Plebiscite divisions a warning sign for Indigenous recognition poll, says Dr Freier

Archbishop Freier delivered a wide-ranging address on the opening night of the Melbourne Synod on 19 October

Archbishop Freier delivering his Synod charge at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne on 19 October 2016.

PHOTO: Kit Haselden Photography

By Mark Brolly

October 20 2016The divisive nature of the debate about a plebiscite on same-sex marriage was a warning for a referendum on constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but it was essential that this important reform in Indigenous status not be allowed “to drift indefinitely”, Archbishop Philip Freier said on the opening night of Melbourne's Anglican Synod on 19 October.

Dr Freier, who is Archbishop of Melbourne and Anglican Primate of Australia, expressed disappointment that the assumption had been made that Australians were incapable of discussing with civility proposed changes to the Marriage Act to provide for the marriage of same-sex partners.

“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 had reasonable expectations of participating themselves in the decision making on this important issue,” he said. “Stereotyping public opinion ahead of an argument being advanced is unfortunate.”

Archbishop Freier was delivering his Synod Charge (address) to the Synod at St Paul's Cathedral. Read the Charge in full here.

He hoped the announcement in August that the proposed referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians that had been scheduled for May 2017 was not going to proceed, with 2018 now proposed as the earliest likely date, “does not signify a reduction of commitment to bring this opportunity for important change before the Australian people”.

“There has been a long history of this issue being deferred.

“In my view, it is highly likely that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will want any constitutional change to confer on the Commonwealth treaty making powers with the First Nations people of Australia. This will be controversial and will need strong bipartisan commitment between government and opposition parties to gain the public’s confidence. The recent experience of the way the plebiscite about same sex marriage has become a wedge rather than a unifying issue does not fill me with confidence about the capacity of our politicians to unite around the cause of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Notwithstanding that concern it is essential that any apparent difficulties are not permitted to allow this important reform to drift indefinitely.”

Archbishop Freier, who marks 10 years as leader of Melbourne’s Anglicans in December, was prayed for during the Choral Eucharist that traditionally marks the opening of the annual Synod. His assistant bishops and lay leaders of the diocese offered prayers of thanksgiving and for grace, strength and wisdom for Melbourne's 13th Anglican leader since 1847.

In perhaps the most wide-ranging of his Synod Charges of his episcopate in Melbourne, Dr Freier:

* Said he had been appalled by the stories of abuse and the failure of process that followed during the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse;

* Declared that it was “imperative that we break the nexus between indefinite detention and our opposition to people smugglers” in Australia's response to the refugee crisis;

* Warned of the consequences of 15 per cent of Australians facing financial stress simply to survive;

* Regretted that the short-term political cycle worked against an intelligent long-term response to climate change;

* Foreshadowed that the Anglican Church would need a capital investment of just under $1 billion in today’s money to establish even modestly resourced parishes and double its presence in Melbourne and Geelong over the next 35 years to match projected population increases;

* Revealed that the diocese had an untied endowment of just under $35 million, a significant increase compared to 10 years ago, but would need to keep increasing the Church’s financial capacity to generate resources for mission and to keep the growth of contributions from parishes at or below the Consumer Price Index;

* Announced that Hume Anglican Grammar School at Mt Ridley, on Melbourne's northern fringe, would open another campus for an extra 1200 students at a yet-to-be-announced residential development on Donnybrook Road, about 10 kilometres away, from 2019; and

* Updated Synod on the clergy wellbeing program being implemented, which through a philanthropically funded Employee Assistance Program for all clergy of the diocese and their immediate families provided three fully funded sessions with a qualified counsellor, with the possibility of referral for further assistance, and a wellbeing day at each of the three clergy conferences this year that included physical health checks.

On sexual abuse, Archbishop Freier said Victoria's five dioceses – Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo, Gippsland and Wangaratta – had begun work on a uniform Professional Standards system in March 2015.

“The motivation behind the uniform system is to make it easier for survivors of sexual abuse to be able to access an independent process that gives them confidence of a fair hearing and outcome irrespective of the diocesan boundaries within Victoria,” he said. “The Synod of the Diocese of Bendigo has passed cognate legislation and I hope that the passage of the Uniform Professional Standards Bill through our synod will mean that we can combine with Bendigo and bring an independent Professional Standards Corporation into operation. We hope that soon the three other Victorian Dioceses will join this approach.

