Anglican principles 'strong enough' to adapt

Bishop John Harrower delivered the annual lecture of the Anglican Institute at Ridley College, 'Being a Church in Mission'.

Bishop John Harrower (centre) with Canon Richard Trist of Ridley's Anglican Institute and Mr Paul Cavanough.

By Mark Brolly

May 10 2016The fundamentals of Anglicanism were strong enough to support new ways of being God’s people and transforming lives at a time when Christian ministry was complex, Bishop John Harrower said recently.

The former Bishop of Tasmania, who now assists Archbishop Philip Freier in Dr Freier’s role as Primate, said the Anglican Fundamental Declarations – as outlined in the Constitution of the Australian Church – resonated with the aims and character of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that the Church be “Christ-centred, Bible-soaked, a Church in society and… a Church at prayer”.

“On these fundamentals we, the Anglican Church of Australia, participate in God’s work in the world,” he said. “These fundamentals are strong enough to support new ways of being God’s people.

“The living God is a missionary God and he calls his people to be a missionary people – and it’s as simple and as complicated as that. Our context demands a refocusing on this primary call.”

Bishop Harrower, who led the Tasmanian Church from 2000-15, was delivering the annual public lecture of the Anglican Institute at Ridley College, Parkville, entitled “Being a Church in Mission: Reflections from Tasmania on the Anglican Church of Australia” on 11 April. He outlined the challenges facing Christians in Australia, and Tasmania in particular, and the solutions he sought to implement during his 15 years in the Apple Isle.

“Two decades of National Church Life Surveys (NCLS) have provided a shocking reality check, grimly detailing the critical decline of the Anglican Church of Australia,” Bishop Harrower said. “The surveys remind us that we live in a time when Christian ministry is complex. The Anglican Church of Australia faces numerous national challenges.”

These included a declining proportion of Christians in the Australian population and Anglicanism’s declining share of the Christian population of Australia; “a terrible history of child sexual abuse by clergy”, though many in the community still regarded the Anglican Church highly; a national structure with limited authority and resources, while the 23 dioceses each had limited authority but significant accountability; a parish culture that was largely parochial (congregational); and the difficulty of working collaboratively across parishes, agencies, dioceses and provinces.

He said the Anglican Church had strong links to the development of Tasmania, where about one in three people were on welfare. Anglicare was the largest non-government organisation in the State in that sector, “well respected in the community and endorsed by government”.

Bishop Harrower said the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census found that about 160,000 of the 500,000 people living in Tasmania declared themselves to be Anglican but that “sadly, only 3000 of them would find themselves in Anglican worship centres on any Sunday morning”.

“The Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s saw church attendance in Tasmania decline by 30 per cent. The Anglican Church of Tasmania faces critical decline.”

Bishop Harrower said many Anglicans had taken these challenges seriously and the key question was whether this brought an openness to deep change that would bring new life “or tolerable minor adjustments that makes slow death more palatable”.

He quoted his predecessor, Bishop Phillip Newell, reflecting on the NCLS 1996 survey results for Anglicanism in Tasmania: “What stands out with clarity is that merely trying to do what we did in the past only better, working harder, pedalling faster, has not turned the ship around. It has, if anything, fuelled the sense of frustration and failure in our clergy and lay leadership. We need a different way of being church.”

Citing the early years of his own episcopate, Bishop Harrower said: “The sexual abuse of children by Anglican Church workers in Tasmania was a scandal that in many ways overwhelmed us in the years, 2001-05. Despite legal and financial counsel to the contrary, I gave an apology to victims of child sexual abuse, initiated a pastoral response, including financial assistance to survivors of abuse. After announcing this pastoral response, I recall a reporter shoving a microphone at me and stating aggressively: ‘So Bishop, you will be responsible for bankrupting the Church?’ I replied: ‘I may be responsible for bankrupting the Church, but I will not be responsible for bankrupting the Gospel of Christ.’”

Bishop Harrower said the Tasmanian diocese responded to the challenges by exploring different patterns of Christian community and missional leadership; showed a willingness to take risks; addressed critical and urgent matters; tried to embed a missional ecclesiology in diocesan life; cultivated a permission-giving culture and a language of mission; and reassigned and rebadged traditional roles, such as archdeacons, who became Mission Support Officers.

“We found that many Anglicans simply did not have the language of mission and were deeply fearful of evangelism,” he said. “Many were ashamed of a perceived personal failure to keep their own children and grandchildren in the life of the Church. Others were profoundly ashamed of the abusive behaviour of some clergy. Many had lost confidence in the Gospel and the work of God in the world. This Church needed to be lovingly re-taught not to be afraid but to trust God and each other.

“We aimed to facilitate the consideration of missional priorities at every level within the diocese.”

Bishop Harrower said not everything had worked as intended and it was difficult to grow “the new” alongside “the old”. But he said the people of God were uplifted when they prayed together, that team ministry built people and projects, and that  partnerships built mission.

“When we are in Christ thoroughly, deliberately and consistently, the Anglican Church in Australia will be what it is called to be, ‘in Christ, in Australia’ – Christians in their family life, workplace, recreation clubs and community groups living fully in Christ,” Bishop Harrower said. “Australians are interested in what they see lived.”

Mr Paul Cavanough, Bishop Harrower’s Director of Ministry Services in Tasmania from 2002, responded, saying he had joined Bishop Harrower after many years in parachurch leadership “having perceived that so much of our Church in Tasmania was not fit for the purpose of growing young disciples of Christ”.

“I am not an ordained person. I have been so – I want to use the word ‘disgusted’ – with the passivity of lay Anglicans. I think it’s best described as clericalism: we just let them do it. That is not the way of Christ… So a challenge to the clergy as well: a rich resource of the Kingdom of God lies in the people God has given you. So let loose the laity. Let loose the clergy.”

After his address, Bishop Harrower was asked about what demands might be expected on the Anglican Church from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“I think there’ll be a great demand on the Anglican Church of Australia to somehow or other have a united response,” he replied. “So the Royal Commission is fed up to the back teeth with the 23 different dioceses all having their separate ways of doing things. And to them, this is seen as an abdication of responsibility and lack of accountability… The discipline of bishops who don’t fulfil the requirements of their role is a massive issue.”

He questioned how smaller dioceses would fund the changes required without help from bigger dioceses. “And so there is a loss of brotherhood and sisterhood often among dioceses big and small… with such a loose federal structure, the Royal Commission has had it to the back teeth and I’d have to say as the former Bishop of Tasmania, I’m pretty fed up with it as well.”

To read or listen to the lecture, including the Q&A, visit