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Sydney's next Archbishop and a crisis in leadership

Thu 13 June 2013

Sydney's next Archbishop and a crisis in leadership

Our Church needs urgent prayer. With the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse looming, the Anglican Church in NSW is facing a growing crisis in leadership.

The list begins with the Archbishop of Sydney. Dr Peter Jensen will be farewelled tomorrow (Friday, June 14), and the election of the next Metropolitan of NSW will certainly grab the media headlines. But the core of the problem lies elsewhere. In recent months both Newcastle and Riverina Dioceses have failed to elect bishops. And in the most telling omen, the Bishop of Grafton resigned last month over his handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Meanwhile Rick Lewers in Armidale has just clocked his one year anniversary, while you can count on one hand the months since Ian Palmer was consecrated in Bathurst. Just four years after his appointment, our own Bishop Stuart Robinson is by far the most experienced diocesan bishop in the Province. Given the above context, please pray for him. 

The burden of leadership at the moment is overwhelming for our diocesans. I am well aware of bishops that have quietly stepped down out of spiritual and emotional exhaustion from dealing with professional standards matters.

I hope the candidates for Archbishop of Sydney, especially in their role as Metropolitan of NSW, understand what they will be forced to confront over the next few years.

Sydney’s next Archbishop 

As the ABC has reported, two candidates have been nominated as Metropolitan - the Bishop of North Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, and the rector of Naremburn-Cammeray Anglican Church, Rick Smith. An energetic and open social media battle is being waged by supporters. Its "" v "WhyRick"

It would be foolish for someone outside Sydney Diocese to back either candidate. I am sure any endorsement would be read by those in the Harbour city as the kiss of death!

Rick Smith’s chances should not be under-estimated. In fact reading the high level endorsements it is clear he is actually in pole position, and the election is his to lose. Rick is the candidate openly backed by the influential Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen who is hosting private meet and greet sessions for electors. But more importantly Rick is being presented and increasingly perceived as the “mission” candidate and that counts for everything in Sydney. Whether this is truly fair to Bishop Davies and his oversight of church planting within Sydney’s northern region is another matter.

Earlier this week, Tony Payne from Matthias Media published some insights into the Sydney Anglican mindset when it comes to electing their next leader. Tony’s column gives a fair overview of the arguments being run for each candidate, all be it clearly stating his bias towards Rick.

But what does the election mean for those of us outside Sydney Diocese? On one level not much. Both men are thoroughly conservative Reformed evangelicals. Their policies would be identical on the touchstone issues that divide Australian Anglicans such as the ordination of women as priests. The personal style of Rick Smith leans towards ministry-minded pragmatism. So I would expect that in the long run this will result in similar moderate outcomes in their approach to Anglican politics. Five years down the track Rick Smith will be his own man, and the ghostly guiding hand of Phillip Jensen will have long faded. 

Reflections on wider implications of election campaign 

To say our rural NSW Dioceses are struggling on numerous fronts would be an understatement. There are real questions around the viability of a number of the rural Dioceses. Indeed, two NSW Dioceses are currently receiving financial oversight from General Synod. The notion that our Metropolitan Diocese can cruise along responsibility-free is naïve to say the least.

It was a growing awareness of these problems, and the leadership role Sydney Diocese may be ultimately forced to play, that framed Archbishop Jensen's involvement in the Mission Convention held in Canberra last year. The Convention could have been a turning point in relations within the Province. But the opportunity was missed, partially because Dr Jensen's retirement loomed.

If the tone of Archbishop’s election is any guide the Sydney leadership are about to hit the reset button on the Iron Curtain between us. And in the light of the Royal Commission, amongst other issues, that is very troubling.

This is especially reflected in the “Why Rick?” campaign being run by Dominic Steele and Chris Braga as they try to reposition Bishop Glenn Davies’ long experience working with other Anglican Dioceses as a negative. They are promoting Rick Smith as the best leader to maintain a confrontational and antagonistic relationship with the National Church. The following text is currently highlighted on the campaign home page and was released as an email on June 3, titled The Principals speak: Woodhouse and Thompson on Why Rick is the man to lead the Diocese.

Dr Thompson, who will take up his appointment as Principal of Moore College this Thursday, says Mr Smith will be able to represent the Sydney Diocese well as we negotiate our sometimes complicated relationship with the National Church. 

Dr Thompson, Mr Smith and other leaders from Sydney are just back from several days of negotiation with a group from the National Church's General Synod about major issues of difference.


