jurisdiction, but the objections to the course offered by the Diocese of Ballarat proved so strong that ultimately the new organization was launched on the old and vicious principle of subordinating the province to the diocese. Whether in these circumstances provincial action will tend towards strengthening the Church in Victoria, the future alone will show. In Queensland, on the other hand, where no serious opposition had to be faced, a provincial constitution was adopted which gives to the provincial synod its full authority in all matters of provincial concern. Thus, with the above exception, and notwithstanding the apparent due gradation of authority through general, provincial, and diocesan synods, the diocese still remains autonomous, and controls Church legislation in Australia.

As a result of this independence no little variety [210/211] in the details of diocesan constitutions is noticeable, though the main lines are similar. In certain dioceses all licensed clergy are members of synod, in others only the beneficed clergy, whilst in Sydney clergy without cure of souls, if elected, are allowed to sit as lay representatives. The qualifications for lay representation also vary. According to some synodal constitutions they must be communicants, whereas according to others any one of full age declaring himself a member of the Church of England is regarded as eligible. A very similar lack of uniformity is to be found even in the fundamental provisions upon which the constitutions of the respective dioceses are based. In regard to these some dioceses have fettered themselves by providing for the acceptance of the judgements of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as interpreting the formularies of the Church; others have retained their independence; others, again, have bound themselves by decisions made fifty years ago, and are without power, except by appeal to the Legislature, to accept the changes which from time to time may be made in England. This diversity of constitution and usage offers a serious obstacle to any more binding form of [211/212] organization; and the removal of this obstacle, by the repeal of the various Constitution Acts with a view to greater uniformity, is far from easy to secure, even should the Church be unanimous in desiring this alteration. There is, however, little prospect of unanimity, without which an Australian diocese might find itself placed in the position of the Free Church of Scotland in respect of its property. On the whole it must be said that, whilst the general constitution is anomalous and theoretically impossible, in practice it has produced results far better than could have been anticipated. It illustrates the British genius for "muddling through somehow"; and although there are grave defects which all feel, there is little likelihood of any radical change being effected in the constitution.

Closely connected with this subject is that of the legal nexus binding the Church in Australia to the Church of England, which lately has assumed considerable importance. Two circumstances have led to its serious consideration. In the first place there has been a steady growth towards consciousness of nationality, not only in the Commonwealth but throughout the great self-governing States of the Empire. Colonial [212/213] statesmen now refer to Imperial unity under the terms of "Collective Imperialism" or "Imperial Partnership." With the growth of an indigenous ministry the influence of these ideas is being increasingly felt in ecclesiastical matters. It is recognized that if the Church is to become the Church of the people, and to assist in moulding the character and destinies of the new nations, closer identification with national aspirations is imperative. The endeavours made recently to change the title of the Anglican Church in the Commonwealth from that of "the Church of England in Australia" to some form of description more in accord with national sentiment, and the bestowal of the title of Archbishop upon Australian Metropolitans, furnish indications of the growth of this spirit. Secondly, the legal nexus with the Established Church is felt to carry with it all the disadvantages of Establishment without any of the corresponding benefits, for it hinders self-government and that power of adaptation to new conditions which are necessary to the vigour and efficiency of the Church's life. The fetters forged in the early days are beginning to gall, and at the last session of General Synod in 1905 the whole question of the legal nexus between the [213/214] Australian Dioceses and the Mother Church was referred to a select committee for inquiry and report. Into the actual merits of the subject it is impossible to enter; but should some method of dealing with the difficulties raised by the form of diocesan constitutions be discovered, and the way opened to greater independence by the removal of legal ties, any action in the direction of separation taken in this respect by the Church in the Commonwealth must not be construed as tending to disloyalty. The Church in Australia may be trusted to retain all that is essential to Catholic principles of organization, and to preserve intact those bonds of gratitude and affection which have so long united her to the grey-haired Mother.

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