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Child protection, response to survivors most urgent issues for General Synod: Primate

Primate sets General Synod agenda in opening address

PHOTO: Chris Shearer

By Mark Brolly

The most urgent issues facing the national parliament of the Anglican Church, General Synod, were child protection and the Church’s response to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the Church’s Primate, Archbishop Philip Freier, told the opening business session of the Synod in Maroochydore on 4 September.

In his President’s Address to Synod, Melbourne’s Archbishop Freier said legislation to be considered on safe ministry to children, participation in the Federal Government’s proposed Commonwealth Redress Scheme and episcopal standards had been brought to the Synod by its Standing Committee “as coherent measures to respond to the failures that have been exposed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse”.

“Lamentation is a proper response to the pain and shame of our failures,” Dr Freier said.

“Developing the theological tradition of lament will give us a different perspective. For many cultures like ours, radical personal autonomy is highly valued. This enshrines high individualism and low commitment to a responsibility or things that go beyond the immediate and the personal. It is no wonder that confidence in many aspects of how we organise society, from politics to institutions, are at an all-time low. Without a sense of our involvement in something bigger, and the responsibilities that this participation carries, assumed values like the common good seem alien or antiquated. Lament takes us from this restricted sense of self to a larger one that is framed by the great moments of salvation history; creation, redemption and the consummation of all things in Christ.

“Lamentation, rightly understood, brings us to the place where we own the responsibility of the Church for all of our history, the true history, in both its positive and negative impacts. It is in this way, by truth telling and standing under the judgement of God, that we learn together and can find ways of still celebrating the good as we continue to right the harm of the evil. St John’s Gospel is very clear about the liberating power of truth — in fact, John 8:32, ‘The truth will set you free’, is the motto of the Anglican Communion.”

Archbishop Freier said the Royal Commission had already made a number of important recommendations to Government that had been discussed at  number of Church forums, while the Church’s Royal Commission Working Group, led by Sydney barrister Mr Garth Blake SC, had served Anglicans well in developing responses.

“We have a responsibility to act, to review and to improve,” he said.

On other matters, Dr Freier acknowledged that Anglicans had strongly held and different views on two contentious public issues — euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

“The right to choose has dominated ethical discussion in the West in the past 50 years, and in general free choice is a good thing for us. But not, I believe, in the choice to shorten our life.

“Christians should not fear death, but we may well fear the process of dying, which involves pain, vulnerability and humiliation over a long period. So I understand and acknowledge that. But I cannot in good conscience support the state intervening to end lives via assisted suicide.”

Archbishop Freier said euthanasia and assisted suicide risked abandoning those in greatest need, who deserved society’s care and support.

On same-sex marriage, he said it was likely Australians would soon be given the opportunity to vote on changing the marriage law to include same-sex couples, subject to the High Court’s determination on the postal survey proposed by the Government.

Dr Freier reiterated that he intended to vote “No”, while not presuming to advise others how they should vote, and expressed disappointment at the lack of confidence in Australians’ ability to discuss the issue with civility.

“I think Anglicans are capable of a respectful discussion without vilifying our opponents and respecting that each side’s position can be principled and considered,” he said. “Kindness in our speech should be the hallmark of our engagement in difficult issues. For me, the most disturbing part of the recent discussion has been the assumption that Australians are incapable of discussing this matter with civility. It is unfortunate that this rhetoric, that we are well accustomed to in party political debate, has been applied to a large part of the electorate who reasonably expected to share a direct role in the decision. Stereotyping public opinion ahead of an argument being advanced is divisive and destructive of public discourse.”

Archbishop Freier said the Church understood the desire of two people to express their commitment of love and self-sacrifice to each other.

“It is undeniably true that LGBTQI people have felt judged and rejected, even ostracised, inside the Church and that we must be more attentive to pastoral sensitivity.”

* On domestic violence, Dr Freier said there had been recent suggestions in the media that Christian teaching could increase the likelihood of violence. But he declared that no Christian teaching endorsed or supported domestic violence.

* Archbishop Freier, who has spent much of his working life and ministry among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, said there had been a number of missed opportunities for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians but this year’s “Uluru Statement from the Heart” confirmed that Indigenous people wanted any constitutional change to confer on the Commonwealth real “agreement-making” powers with the First Nations people of Australia.

“This is controversial and will need strong bipartisan commitment to gain the public’s confidence,” he said. “The recent experience of the way the plebiscite about same-sex marriage became a wedge rather than a unifying issue does not fill me with confidence that our politicians can unite over constitutional recognition. Even so, it is essential that any apparent difficulties are not permitted to allow this important reform to drift indefinitely.”

* Dr Freier said climate change had been cited as a great evil at every international meeting of Anglicans he had attended, whether from Sudan or Bangladesh or the Pacific. But the short political cycle worked against an intelligent long-term approach.

“The Christian position here is clear: we have a moral imperative to care for all of God’s creation and the most vulnerable,” he said. “In response to God’s gift of life, we must act to protect our earth, our environment and our fellow humans. Climate change is also a social concern and a justice concern, as well as a political and economic concern.”

* Archbishop Freier expressed deep concern at the recent announcement by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that welfare services would be cut to about 100 asylum seekers brought to Australia for medical treatment.

“This is just the latest in a series of decisions to place vulnerable people in even more exposed conditions,” he said.

“As with climate change, the political debate and economic factors have allowed ethical questions to go unasked, let alone answered. For example, Australia and other nations often admit wealthy immigrants without asking how they acquired their wealth — provided they don’t come by boat!”

He expressed gratitude for Anglican churches, which did “ a huge amount” at the grassroots level to help and care for refugees and urged Anglicans to remember St Paul’s exhortation “not to grow weary of doing good”.

* Rural dioceses largely reflected Australia’s demographic patterns of a century ago, when more Australians lived in rural and remote regions than in the capital cities, Dr Freier said.

“The population decline in many parts of rural and regional Australia is impacting significantly on the Church and particularly the Anglican Church, which for over 200 years has built a presence right across this land.”

Anglicans in the 2016 Census made up 13% of the population, compared with 34% in 1966, and this decline was reflected in many rural and regional churches and congregations, presenting significant challenges to dioceses. Fewer than half of these rural churches were served by full-time ministry.

Yet in the 10 years to June 2016, the number of Australians living in capital cities had risen by 2.9 million people.

“I think that it is evident that this growth has stretched each diocese where it has occurred and means that planting churches in these growing communities remains a very high priority,” Archbishop Freier said.

Dr Freier concluded his address: “There are many things that I have spoken about in this address that give no cause for pride or satisfaction… As hard and troubling as the journey is, we are always held in the truth of the Resurrection as we await the coming of the new heavens and the new earth where there is ‘no more death or crying or pain’ (Revelation 21:4). This is our hope, this is our future. May we walk towards it together in these next days in Maroochydore.”

The General Synod, which meets every three to four years, is due to conclude on 8 September.