A legendary editorial in the Townsville Bulletin, I believe, around 1913 pontificated: “We have repeatedly warned the Tsar…” It is attributed to different papers, and the provenance is doubtful, but it is a wonderful symbol of over-reach.
I have just returned from observing the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, and many of the church’s motions on social issues might seem tinged with something of the same vaulting ambition.
Governments have never been grateful to be rebuked (or even exhorted) by churches, and I doubt that politicians were riveted by the proceedings. One lay leader said MPs probably pay more attention to GetUp! than to Anglicans.
Once leaders did listen closely, and the churches were influential on moral and social questions from marriage and divorce to conscription, but that political power has been waning for decades.
So when the General Synod passes resolutions on such topics as refugees, climate change, overseas aid, euthanasia, Indigenous issues (moved by Indigenous Anglicans), modern slavery, women’s representation or domestic violence (all came up at synod) does that mean it is just posturing?
Sometimes, perhaps, but usually not. First, the church can always hope something will resonate with secular powers. For example, the church’s advocacy helped raise refugee intake to Australia by 12,000 last year.
Second, it is a way for people to bring theological or social issues about which they are passionate to a broader stage. They can invite others to share their concern.
Third, as the Primate, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, says, it’s part of the democratic Anglican tradition. There’s often value in the outside opinion, or the least-heard views.
Fourth, it allows the church to speak to its own constituency. Synod features laypeople, clergy and bishops from all 23 Anglican dioceses, who come together every three years. They can formulate teachings, highlight priorities, and pass legislation (though each diocese must still adopt these individually). These are reported in diocesan papers and even parish newsletters.
Fifth, they can change the church. Resolutions about church responsibility for environmental stewardship several synods back eventually led to large-scale attempts by scores of churches to be more careful.
Sixth, social statements can express the unity of the church. Anglicans are as diverse in their opinions as any other group of Australians, and where there is strong agreement it is good to express it.
Politicians might wish the churches would “stick to their knitting” but, for me, the tragedy will be if the church ever stops caring and speaking out.
For all its failings, the church still exercises a powerful social conscience. Remove it, and Australian society will pay a huge price.
This article first appeared in The Age.