“As I speak as Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia on this unhappy past, I have wanted to 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, that we learn together and can find ways of celebrating the good and continuing to right the harm of the wrong. St John’s Gospel is very clear about the liberating power of truth – in fact John (chapter eight, verse 32) ‘The truth will set you free’, is the motto of the Anglican Communion. On the way we have the blessing of knowing the encouragement of the good and the beautiful signs of that future, however these will not be seen without an acknowledgement and restoration of the painful history of failure that has been the focus of the Royal Commission’s work.”

Referring to climate change, Dr Freier said that at every international meeting of Anglicans he had attended, climate change was cited as a great evil, “whether from Sudan or Bangladesh or the Pacific”.

“Climate change does not just threaten future harm to the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people; I have been told by church leaders I have met that it is already having that impact.

“The short political cycle works against an intelligent long-term approach. Even the recent power outages in South Australia have been used to argue against the growth of reliance on renewable energy. Nonetheless, we should emphasise our theological insights that arise from the Doctrine of Creation and the Divine imperative of caring for the poor.”

Archbishop Freier said he had discussed the impasse over refugees and asylum seekers at his recent Breakfast Conversation with World Vision Australia’s Tim Costello.

“We cannot leave children and their families in situations of despair and hopelessness. Their humanity along with ours is diminished by the continuation of these harsh policies. It needs people who share this concern to make their voice heard to our politicians.”

Dr Freier said rapidly growing property values were thwarting some efforts to establish an Anglican presence in rapidly growing areas of Melbourne and Geelong.

“It has become clear to me that our planning needs to be pushed out longer than three years and take in at least three synods or nine years,” he said. “Whilst some initiatives have been able to commence, others, especially where the acquisition of new property is concerned, remain thwarted by the rapid growth of property values. Just the property alone that we have looked at as potential church sites in the growth areas over recent months has been valued at in excess of $2 million. Time will tell if there is to be a correction to this growth in prices, some commentators argue that this will occur but we still need to make our plans in the light of the known reality.”

He said the Diocesan Vision and Directions strategy was about making the Church in Melbourne and Geelong more mission-focused.

“Mission must be about engagement in the world and with people who do not share our position of committed Christian belief.”

The Archbishop noted two significant anniversaries – the 170th anniversary of the foundation of the diocese next year and of the consecration of its first bishop, Charles Perry, in Westminster Abbey on 29 June 1847; and this meeting of the first session of the 52nd Synod only days after the 160th anniversary of what had been called, “the first legally constituted Church Assembly in the British Empire” that began in Melbourne on 16 October 1856 and was the forerunner not only of Melbourne's diocesan Synod but a pioneering innovation in church governance in Australia and throughout worldwide Anglicanism.

The Archdeacon for Parish Partnerships, the Venerable Jan Crombie, preached at the Synod service on the Church’s role in relieving poverty and providing hope and practical pathways out of it. Anti-Poverty Week runs from 16 to 22 October.

Archdeacon Crombie said there was “no hand-out ministry with Jesus”.

“So does Jesus choose to live in poverty? No, Jesus chooses to enter poverty and break the cycle, change the circumstances… where Jesus is, is anti-poverty,” she said.

Archdeacon Crombie said the Church had a long history of being responsive to economic hardship – and often the first response must be to help those in immediate dire need, to give food to the hungry and housing to the homeless.

“The practical response, though, is grounded in the long-term goal, and associated processes and programs, of breaking the cycle of circumstances that led to the hunger and homelessness, which thus also involves articulating a better social vision and, usually, political engagement.

“All our agencies, and indeed the Church itself, know how vital it is to interrogate and examine the truth so that resources are well placed to change poverty into hope. The strong message this creates is that together – we care for your future. This is a deep theological driver of Christian action – we care because God cares, cares for your future because we are each God’s creation. We need to make more visible the deep theological roots of Christian social action that have shaped all our agencies into passionate advocates for entering cycles of poverty and empowering the change... that will enable and equip belief in a future of hope.”

Synod resumes at 7pm on 20 October and meets on Friday night and all day Saturday.