More Sydney Anglican criticism, and a response

Martyn Percy

Conservative Christianity is unpopular says Martyn Percy. He’s right, but Jesus predicted unpopularity, didn’t he? Martyn Percy was responding on Thinking Anglicans to my piece “Martyn Percy takes on Sydney Anglicanism”

My further response is below.

Martyn Percy in Reply

I am very grateful for John Sandeman’s careful riposte. As with most anthropological snapshots, a small range of pictures and vignettes tell a story. But I cannot claim that 7500 words from me on Sydney Anglicans are going to be comprehensive, and I would not dream of saying so. My impression in meeting some of their laity and clergy was of encountering normal and faithful Christians, albeit with a highly distinctive theological construction of reality. Do I think Sydney Anglicans are creationists? No. Fundamentalists? No – and I was careful to state this. Brethren? Mostly.

What I would say back by way of careful riposte to John Sandeman’s comment is that numbers and statistics – quantity – really don’t tell us as much about the quality of church attendance as some may like to suppose. As I pointed out in one of the seminars I gave in the city, it is a conceit of clergy to suppose that those sitting in the pews agree with their sermons, outlooks or beliefs. Most people have other reasons to be in church. Besides working out whether or not they agree with the sermon, and whether or not to say anything about it, or just maintain a diplomatic silence, other reasons to be in church include God, worship, friends and fellowship. Clergy are not as central as some suppose.

Does every Roman Catholic agree with their priest, bishop, Cardinal or current Papal pronouncement? No. Does every Sydney Anglican tow the Gafcon line? No.

The other caveat to remember is that there is often an inverted numerical relationship between institutional membership and wider public support. UK polling on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in his final two years as leader, found that he could double or triple local party membership, sometimes enabling local constituency parties to have several hundred members. That was exceptional. But in the same constituencies, the Labour vote totally collapsed. So more members, but voters deserted in droves. Labour had to wrestle with a painful statistic. For every party member recruited a hundred voters were lost. As some university chaplains opine, for every convert the Christian Union recruit, dozens are put off the church permanently.

Party politics walks the line between attracting members (the few) and needing supporters (the many). Churches are similar and have to contend with the inverted equation that the more they stress membership, the more likely it is the public withdraw. Political parties need both members (to campaign and organise) and supporters (i.e., voters, without which they’ll never be in power). This is the parable for churches too. The parable applies to the CofE as much as it does to Sydney Anglicanism.

Sydney Anglicans may well claim there are 1.5% of the population who identify with them. However, it would take a substantial qualitative study to tell us what that 1.5% comprises, let alone what it means. It would be premature to infer whether that 1.5% was tilting towards decline or growth.

A response

Martyn Percy puts one key argument for liberal or progressive Christianity succinctly – and well. If only we got rid of parts of Christianity that people find hard to accept, the church might flourish in a common progressive lament. 

At the present moment, it is the “culture war” issues around LGBTQIA persons that make conservative Christianity unpopular in the anglosphere and other western nations.

It is a deeply felt hurt among progressive Christians like Percy and sexual minorities.

Those of us who are conservative on these issues do well to speak carefully, with restraint, and through tears. 

My memory of doing my Bible and Missions diploma at Moore was that the so-called flagship doctrine of “complementarianism,” the College’s conservative view restricting women from the role of Senior Minister of a church only came up once. I have an abiding impression that that lecture was added very late that year because someone realised the topic had not been dealt with.

The point is that, despite the strongly held views in the Sydney diocese, one can go for a long time without hearing about them. That is due in part to the practice of “expositional” preaching, of moving through Bible books passage by passage. And the Bible verses about homosexual sex number six out of 20,000.

But Christian groups tend to be known for their distinctive, think Baptists so called because they have distinctive views and only baptise adults, or Presbyterians, named after the greek word for elder because that’s who runs their churches.

So if outsiders define Sydney Anglicans by some distinctive doctrines, we need to bear with that.

Martyn Percy is right that some of the things we say make us unpopular. Yet a fully worked out social-justice-oriented Christianity has unpopular things to say also. Voluntary “downward social mobility” as the Catholic writer Jean Vanier advocated as the Christian’s proper path will never be popular either. We can’t blithely assume any strain of Christianity will be popular.

Vanier lived out his faith by founding the L’Arche movement, communities for people living with a disability. Sadly he also exemplified the tragedy of Christian leaders committing sexual abuse – a saint and sinner in one.

The frustration progressives feel about conservative Christians – and the more churches we plant and the more people who attend them only makes the problem worse in their eyes – is of course mirrored by what conservatives see as a false path. Conservatives get frustrated by progressive churches too.

“Enter through the narrow gate,” said Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

This is a hard saying. The implication is clear, only a few find a path that leads to life.

Jesus is not predicting popularity for his followers. 

There is a trap to this. Unpopularity is no guarantee of truth. The Internet tells me many conservative Christians wear unpopularity as a badge of honour. But Sydney Anglicans should be aware they are viewed as quislings of evangelicalism by those who regard themselves as purer. 

The badge of unpopularity can lead us to define ourselves by what we are not. This is the reverse of the caricature of progressives being all too ready to fit into “what’s happening now.” And yes, people fall into both these traps.

I have noticed that ministers more often fear what Martyn Percy describes as “a conceit of clergy to suppose that those sitting in the pews agree with their sermons, outlooks or beliefs.”

In my experience, preachers are more likely to fear their message has not come across rather than exaggerate their communication prowess. It could be that both what I have experienced and the phenomenon Percy describes can be found.

There is an odd safeguard in having some unpopular views, in that a preacher will avoid assuming people agree with them. So conservative preachers rightly might wonder if people agree with them, and a more progressive preacher in a progressive society might be inclined to think people agree with them.

But church is voluntary. In a society like Australia, which inherited from the convict era a cynical attitude towards the church – and which can be seen in Australian literature from Henry Lawson through Patrick White to the present – few if any go to church for social cachet.

I’ll grant Hillsong an exception because that movement has created in their music a powerful connection to many Australians.

There is a disturbing development of people who hold conservative political and conservative theological views together, which they are free to do, embarking on deriding those they disagree with. This sort of combativeness veers over towards fundamentalism. We need to work hard at not doing this.

And given that Percy is correct in his diagnosis, that some of the beliefs of evangelical Christians in our society are off-putting to many, we need to persist in good works so that our father in heaven is glorified.

Martyn Percy asks us an unanswerable question. Does the 1.5 per cent of Sydneysiders attending an Anglican church represent growth or decline? 

It is a flat line if plotted across the last couple of decades. But a steady number of people in the pews and seats represents a decline in a growing city. Perhaps we need to allow for the export of people to other parts of Australia to counteract part of this.

The question of whether Sydney Anglicans turn out to be an embattled conservative group left behind by history depends on whether they can grow west with their growing city. Sydney is expected to add 80,000 people per year for the next few decades. A new church building a year for the next 34 years, and the people to fill it, are required just to keep pace. That was the chief topic of the recent Synod (church parliament). Churches of all sorts in every capital will need to ask similar questions.

Does God need the Sydney Anglicans? Of course not. But if they make the sacrifice and the effort that their beliefs call them to, the answer to Martyn Percy’s question of whether their numbers tilt up or down will be “up.” If God wills.