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May 2006

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Mark D. Thompson is Lecturer in Theology and Academic Dean at Moore College in Sydney.

Related links:

The New Puritans book launch

Dr Charles Sherlock's speech at the launch

Dr Muriel Porter responds

Extract: Extreme rationalism not good for the Spirit

Mark Thompson, Dean of Moore College, responds

Buy The New Puritans

The New Puritans or the True Anglicans?

by Mark Thompson

Writing books about Sydney Anglicanism would appear to be a growth industry. Just a few years ago Peter Carnley produced his Reflections in Glass: Trends and Tensions in the Contemporary Anglican Church, published by HarperCollins (2003). Though its title masked the fact, the book is essentially an extended and highly critical engagement with a brand of Anglicanism he has long despised: evangelical Anglicanism, especially as it is expressed in the Diocese of Sydney. Last year Chris McGillion's The Chosen Ones: The Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church appeared, published by Allen & Unwin and replete with authorised comment from prominent figures in the events of the eighties and nineties. Here was a treatment of Anglicanism in Sydney with a strong emphasis on the inevitable political dimension of denominational life. Most recently, Muriel Porter's book, The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church has appeared, published by Melbourne University Press, the same people who brought us The Latham Diaries.

Sydney Anglicans are somewhat bemused by all the attention. After all, we have not pursued theological novelty or even a distinctive kind of Anglicanism. We rejoice in the rich fellowship we enjoy with Anglican evangelicals around the world. We treasure our links to contemporary
leaders like John Stott, Dick Lucas and Jim Packer. Without for a moment
being merely antiquarian, we embrace the rich theological contribution of leaders from the past, such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Charles Simeon,
William Wilberforce and Bishop J. C. Ryle, amongst many others. Even a casual glance at the history of Anglicanism will render laughable any suggestion that a robust Anglican evangelicalism is simply a product of the last half a century in an isolated and eccentric part of the world. In fact this form of Anglicanism has a practically unassailable claim to be its classic form. This is no aberration, no product of personal belligerence or political manipulation, no 'fundamentalism' which can be justly equated with the religious fanaticism we all abhor; it is the Anglicanism of
the Thirty-nine Articles, the Homilies and the Book of Common Prayer
(including its prefaces!).

Muriel Porter's book does not agree of course. Yet, as Muriel makes
clear from the very first pages, she has an agenda. She has no intention
of providing an objective or even-handed account of Sydney Anglicanism (p.
6). She hasn't 'employed the techniques of investigative reporting to
attempt to replicate' the perspective of those she wishes to write about (p.
7).

Rather, her book is driven by her opposition to the Diocese of Sydney
on the issue of the ordination of women. This cause has been her passion
for many years but Sydney Anglicans have resolutely resisted this
'innovation', claiming that the teaching of Scripture insists upon both the full
equality of men and women and God-given distinctions in relationship which
are properly expressed in congregational life. So strongly does Muriel
feel about this issue that it colours her presentation of every facet of
Sydney Anglican thought and practice. And she is entirely unapologetic about
that.

The strengths of the book lie in its easily accessible style (Muriel is a journalist after all) and the insistence with which it presents its main thesis. This is the book of a campaigner who has managed to convince herself that her opponents are a threat to life as we know it (or perhaps just Anglicanism as we know it). No one who reads this book will be in any doubt how seriously Muriel views the new burst of enthusiastic leadership provided by the current Archbishop of Sydney and those surrounding him. Her alarm registers on almost every page.

Unfortunately the book is bedevilled by very significant weaknesses. Most significant of them all is the author's inability to rise above polemic in order to accurately portray her opponents and their concerns. Her disclaimer is hardly satisfying: 'if that does not accord with Sydney's self-understanding, then the disparity is something they might need to consider' (p. 7). Is it really acceptable in a piece of public writing to simply excuse yourself from a fair and accurate portrayal of your subject in this way? Is it really acceptable to present published and easily accessible views largely as these are summarised and analysed by others who oppose them (e.g. Duncan Reid's reading of Peter Jensen's The Revelation of God [pp. 50-52] and Kevin Giles' tendentious and highly questionable attacks upon the way Sydney Anglicans understand the doctrine of the Trinity [pp. 89-91]). To my knowledge no Sydney theologian has ever argued that 'the Trinity is not made up of co-equal persons' (p. 90) and it is highly misleading (at least) to suggest otherwise. Further, even a cursory reading of Broughton Knox's famous article on propositional revelation renders inadmissible the parody presented of it in this book.

Finally, Muriel's summary dismissal of 'a plain reading' of the Scriptures
betrays little acquaintance with contemporary literature on the subject (e.g.
the affirmations of the clarity of Scripture by John Webster and
Kevin Vanhoozer). This book is very far from a scholarly engagement with
serious issues. It reads quite often as a piece of propaganda.

In addition the book is riddled with generalisations and bold assertions which cannot be sustained. On occasion these are qualified in the footnotes but left to stand unadorned in the text in a way which is very close to misleading. Take for example Muriel's comments about the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. She considers them 'a quaintly worded, seriously limited summary of Anglican understandings of faith and doctrine, which are scarcely relevant to modern Australian life' (p. 16). Several lines later she acknowledges that 'theologians who have studied them closely take a more positive view'. She rightly points out that Anglican lay people are not required to subscribe to the Articles but then says 'clergy have not had to subscribe to them in full since 1865' (p. 16). However in a footnote she has to admit that 'Australian clergy subscribe to the Articles more specifically than their English counterparts' (p. 161 n. 19). So when she pillories those who are 'elevating the Articles to a position just below holy writ' (p. 17), we are not only being subjected to yet another caricature, our attention is being conveniently diverted from the place of the Articles in the current constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia (para. 4 under the heading 'Ruling Principles').

A comment ought to be made about the rhetorical devices adopted in the book. Muriel repeatedly seeks to damn the Sydney position on any subject by the use of such expressions as 'the resurgent religious right' (p. 1), 'fundamentalist' (p. 22), 'sect' (p. 4), taking 'religious rationalism to the extreme' (p. 24), 'the "novel" doctrine' (p. 91). She paints the personnel and the theological position of Sydney Anglicans as extreme, at more than one point offensively equating it with fundamentalist Islam (e.g. p. 104). The insistence that sexual activity is only appropriate within the marriage relationship of a man and a woman is presented as reminiscent of the Donatist heresy rather than mainstream Christian teaching over two thousand years (p. 147).

At Moore College in Sydney I was taught to seek an understanding even of those with whom I might most ardently disagree. Presenting the views and practices of other traditions honestly, seeking to bear the weight of their objections to your own tradition of thought and practice, avoiding cheap shots, glib labels and other rhetorical sleight of hand, simply makes for real and substantial engagement with their position in the first place and then gives added potency to a careful explanation of why you cannot go their way. Unfortunately, all we are left with in Muriel's book is a partisan caricature of a group of people she just does not understand or even want to understand. As a result, her book will be welcomed only by those who have already made up their mind. Oh, but at least it has
given another opportunity to those who wish to vent their spleen against
Sydney Anglicanism without ever listening first.

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