Why I’m grateful for the Australians

These are not words you expect from a Brit especially as we are about to resume our traditional sporting rivalry (think rugby league, rugby union and cricket) tussling to come out on top in the Commonwealth Games.  However, I wanted to say something here about what I’m thankful for about Australian Evangelicalism, specifically Sydney Anglicanism. This is because in a recent article I wrote about some of the things I was less grateful for.

Since the last decade or so of the 20th Century, conservative evangelicals in the UK have developed a close bond with the Sydney Archdiocese.  Sydney has stood out as a diocese, pretty unique outside of Africa in consistently ad persistently choosing conservative evangelicals as its Archbishops. It is also home to Moore College which became widely regarded as the pre-eminent conservative evangelical seminary internationally.  This relationship led to regular visits from key figures, particularly the Jensen brothers, Phillip and Peter (Peter was one of those aforementioned Evangelical archbishops) and strong ties between Oak Hill Theological College and Moore College with David Peterson spending a decade as Principal at Oak Hill, Mike Ovey his successor spending time at Moore and lecturers like Peter O’Brien and Kirsty Birkett making the trip the other way.

Now, in my previous article I commented that the relationship hasn’t been exclusively healthy. I observed: 

When the robust, boot camp, SAS culture of Sydney Anglicanism met the English class system, when the concept of “blokes worth watching” was mapped onto Bash’s idea of reaching a hand picked elite through the camp system I would suggest that the results were toxic and we are seeing the consequences today. “

My comments there chime with some observations made over a year ago by David Baker, the editor of Evangelicals Now who wrote in Christianity Today about a tradition of what he calls a “gentler form of Evangelicalism” then goes on to say:

But in the late 20th century something changed. The abrasiveness of some (but not all, I should stress) parts of public school Christian camp culture was infused with a cultural acerbity and radical dogmatism from some (but again not all) influential Australian evangelical leaders who were frequent speakers at UK conferences. The result was a fairly potent mix. It reinforced the characteristics of elitism and cliquiness to which allusion has been made, and led to a mindset which circled the wagons ever tighter into smaller and smaller enclaves of those trusted to be truly sound.”

So against that background it is also important to recognise the good things that have come out of Sydney. Let’s mention a few here:

First of all, I’m personally grateful for people like David Peterson who took time to diligently reform and renew the work of Oak Hill. He wanted the college to be a place where future pastors received good quality training, where to quote his successor they would be equipped to be “the best possible gift” to their local churches. He wanted people to be excited about Biblical studies and to enjoy doctrine.  We should be grateful for both the academic and doctrinal robustness that he brought. We can be thankful not only for the way that he brought across Australian academics like Kirsty Birkett but how he encouraged younger theologians like James Robson (now CEO at Keswick), Thomas Renz, (author of the NICOT commentary on Nahum Habakkuk and Zephaniah), Dan Strange, Matthew Sleeman and of course Mike Ovey.  Peterson also played a part in opening up the college to independent students as well.

Secondly, those Sydney Anglicans brought a renewed passion for evangelism. At one point they had an ambitious target of seeing 10% of Sydney, following Christ and worshipping in Bible teaching churches. I don’t know how they did at that but they encourages us to be outward looking and not just think in terms of maintenance mode, managing decline.

Thirdly, simply by standing firm for Christ and the Gospel within a denomination that hasn’t always done that, they have been and remain an encouragement to the wider church to stand firm.

Fourthly, they were Anglicans who were willing to look and think outside of the rules and bureaucracy of Anglicanism.  It was Sydney Anglicans who pushed heavily for lay presidency.  In other words, that you didn’t have to have a vicar to celebrate communion. Whilst as an independent evangelical, I would already have practiced this anyway, it was good to know that Anglicans were less likely to treat our approaches to church as weird.  Furthermore, this kind of innovation has no doubt played its part in encouraging more innovation mission within the CofE. 

Fifthly, I think that a lot of the stuff about Trellis and Vine work is crucial. A renewed focus on disciple making, on spotting and encouraging gifts within the body (even if it was at the time too narrow), the point that pastors shouldn’t just fire fight.  All of those points have been helpful for pastors seeking to be faithful and fruitful in local church ministry.

So, yes there were unhelpful things but there is also lots to be grateful for. So, today I’m giving thanks for my Australian brethren. That’s until a few weeks time when I’m watching that medal table closely!

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