On Prophetic Leadership in the likeness of Jesus

Dr Muriel Porter OAM delivered this homily at the Midsumma Mass in Saint Mark’s Church on Friday 5 February 2016.

Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…”

This Gospel passage is often described as the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ – Jesus’ ‘mission statement’. It comes immediately following his baptism in the River Jordan and then his temptation in the wilderness, the 40 days of wrestling with his vocation.

Returning home to Nazareth after this seismic experience, “filled with the power of the Spirit”, he proclaims his anointing to “bring good news to the poor… release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind” and freedom for the oppressed. There can be no doubt that this prophetic work is not just his calling – it is also ours: the calling of all who are baptized into his death and resurrection.

This past week we have actually witnessed some prophetic leadership from Anglican church leaders, after the High Court declared off-shore detention constitutional, raising the possibility that 37 babies, some older children and their parents – 267 people in all – could be packed off back to the hell hole that is Nauru within days.

The next morning the Primate, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, urged the Prime Minister to “step up with something that changes that narrative” of using punitive measures like detention as a form of deterrence. He called on him “to step forward and say no this is not good enough, these children, these babies are not going to be sent to Nauru”.

Across the country, deans of at least three cathedrals – Brisbane, Perth and Hobart, though sadly not Melbourne, despite its external sign welcoming refugees –opened their doors to provide sanctuary for these vulnerable people, to prevent their transfer to hell. Numbers of parish churches, and churches of other denominations, quickly did likewise. Those clergy know they face the possibility of lengthy jail sentences in offering sanctuary.

This leadership came as a welcome relief just days after we had been hearing so many stories of poor, confused and even unscrupulous leadership in testimony at the Royal Commission hearings into the churches’ response to child sexual abuse. We saw a procession of retired bishops and archbishops apologizing for their failure to stand up for vulnerable abused people, deciding instead to protect the institution.

Nothing prophetic about the way the church responded to the cries of those in need over several decades! The church they tried to protect has instead reaped national disgrace.

All this just a few weeks after the Primates’ meeting in Canterbury, where we witnessed once again the instinctive drive to protect the institution above human need.

The aim of the meeting was to try to find a way of keeping together the 37 disparate churches they lead in the face of tensions between liberals and conservatives going back almost 20 years. That aim says it all, really – the focus was not on resolving the church’s response to the needs of the gay and lesbian community, supposedly the issue behind their divisions, but on holding the church together.

We all know the outcome. They held the Anglican Communion together – albeit in an uneasy, unsatisfactory truce – by sacrificing gay and lesbian people. 

The churches are holding together because they have punished The Episcopal Church – the Anglican Church in the United States – for their support of same-sex marriage, and clergy in same -sex partnerships. For the next three years, that church has effectively been sent to Coventry, banned from participating in a range of international Anglican meetings and groups. As the Guardian newspaper’s front page headline put it, ‘Schism averted, but liberals pay the price’.

It was a pathetic, hypocritical outcome that made me hang my head in shame.

There are echoes of the church’s initial response to allegations of sexual abuse: the over-riding concern is to protect the institution at all costs, in this instance to allow the worldwide Anglican bishops’ club to remain intact. Over the decades that I have been involved in national church life, I have seen that this is a prime concern for Anglican bishops. It transcends almost everything else.

Sadly, in the light of this, I reflect that the exciting leadership we have seen from Anglican leaders this week was in fact a relatively easy option for them. All the bishops in this country, as far as I am aware, agree in their opposition to off-shore detention. So taking on the federal government on this issue presents no threat to episcopal unity.

But on same-sex marriage? I know that numbers of the bishops of our dioceses have no problem with loving, monogamous same-sex partnerships, and have quietly inducted clergy in these situations into parishes. But given the virulent opposition from certain other dioceses, they feel they dare not speak out for fear of threatening episcopal unity. And so governments and the  media are left assuming that the Anglican Church in this country is united in its opposition to same-sex marriage. Oh how silly our church is going to look in just a few short years!

It doesn’t have to be like this. Before the crisis over the gay issue, before the crisis over women, the church was in crisis over divorce. For decades, as Parliaments around the world made divorce not only possible but easier, arguments and legal disputes wracked the Anglican Church. Of all the Christian churches, it was the toughest on divorce. Yes, even tougher than the Roman Catholic Church, which at least provided an annulment process that allowed people to remarry in church. The Anglican Church campaigned vigorously against each government initiative to ease the burden of divorce.

Thankfully, in 1985, after years of fierce debate, the Anglican Church in Australia changed its rules to allow divorced people to remarry in church. One of the church leaders whose influence brought about that change was a Primate, the late Archbishop Frank Woods of Melbourne. In Melbourne Synod, in 1973, he declared that he had changed his mind about divorce because of the pressing pastoral needs of the people whose lives were impacted by marriage breakdown. He had decided that the matter was too urgent to wait until the national church got its act together. He would now permit Melbourne clergy to marry divorced persons in church – twelve years before church law caught up with his radical decision.

It was an extraordinary act of courage and even defiance on his part so that people could be ministered to in their need – akin to an Archbishop, a Primate, today declaring unilaterally that clergy could perform same-sex marriages in church once Australian law allows it! If only!

That would be true prophetic leadership – speaking out for the truth of the Gospel even if it causes tension within the church family. It would proclaim good news, and freedom from oppression, in accordance with the ‘mission statement’ that Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto has given us. It would apply the same loving, pastoral principle Frank Woods offered to divorced people to same-sex couples who earnestly seek God’s blessing on their relationships.

Jesus’ ‘mission statement’ is for all the baptised. What we now must ponder is how we as individual clergy and lay people and others of goodwill can respond in prophetic leadership.

We cannot just wait for another Frank Woods to emerge. As the new Australian of the Year David Morrison said in relation to sexual abuse in the military, ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’. We must say clearly that we do not agree with the Primates’ decision; we will not simply ‘walk past’.

I do not know yet just how we might do this effectively. But I do know, as Psalm 126 has reminded us, that ‘those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy’.

Despite our despair, even though we are in tears, we must continue sowing the seeds of inclusive love and acceptance of all people, remembering that our Lord does not call us to be successful, only to be faithful – faithful to the Good News he proclaimed, and calls us to proclaim.

Dr Muriel Porter