Martyn Percy takes on Sydney Anglicanism

Martyn Percy

Martyn Percy, eminent English Academic and until recently Dean of Christ Church, Oxford has written a severe profile of Sydney Anglicanism. “In terms of character, the muscular, masculine Victorian- Edwardian Christianity comes through at every level, Percy writes of Sydney Anglicanism for the anglicanism.org website. “This is an ex-carnational faith, not incarnational; any notion of the ‘social gospel’ will be treated as some abhorrent apostasy.”

Besides being a scholar of note, Percy deserves some sympathy. His time as dean of Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral which is an Oxford College as well as a cathedral was marked by a nasty lawyered-up dispute with allegations of bullying from both sides. 

He has the distinction of being the only living person cited in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as an eminent theologian. (He references this in his Sydney Anglican paper, I am not being mean.) In the book, Sir Leigh Teabing says, “Everything you need to know about the Bible can be summed up by the great canon doctor Martyn Percy: ‘The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.'” This is a revealing quote, despite its provenance. Percy’s criticism of Sydney Anglicanism is based on a very different view of the Bible.

Percy has a distaste for Sydney Anglicanism, unsurprisingly from someone who was head of Ripon College Cuddesdon, a large theological college with a liberal or progressive view. He gets some things about Sydney Anglicanism right, and others wrong. In doing so, he highlights some key issues. But it is laced with insult, accusing Sydney Anglicans of Pelagianism, (a heresy) and worshipping the Bible.

His piece is curiously fuzzy at points and sharply accurate at others. On theological questions it simply reflects someone with different views, possibly someone puzzled and concerned by the resilience and influence of Sydney.

“One can easily mistake the behaviour of Sydney Anglicans as a kind of neo-Puritanism,” Percy writes. “In fact, it has a much more subtle and sophisticated calibration, and as we shall see, the preferred doctrinal priorities, worldviews, attitudes to scripture and church order are all symptoms of the underlying culture.”  Let’s review some of his observations.

Percy is right to point to the “Irish” character of Sydney Anglicanism, highlighted in the person of Thomas Chatterton Hammond an influential principal of Moore College. “T. C. Hammond was an Irish Anglican cleric whose work on reformed theology and Protestant apologetics has been influential among evangelicals across the Commonwealth,” Percy notes. “He was also Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of New South Wales, and a fierce critic of Roman Catholicism. His In Understanding Be Men (IVP, 1936) was still required reading for members of Christian Unions when I was an undergraduate.”

This will be familiar territory with readers of the local history “Sydney Anglicans” by Stephen Judd and Kenneth cable. Based on Judd’s doctoral research, that book details the influence of Hammond on Archbishop Howard Mowll in sharply responding to moderates in the diocese. 

Sydney the city, not simply the diocese, is tribal and it is possible to trace this to the now subsided sectarianism imported from the Emerald Isle to the Emerald City. Sydney Anglicanism does have a combative edge, which has positively contributed to its remaining evangelical, possibly also having tended in the past to unhelpfully resort to the law courts on religious questions. Percy notes in religion “Sydney has more in common with Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast than it does with any other modern city in the 21st century.” The relatively high Sydney “no” vote in the marriage postal survey, compared to say Melbourne, bears this out.

Immediately after briefly and accurately rightly discussing T. C. Hammond as an influential character Percy adds “Sydney’s ecclesiology is the church as God’s people meeting around God’s Word. This leads to church meetings being centred around the public reading, explanation and response to God’s Word. Anglicans in Sydney generally identify themselves primarily with their local congregation rather than a denomination or institution. In other words, their ecclesiology and theology are more akin to that of the Exclusive Brethren than anything else. It is not Anglican, or even especially Evangelical.”

The focus on the local church is absolutely true of Sydney Anglicanism. But it is true of evangelicals in general. Think of Baptists or Churches of Christ – both evangelical denominations. Or Methodism. It also is the way Anglican evangelicals have thought and behaved since Charles Simeon, an early evangelical, invented the student church in Cambridge. It is an evangelical distinctive.

Percy has a large section on the brethren’s influence on Sydney Anglicanism. There has indeed been warm fellowship between Open Brethren (now Australian Christian Community Churches) and Sydney Anglicanism. In writing about the Exclusive Brethren, and their leaders’ love of private jets Percy falls into a smear by association. More seriously Percy ignores local developments.

Having raised T. C. Hammond as an influential Moore College principal, Percy fails to recognise the influence of Principal Broughton Knox and Vice Principal and later Archbishop Donald Robinson in developing Sydney’s attachment to the local church model of evangelicalism. Most Sydney clergy will talk of the “Knox-Robinson” model, a shorthand they all understand. 

Percy notes that Sydney Anglicanism is a subtle response to its environment. He’s right, but he’s missed some important parts of it.

Reading Percy, one would conclude that Sydney Anglicanism has a problem attracting young people. The National Church Life Survey statistics show that young people are well represented in Sydney Anglican and other evangelical churches. It is churches closer to Percy’s view that are aging in Australia.

As a percentage of society as a whole Sydney Anglicans are small drawing 1.5 per cent into their churches on Sunday. Percy is right to say that the majority of Australian youth reject conservative Christianity, but misleading to imply Sydney Anglicans are aging out.

At several points in his paper, Percy raised the metaphor of Sydney Anglicans’ use of the Bible as a “car-repair manual”. For example “The attitude to scripture that is a form of pseudo-science.  Or, is perhaps better understood as a specific mode of congregational engineering. The Bible is read as a ‘manual’ and applied to the breakdowns, repairs and maintenance in the life of a Christian. Thus, if facing the prospect of a divorce (family or friend), you may hear ‘turn to chapter X and verse Y of Book Z’ as the answer and the means of resolution. The Bible is therefore akin to some car-repair manual.”

If this was so, Sydney Anglicans would be six-day creationists. Some are. But most are not. Australian creationists often cite Moore College as the source of their low numbers. Sydney Anglicans believe the Bible needs to be read carefully. Their earnestness can be annoying, as in the turn to your neighbour example. Inevitably some preachers are better than others, but the very different preachers at my church appeal to different members of my family. Always have.

But why not? If the Bible truly contains the words of eternal life, if Jesus did die on the cross to save sinners, however, tired some might be of being reminded of that (a complaint some Sydneysiders make that Percy notes) being earnest, repeating the gospel is exactly what preachers must do.

There is a force to criticisms Percy raises. Sydney Anglicans are flawed. 

The legacy of colonialism is still being faced. Percy is right to point to the colonial wealth of the diocese but probably overplays it as a factor in sustaining it. Class – a problematic legacy of all Anglicans – still holds the diocese back from being a church for all. But in God’s Grace, other churches are sharing the load.

Evangelicals should read critics like Percy charitably as I hope I have done. His paper is at https://anglicanism.org/deconstructing-sydney-anglicanism-past-present-and-futures

Image: Martyn Percy. credit: George Fox Evangelical Seminary


  1. “A half truth, masquerading as a whole truth, quickly becomes an untruth” – JI Packer et al

    • A great man, J I Packer. He was very aware of one of the weaknesses of English Anglican Evangelicalism – its class-ridden nature. So I think there is truth in considering Sydney Anglicanism’s weaknesses too, especially those that derive from a colonial past. The good news is that in my view at least they are being worked on. But I agree: the half-truth to untruth paradigm does apply to Percy’s piece.

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