Anglican leadership in a time of crisis

Who makes church decisions in a time of crisis?

By Bruce Everett

May 4 2020The Anglican Church’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has starkly demonstrated the three-fold office of ministry and leadership in the church. This division of responsibilities commonly refers to the ordained roles of bishops, priests, and deacons. Rather than this division just being “rank order” for the purpose of the Church’s hierarchical structure, its “ordering” allows for listening and action at both a local and centralised level. 

So, who makes the decisions in this three-fold office of leadership? The coronavirus crisis is a good example of where, for public safety and safe workplace reasons, the decision was taken to suspend public services in the church buildings. The Archbishop’s Ad Clerum on 21 March 2020 stated: “I am writing to you to ask that you advise members of your parish or other ministries that effective from Monday, 23 March 2020, regular public services and parish organised group activities are suspended within the Diocese of Melbourne.”

In my local parish of St Agnes’ Black Rock, a similar decision was made locally by the priest-in-charge and Parish Council on Monday 16 March. It was communicated via a Pastoral Letter on 17 March which stated: “I write to let you know that Parish Council has decided to cancel all public gatherings at the church from today until April the 20th. The Parish Council will convene again on April 20th to review the situation and offer further advice.” Both communications demonstrated good reasons, referenced public health agency advice, and shared the concern for vulnerable practitioners (especially given that the average age at St Agnes is 80), but who had the right to make this decision? Should St Agnes’ Parish Council and priest have waited for the directive from the broader Church or was it right to make a local church decision?   

Avery Dulles acknowledges that no church leadership model is perfect for all circumstances but “we assess models and theories, by living out the consequences to which they point.” Does the theory and practice align? Does it bear the fruits of the spirit? Does it show the “connaturality” or instinctual sense of Christ at work? The theory of the three-fold model of church leadership is that all three roles of Deacon, Priest and Bishop play their distinctive roles. So, to apply the Dulles test of consequences, in theory the priest-in-charge is licensed to operate in their assigned church as the agent of the Archbishop. Also under The Parish Governance Act 2013, the priest-in-charge “works in cooperation with the churchwardens and parish council in ensuring that the governance and management of the parish serves the identity and whole mission of the church.” Provided that the priest follows Canonical Law and the limits to their authority, as well as Doctrinal orthodoxy, then the priest has the licence to build up the Church and grow the kingdom of God. In this decision to close the church because of coronavirus, there is empowerment for local decisions. 

However, is this local decision assuming the responsibility for centralised decision-making? This is where I’d suggest that the Dulles test of the alignment of theory and practice comes in. In making this decision, the priest-in-charge did not act unilaterally. The case for action was made, debated and decided in conjunction with the Parish Council. The decision was communicated to the Bishop and Archbishop on 17 March, with an invitation to respond, either in support or opposition to the local decision. The subsequent Ad Clerum on 21 March then provided guidance to all churches in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. The theory of devolved decision-making, backed by effective communication, seems to have worked in practice.

The Dulles third test is in the fruits of the Spirit. How have the St Agnes’ parishioners responded to the closing of the church? Have they responded with love, joy, patience, kindness etc. or has this decision created inner turbulence, anger, discord and the like? Yes, the decision has been made in love to care and protect, however, grief is here and acceptance is still coming. Also, what signal has this sent to the local community? What fruit will it produce? Is this church proving again to be irrelevant (see note 1) and going against its mission of community caring or it is rather an opportunity for God to be glorified? Not only does the priest-in-charge have the licence to operate from the Archbishop, but increasingly there is a social licence to operate from the community. That is, the informal “licence” granted by various stakeholders who may be affected by the church’s activities.  

Above all, the three-fold office of ministry is about leadership. It is not the three-fold office of “management”, where decisions are escalated upwards to the higher “orders” and then executed through top-down “orders”. Nor is it an excuse for decentralised or devolved decision-making in isolation from the centre. It is about ministry and demonstrating pastoral care to parishioners in this coronavirus case. But it is also about leadership and good decision-making, including in terms of risk management. Indeed, it can be seen to align to modern business thinking, which uses the “Three Lines of Defence” model (see note 2) for identifying and mitigating risks though local and centralised action. The response to the coronavirus pandemic has starkly demonstrated the three-fold office of ministry, where leadership works at all levels. Decision-making is devolved, but within the prescribed limits of the licence to operate, and with accountability not only to the Church, but also to the community. After all, the gift of authority in the Church is only properly used when it is employed to glorify God, build up the Church and grow the kingdom of God.


Note 1: Bishop John Parkes said in his final sermon as Bishop of Wangaratta that for an increasing number of Australians, the Church was irrelevant. “They just ignore us. And they ignore us because by and large we’ve got nothing to say into the public sphere about the issues that matter to them.” (See The Melbourne Anglican, February 2020)

Note 2: See https://www.apra.gov.au/ or the Institute of Internal Auditors http://iia.org.au/sf_docs/default-source/technical-resources/2018-fact-sheets/three-lines-of-defence.pdf?sfvrsn=2 


Bruce Everett is a member of the Social Responsibilities Committee of the Melbourne Diocese.