Monday, October 01, 2007

Sydney Anglican Ideologues Left Red-Faced as Penal Substitution Amendment Fails

Last week the circus was in town as Sydney Anglicans came together for the last two days of the 2007 Synod. Having heard the legendary stories of Synods gone by but never having personally observed any of the magic before, I decided to attend so that I could witness the fun and frivolity for myself. I was not to be disappointed, for the key ideologues of the Diocese were more than happy to oblige me by strutting their stuff on the proverbial dancefloor.

Perhaps the most interesting debate concerned the question of Penal Substitution. Originally a fairly tame motion affirming Penal Substitution, changes were made to publicly name and shame opponents of the doctrine, including the Dean of St Alban's in England. In post-Trentine language, it was the closest thing possible to a declaration of anathema upon those with the audacity to question the archetypal Sydney Anglican line. Lest we think we were in a Protestant denomination that cherished the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, the motion also called for the Diocese Doctrine Commission (which one may only assume is the Sydney Anglican equivalent of the Vatican's Magisterium) to provide a report outlining the importance of the abovementioned doctrine.

As expected in such an evangelical Diocese, the motion passed without too many problems. However the success of this motion was to be overshadowed by a failed amendment. In what may well be described as the tactical blunder of the Synod, Reverend Sandy Grant pushed for Synod to endorse two books to the parishioners of the Diocese, namely The Cross of Christ by John Stott and Pierced For Our Transgressions by Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach. This amendment was defeated in rather sensational circumstances, with Archbishop Peter Jensen suggesting that the amendment was carried on no less than two occasions, before it was finally revealed that Synod had voted 163-152 against.

Days after, a bewildered Grant expressed surprise at the spectacular and embarrassing failure of the amendment. Jeremy Halcrow, who had spoken with many of the representatives, had suggested that many individuals were not prepared to endorse a book that they had not yet. Of course, this raises the obvious question of why the amendment was put forward in the first place. Did Grant simply expect that people would blindly accept his unmitigated praise for the two books? And perhaps even more concerningly, how many of the 152 who voted in favour of the amendment had not actually read one, or both of the books? Quite a few, I suspect. I suspect that an even greater number of representatives at Synod has not taken the time to read the review of Pierced For Our Transgressions by esteemed scholar N.T. Wright, in which he describes the book as "deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical".

For all the failings of the ill-fated amendment, the motion itself is rather inexplicable. Firstly, that the motion sought to deliberately marginalise those who disagreed with the majority stance re-establishes Diocese's stance that one is saved by faith in "correct" doctrine. Most notably, opponent of the motion Reverend Clive Watkins made note of the fact that in interviews he had been asked whether he affirmed Penal Substitution but had not been asked whether he loved Christ. Perhaps in the view of the powerful in Diocese, the latter question is not really so relevant as long as they can recite the approved formulas. Even in the eyes of Sydney Anglican apologists such as Craig Schwarze, the covert anathemas lowered the tone of the motion.

Secondly, at a time when the atonement is being discussed and debated with new vigour, the motion sought to close off all avenues of debate. Rather than actually engage in discussion of the issues involved, the motion instead chose to adopt an obscurantist stance, in which even questioning of conventional rhetoric means that one will be viewed with suspicion. That is, unless you want to be publicly recognised as a trouble-maker, branded as a heretic and have your claim to faith in Christ dismissed as illegitimate, you sure as hell better tow the party line.

Finally, as supporters of the motion made clear, Penal Substitution is a doctrine not very well understood, either by opponents or by supporters of the doctrine. While the accusation that those who have criticised Penal Substitution are engaging in straw-person representations of the model is getting rather cliched and tiresome, the suggestion that this was because Penal Substitution was inaccurately represented by those who believed in the doctrine was rather eye-opening. This suggested to me that many evangelicals within the Diocese believed in a doctrine that they did not properly understand. Even more disturbingly, this motion sought to affirm a model that people did not properly understand and castigate those who questioned this understanding, or lack thereof.