Now to Reinvent the Church
The Age [Australia]
May 31, 2003
The Hollingworth crisis has given the Anglican Church an opportunity it must not pass up,. says Muriel Porter.
The Anglican Church in this country is at a defining moment in its history. Peter Hollingworth was its most high-profile bishop ever, even before he was appointed governor-general.
He was a well-known "face" of Anglicanism for all Australians. His reputation as "bishop to the poor" commanded widespread respect and approval. The vast majority of Anglican churchgoers looked up to him as a significant leader.
His downfall then is also, in part, his church's downfall. While he has been accused of being soft on perpetrators of sexual abuse, so has his church.
He is not alone. He is just the public face of the failure of the wider church to care adequately for sexual abuse victims.
Although the spotlight has been trained on Hollingworth personally, the Anglican Church has also been caught in its glare.
So it is not a good time to be an Anglican. Morale - not very high to begin with, after a few decades of inexorable decline - has plummeted. Many churchgoers are now confused and angry, and their clergy are unsure how to respond.
But if they are looking to their leaders to assist them at this time of unprecedented trauma, they are looking in vain.
The Primate, Archbishop Peter Carnley, is out of the country for five weeks, and unavailable. Other archbishops are either on holidays or have remained mostly silent. There are exceptions. Archbishop Peter Jensen, of Sydney, has spoken up regularly, and Bishop John Harrower, of Tasmania, has implemented a radical plan to compensate victims.
But it took the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, to say what many Anglicans privately believe: that no priest or bishop should have taken the job of governor-general in the first place.
The lot has fallen to Anglican laypeople to respond to media calls to help the general public understand what is going on from a church perspective. For instance, Stephen Howells, a Melbourne barrister and Anglican lay leader, has by default become a key church spokesman. This is ironic in a church as fundamentally hierarchical as the Anglican Church, where bishops regularly espouse the episcopal prerogative to provide leadership.
Parishioners and clergy want help as they struggle to make sense of this painful crisis. They want assurances - from the top - that their church is seriously engaged in re-examining its past behaviour. They want to hear that it is working urgently to ensure that there are no more victims.
Above all, they want someone in authority to proclaim from the rooftops that those who have been abused are now the church's top priority. That it is the victims who need and deserve concern, care and compassion first and foremost, not the institutional church or its present and former leaders.
And they also need their leaders to acknowledge publicly the deep, deep shame most church people feel at all that has happened.
They then want their leaders to commit their church to whatever reform and renewal will be needed to bring it into line with the teachings of the church's founder, Jesus Christ, who was concerned above all for "little ones", both children and vulnerable adults.
Inevitably, this will mean confronting the innate abusiveness of church structure and culture. Structural reform is well overdue, and this crisis could well be the impetus needed to instigate it.
The danger is that as Peter Hollingworth retreats from the scene and the furore over sexual abuse dies down, church leaders will quietly breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, the promised protocols will be enacted, but not much more.
Adopting a policy of "least said, soonest mended", they will return to the demands of administering a top-heavy, under-resourced and unwieldy organisation.
How I pray that will not happen! Defining moments, both for individuals and institutions, do not come all that often. When they do, they have to be seized, painful as that might be. They can, in fact, be life-giving and transforming, if the challenge is met full on.
This crisis offers the Anglican Church a unique opportunity to reinvent itself for the sake of the Gospel it exists to preach. Its future in 21st century Australia might actually depend on it.
Please God it will not pass up this opportunity.
Dr Muriel Porter, an Anglican laywoman, and the author of Sex, Power and the Clergy (Hardie Grant Books, 2003), writes regularly on religion for The Age.
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