Muriel Porter on Sydney Anglicans

The Anglican diocese of Sydney is renowned for its conservative evangelical style and the politicized way in which it seems to operate; parallels between it and the Labor Right in New South Wales suggest themselves. Some its members seem to doubt whether other kinds of Anglicans are really Christians, and the accusation by one dignitary of the diocese that the Archbishop of Canterbury was guilty of theological and intellectual prostitution was not a good moment; on the other hand, a book of very interesting essays on the thought of Rowan Williams (ed. Matheson Russell), in the main written by people who would identify themselves as of Sydney Anglican convictions, suggests a wider range of sympathy.

In her book The New Puritans (1995) a Melbourne writer, Muriel Porter, contrasts Sydney Anglicans to their disadvantage with those she repeatedly terms ‘moderate’ Anglicans or in the comparative form as ‘more moderate’ Anglicans; somehow these people don’t sound terribly exciting. She writes with nostalgia of ‘the vibrant mainstream Anglicanism of the Sydney Diocese of my childhood, my first spiritual home, which is now well and truly buried.’ Her parish was ‘a place of excellent preaching and teaching, dignified liturgy, high-quality music, energetic children’s and youth ministry, generous pastoral care and loving engagement with the wider community.’ Sydney parishes in her childhood were ‘exceptionally good’. Many Australians of a certain age, and doubtless people elsewhere in the West, can identify with these sentiments and feel a sense of loss.

But harsh winds were about to blow. Widespread ownership of cars opened the possibility of Sunday morning outings away from church (in the case of Sydneysiders, to the beach); television was no friend to Evensong. Questioning of traditional sources of authority weakened the standing of clergy; the entry of women into the workforce deprived parishes of a major source of voluntary labour; new social movements diverted the energies of the very people (largely female, I suspect) who had formerly poured them into the church. The secularization of society that become noticeable around the 60s meant that parishes would have to fight for their future. And within Australia the members of a body that still called itself the Church of England, appointed archbishops from England, and regularly recited a collect for the Queen, were not well placed within an increasingly multicultural nation.

That few parishes of the kind Muriel Porter recalls now exist in Sydney is not entirely because heavies moved in from Moore College and threw away the cassock and surplice; such parishes were going to have to reconfigure themselves, and they have done this in various ways in different parts of Australia. And whatever Sydney Anglicans have done to merit disapproval, it remains the case that the path they have taken is easily the most successful in Australia.

One comment

  • Marcus Harmes

    This is a very interesting review of Sydney Anglicanism – I enjoy attending worship at St Andrew’s Cathedral, and in terms of the dignity of the service and the excellence of the music, it actually seems to match the descriptions of what Muriel Porter is lamenting as lost to the diocese.

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