The curiously named job of “Anglican Primate” of Australia has just become vacant, with Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne announcing he will not take on another term in the role.

Being Primate – which means “first among equals” – involves being the titular head of Australia’s Anglicans. The vacancy comes as a hand grenade is about to go off in the church as the small country diocese (region) of  Wangaratta moves to introduce blessings of civil same-sex marriages.

If he had stayed in office, Freier would have presided at a meeting of the General Synod (National Anglican Church parliament) next year – which would have merely discussed same-sex issues. Instead, the landscape has been changed by the hand grenade toss in Wangaratta, and the reaction by Sydney’s evangelicals to insist that a decision-making General Synod be held.

Eternity understands that Freier would have easily won another six-year term as Primate. While Freier has sent the issue of same-sex blessings to the Church’s Appellate Tribunal (Supreme Court), the issue would have come to a head during his new term, perhaps as early as next year.

Instead, the Anglican Church – which has an official stance in favour of traditional marriage but must decide what to do with progressives who want to introduce blessings of civil same-sex marriages – is faced with selecting a new titular head.

In Australian Anglicanism, bishops who head dioceses are elected. There are also regional bishops in places such as Sydney and Melbourne and assistant bishops in other capitals, who are appointed.

Elections often give a clear picture of what sort of church will emerge. But this election has a curious field of candidates.

The Primate is elected traditionally from the “metropolitans” – the archbishops of the mainland capitals.

Sydney is out, because Glenn Davies will retire in 2020. The election will be in August.

Melbourne’s Archbishop is Freier, who has announced he will continue in that role; he’s just stepping down as Primate.

Brisbane is Phillip Aspinall, a progressive, who has already been Primate (2004-2014). He is unlikely to get the job twice.

Perth is Kaye Goldsworthy, the Anglican Communion’s first female Archbishop, and one of the first women priests in Australia. She is on the progressive wing of the Anglican Church and is likely to be a candidate. But the Left does not have the numbers nationally.

That leaves Geoffrey Smith of Adelaide. He is regarded as very “middle”, with a concern to build unity. He believes in a “mixed economy” church, which is Anglican jargon for a church containing both traditionalists and progressives.

The Primate is elected by a board of members of the General Synod, in three “houses” of bishops, clergy and lay (unordained) people. The  lay and clergy houses lean heavily to the conservative side, while the bishops are mixed. A peacemaker with conservative attributes such as Smith would seem the most likely to win that electorate over.

Freier is a centrist, who has attempted to be a peacemaker across the Anglican spectrum. This reflects, in part, his role in Melbourne, which traditionally has had both strongly evangelical and liberal-Catholic groups. However, the effect of church planting and growth in evangelical churches has led Melbourne to become more conservative.

Freier has been a strong supporter of indigenous ministry; he was converted via an Aboriginal ministry.

Of the two likely candidates, Goldsworthy has described herself as being on the “inclusive” side of same-sex marriage issues.

“What I’ve said is that I’m on the inclusive end of that debate,” she told Eternity’s Anne Lim during the postal survey debate, “[but] I recognise that this is a matter that will be decided by the government changing laws about marriage and I don’t see the Anglican Church in this country changing its understanding of marriage.

“But what I do believe is there are a lot of Christians who are saying ‘we need to look at this again, we need to consider what we believe about marriage and what’s possible and how do people for whom marriage is not possible, how do they live a life in which [they have] those things which we might believe God desires for all human beings; that we are capable of being in relationships of trust and care’.”

By contrast, Smith “upholds Lambeth 1:10“. That is Anglican insider talk for opposing same-sex marriage. It refers to a motion passed at the 1998 worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops (in Lambeth, England) that expressed opposition to same-sex marriage. Key clauses committed at the Lambeth Conference 1998 include:

“While rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;

“Cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”

Smith was described to Eternity as “Freier Redux”. Redux means “brought back”, that is “more of the same”. Smith describes himself as a “catholic evangelical.” One key difference from Freier is that Smith is a strong and effective chair of meetings; Freier is not. Smith’s chairing would be a “marked improvement on the current primate,” one Anglican insider told Eternity.

It is possible that some “non-metropolitan” bishops will be mentioned in dispatches as the search for a primate continues. These might include Richard Condie of Tasmania – a key evangelical leader. But Eternity understands the conservatives will seek to build as wide a coalition as possible, in order to paint Wangaratta and other same-sex blessings supporters as outliers.

Another possibility is Mark Short of Canberra-Goulburn, who has only been recently elected. An alternative candidate from the progressives would be Garry Weatherill of Ballarat.


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