General Synod, Lambeth in doubt even in 2021, says new Primate

TMA sits down with new Anglican Primate Geoff Smith, Archbishop of Adelaide

Archbishop of Adelaide Geoff Smith, who has succeeded Archbishop Philip Freier as Australia's Anglican Primate.

By Mark Brolly

July 8 2020Australia's new Anglican Primate, Archbishop Geoff Smith of Adelaide, questions whether the deferred meetings of General Synod and the Lambeth Conference of the world's Anglican bishops will go ahead in 2021 but expects both to be shaped by the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 if they do.

But he said the adaptations forced by coronavirus offered huge opportunities for Anglicans to explore how an online Church presence might work. 

Archbishop Smith also said some of the Church's decision-making governance structures "do not assist us in discussing complex matters", making the nurturing of relationships very important to avoid fragmentation.

He identified two initiatives of his predecessor as Primate, Melbourne's Archbishop Philip Freier, that he wants to follow, as well as pursuing existing priorities of his own.

And, in an email interview with TMA, he revealed that he and his wife Lynn are beekeepers!

The Brisbane-born Archbishop succeeded Dr Freier, whose resignation after almost six years as Primate took effect on 31 March, after an electronic ballot by the Primatial Board of Electors in early April.

"Coronavirus has meant that the start of my time in the role has been very different to what I had imagined and just how things will develop is not at all certain yet," Archbishop Smith said. 

"Having said that, I think there is a great deal of goodwill among the bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia and a real intent to work together and work through the challenges we face. I look forward to being a part of that. 

"Archbishop Freier initiated a couple of things which I hope will continue. One of those was a training program for new bishops, and the other was an intentional developing of relationships between bishops in the Pacific. I am already involved in the Council of the Church of East Asia and I hope to continue to build relationships with the church in that part of the world. Given our autonomous structure, relationships are vital in helping to keep the Anglican wheels moving forward together so I hope to continue to build on those important relationships."

Asked how General Synod and the Lambeth Conference might be different in 2021 than they would have been this year if not postponed due to coronavirus, Archbishop Smith replied: "I think there is a question mark over whether those two gatherings will take place in 2021. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about next year. If Lambeth happens as an international gathering, many bishops will be attending whose dioceses have been severely impacted by COVID-19, with many deaths, a great deal of illness and significant economic hardship. I think if Lambeth happens, it will be a sombre event with much focus on those parts of the world that continue to suffer. 

"If General Synod happens next year as a face-to-face meeting and if Australia continues to be free or largely free of COVID-19, I expect the meeting will be marked by thanksgiving, but again mindful of the people who are suffering especially in an economic sense. That might prompt the Synod to reflect on our priorities as a church reflecting the love of God to the world."

Archbishop Smith, asked how well placed the Anglican Church of Australia and the worldwide Anglican Communion were to respond effectively to secularism in the Western world, to regain public trust and confidence after the child sexual abuse revelations in recent decades and to deal with contentious issues such as same-sex marriage, said there were a variety of circumstances ranging from rapid growth to rapid decline across the Communion. 

"In terms of the Western world, there is no doubt that the influence of secularism and atheism is strong and has been building for several hundred years -- this is not new," he said.

"The Anglican Church of Australia faces a long road to regain public trust due to the influence of secularism and atheism, especially fundamentalist atheism, and given the revelations of child sexual abuse, which for many people just reinforced what they already thought about the Church. The way to regain public trust will be by action, not words. We need to demonstrate the power of God’s love, not just talk about it, and we need to demonstrate that we are an organisation which is worthy of public trust.

"The Anglican Church of Australia has been dealing with contentious issues for most of its existence -- this also is not new. Some of our decision-making governance structures do not assist us in discussing complex matters and that makes relationships very important. Given the challenging times we face missionally, we need to work together not allow ourselves to fragment. My view is that there is goodwill and a desire to work together, but doing that will require energy, commitment and hard work."

He said COVID-19 had provided the Church with huge opportunities. 

"Clergy and lay leaders have shown significant capacity for rapid change and creativity. People who are not usually connected with the worshipping life of the Church have shown they can be interested if the medium actually works for them. We will need to work through what a continuing online church presence looks like for the Church because there does seem an opportunity for that."

Archbishop Smith, who has led Adelaide's Anglicans since 2017, was born and raised in Brisbane and has two younger sisters. 

"We had a very happy and stable household with wider family nearby," he said. "There were quite a few families of similar age in our area so the kids from up and down the road played together. As we grew older, we played cricket in summer and football (Australian Rules and Rugby League) in winter."

He was baptised in the Anglican Church when he was two months old and has been participating ever since. 

"Both my parents were committed Anglican Christians, so church was a major part of our life.

"Knowing God through Jesus Christ is a huge privilege, and for me it is dynamic with a very present experience of God leading and guiding, prompting and teaching me. Sharing in God’s vision of the Kingdom of God gives me purpose and great hope for the world.

"Anglicanism has a system of balances which I appreciate. There is a balance between word and sacrament, between centralised authority and autonomy, between episcopal leadership and synodical control, between word and deed.

"My uncle, who is a priest, asked me when I was about 15 whether I had thought of being a priest," Archbishop Smith said. "I said, ‘No, I want to be a barrister’, but actually the idea of ordination stayed with me from that time. I attended a selection conference in Brisbane when I was 19 and was ordained for Grafton diocese when I was 23. I have never regretted being ordained so young and have had an absolutely blessed time as an ordained person."

Since ordination, he has served in ministries ranging from Rector of Taraka in Papua New Guinea, first Vicar of the Parochial District of Sawtell-Bonville in Grafton diocese, National Director of the Anglican Board of Mission – Australia and Bishop of the Southern Region, and later Registrar, of the Brisbane diocese. 

"Each of the contexts I have ministered have contributed to my formation. In my second curacy at Lismore, I experienced really extraordinary leadership and team formation from Greg Ezzy, the Rector of the parish. In PNG, we learned faith and saw clearly the impact of culture on Christian expression. Sawtell and Ballina were wonderful parish communities of people who really wanted to reach out and grow and were prepared to have a go. In Brisbane, I learned to be a bishop and the General Manager/Registrar role enabled me to work with a group of fantastic lay executives who taught me a great deal."

Archbishop Smith and his wife Lynn have two adult children and a daughter-in-law -- all living in Brisbane.

In Adelaide, they have two beehives in their backyard and also relax by cycling ("on flat terrain", the Archbishop adds), bushwalking and exploring South Australia.