Like the boy in the bubble, some Sydney Anglicans want to live in protective plastic-wrap of their own construction. The aim is to keep the impurities of the wider Christian world on the outside. But this bubble is about to burst.     

The general public believes the Archbishop of Sydney leads the church in NSW and the buck stops with him. This perception will frame discussion around the Royal Commission, and that perception is not entirely misplaced. The fact is that we have structures, like Provincial Synod, that clearly tie us together. Our problems will become his problems.

It is high time Sydney Anglicans, like those running Rick Smith's election campaign, woke up and realised that their campaign rhetoric is built on the tired, old Anglican politics of last century.

The hardest challenges confronting the next Archbishop of Sydney are the ones we all share.

By Jeremy Halcrow

Comment on this article

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thanks Jeremy for your challenging and thoughtful article

I've been asked to explain in more detail the financial issues. It is on the public record that the Diocese of Bathurst has $40m in debts to repay and is selling two of its schools in Dubbo and Orange. Addressing the problems in Bathurst and Grafton will take the co-operation of all the NSW Dioceses. So we need an Archbishop who has the skill set required to work productively with others.

You are concerned about Sydney's relationship with the rest of Australia but publish an article like this.

This just perpetuates the usual uninformed bias against Sydney within the Australian Anglican denomination.

Your boy in the plastic bubble reference is inaccurate and simplistic. It doesn't consider the reasons why Sydney has had a complicated relationship with the Australian denomination. Nor does it consider Sydney's involvement in the wider communion through GAFCON, Work Outside the Diocese, Moore College correspondence courses and much more.

Thanks for your comment Gav. Its genuinely encouraging to have the President of the Anglican Church League and one of the key backers of Rick Smith engage with the point I'm trying to make. What we want to hear from Rick's campaign is to what extent he has the skills, experience and aptitude to lead the Anglican Church in NSW. He will be Metropolitan, and with that comes obligations and responsibilities that his campaign doesn't seem to have considered. My comment was aimed at the line of argument that Dominic Steele and Chris Braga have been promoting and now you have repeated. To be honest it troubles me that you think that taking a tough line during theological disputes is the end of the matter. Rick's campaign needs to engage with the real bigger picture a little more. For example, how is Rick going to represent us all at the Royal Commission when they interogate him on ministers who have moved from Diocese to Diocese? He can't tell the Royal Commission I have never talked to the leadership in x Diocese because I don't agree with their theological position on y. The situation in some of the NSW rural Dioceses is dire. With a little more openness to the idea of cooperation, the Archbishop of Sydney could be a catalyst for mission and growth across the Province of NSW. Isn't that his primary task at the end of the day?

I think you'll find Jeremy is pretty well informed, Gavin!

Rick has been involved on a General Synod Consultation Committee since 2009. He has also been in conversation with the General Synod Unity Task Force (as has Glenn Davies) and the General Synod Financial Policies Task Force. Both the Sydney diocese and the General Synod are making a fair attempt to improve the situation. Time and resources have been ploughed into it. The tone has been both confrontational and cooperative. It has to be.

It is impossible to know what will be asked of the Metropolitan in the future or how he will respond. We can only judge on his past performance. Rick has demonstrated wisdom and gospel focus to date. We hope and pray, if elected, he will do so in the future.

But comments and expressed opinions like yours won't help.

Gavin, maybe I could have been more irenic in the metaphor I used. To be honest I was upset by the way your election material framed the relationship between Sydney and Anglicans elsewhere. I am the last person who wants to stereotype Sydney Anglicans and I certainly have no desire to comment on the capacities of the respective candidates. That said, I think it fair to say the election material merely framed the relationship between Sydney and other Dioceses as one of opposition and confrontation and did not consider the possibility of cooperation with mission-minded Anglicans elsewhere for the sake of Kingdom growth.

Dear Jeremy,

I hope you are well and are enjoying Canberra. I was surprised to read that I was "promoting Rick Smith as the best leader to maintain a confrontational and antagonistic relationship with the National Church." I am sorry that you gained that impression as that hasn't been Rick's tone whenever I have spoken with him on this subject.

For an example of his approach go to and scroll down to the question "Does Rick have a vision for the province of NSW & ACT? How does he see that playing out?" His short answer given at a meeting of synod reps was in part: 'My approach would be not to go in with an agenda other than to be concerned with their welfare and to love them.'

Warmly, Dominic

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