The Archbishop’s Election: A Political Process

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Originally Published:
17th July 2013

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The Archbishop’s power lies in his godly leadership, moral persuasion and key appointments. The work of getting the gospel out to the world is, as it should be, the work of the parishes both parishioners and staff. Yet it is precisely because his power is derived and exercised in godly leadership and moral persuasion that it is important for the diocese as a whole to elect the man to lead us.

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As people have spoken of my involvement in the election of our next Archbishop I thought it may be helpful for friends, especially those on synod, to understand how I view the election of Sydney’s Archbishop.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on choosing your next minister, which was about the principles and the process of finding your new rector. It may have been good to write a similar one about choosing your Archbishop. However, that is not entirely possible a few weeks before an election when candidates have already been nominated. So let me disclose from the outset that I am one of those who has nominated Canon Rick Smith to be our next Archbishop. Inevitably therefore I write in the light, and even more inevitably will be read in the light, of my nomination.

Furthermore, as only two candidates have been nominated, this will inevitably be written and read in the light of my choice not to nominate Bishop Glenn Davies. This is both good and bad. Good because I can write about realities not just theories, bad because in the present climate so much time and effort is wasted in either writing or reading between the lines, that genuine conversation can be difficult. At the moment as soon as something positive is said about a candidate somebody in the world of social media will feel obliged to disagree. What makes it worse is that every time something is said that is positive about a candidate, there is a tendency to assume you are implying something negative about the alternative candidate. So to say one candidate is tall, is not to imply that the other is short let alone too short for the job (as if height could in any way influence us or be of any significance for the task). Thus it is difficult to speak well of the candidates lest your comments are seen as evaluations not only of them but also of their alternative.

First, let me say that while the election of an Archbishop is important it is not as significant as some make it to be. In God’s mercy the diocese of Sydney is provided with many men who could make excellent Archbishops. As it stands in 2013 different synod members have nominated two such men. They are brothers in Christ who love our Lord and Saviour and have, for all their adult life, been known as his followers, giving testimony in their behaviour and teaching to the work of God in their lives. Synod is looking for a man of God to lead us, and in Glenn and Rick we are given a choice between two such men. We should be thankful to God for such a privilege and rich inheritance. If either man is elected the diocese will continue to be led by a man of God, the world will not come to an end and the diocese will not go down a sinkhole. This is not a do or die election between a heretic and a faithful man or a degenerate and a godly man.

Furthermore, the Psalmist warns us not to put our trust in princes because they die (Psalm 146) – not that I think Archbishops are princes or am expecting the early demise of either of our candidates! In our context and just before an election we need to be wary of making too much of the position rather than being wary of not being concerned about it at all. We do not want to look for a messiah who is going to solve all our problems and lead us into a new age.

The position of Archbishop is so circumscribed that he does not have the power of a prince. As bishops go, the Archbishop of Sydney is one of the least powerful bishops in Australia; he cannot exercise direct control over parishes, rectors and synod in the way that other bishops can in their own diocese. His power lies in his godly leadership, moral persuasion and key appointments. The work of getting the gospel out to the world is, as it should be, the work of the parishes, both parishioners and staff. Yet it is precisely because his power is derived and exercised in godly leadership and moral persuasion that it is important for the diocese as a whole to elect the man to lead us.

The synod election may be cumbersome and difficult but it ensures the substantial good will and support that an Archbishop needs. Each parish is represented by its rector and two elected lay members - over 800 in all. The voting is by secret ballot and a majority must be reached in both The House of the Laity as well as The House of the Clergy.

Other systems to select bishops, like small committees making recommendations to synod or worse, secret committees making recommendations to the Prime Minister, do not assure the bishop of the good will and support of the parishes. They also close the door to change as special interest groups can gain too much power over small committees. Sydney’s open approach allows any and every opinion within the diocese to be expressed. Any 20 members of synod can nominate any clergyman. If there is change in diocesan life it will be expressed in synodical decisions; when minority opinions become majority opinions in parishes across the diocese they change the synod decisions. It’s called democracy and has all the strengths and weaknesses of that form of government.

There is little point in complaining about the system now, it is the one we have inherited and the one upon which we have agreed to operate. Those who wanted a say in synod should have offered themselves for election at their parish’s annual vestry meeting.     

However, our method does mean a time of disquiet and difficulty in diocesan life as different candidates are persuaded to stand and as support for them is garnered from around the parish representatives. For better or for worse it is a political process, decided by voting in a synod forum. It differs from other political processes in that, believing in God, this election is clothed in prayer and candidates are treated, and treat each other, as brothers in Christ – they genuinely pray for each other and each other’s families. There is no ‘leader of the opposition’ after the election – we get on and help each other as members of the same team. It is only in the lead up to the election that there is a sense of disunity within the diocese. Once the election is over, the differences are put to bed and we get on with our common cause of glorifying Christ.

Some people seem to be overly worried about the process of the election and its lead up. I have no doubt that Robert Forsyth, the president of the synod and Robert Wicks, the diocesan secretary will, as their forbears have done, supervise the election with detailed care to fulfil the election ordinance to the letter and to maintain a just and fair outcome for all involved. There is no perfect system and supporters can feel that they didn’t get a chance to speak and put their view properly or didn’t get sufficient opportunity to answer objections to their candidate – but, in as much as it is possible, all sides will be given a fair opportunity to present their case.  Furthermore, there is no restriction of people advancing their candidate in private or public communication to the synod members before synod – and many synod members have responsibly gone about seeking information to be well informed before they arrive at the debates.

There are those who think the whole process is ungodly and that we should just wait on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us his choice. However, this ignores the Bible’s instruction about God teaching us to use our minds to make godly decisions (Psalm 32:8-9). The Apostles may have cast lots to choose Matthias, but not before evaluating the suitability of candidates (Acts 1).

While nobody should be naïve, we need to be wary of the cynicism of worldly elections. Christians should be people of our word and we should treat each other as such. Reading evil motives into the action of alternative supporters is as ungodly as having such evil motives. If there are misrepresentations of candidates it is more becoming to assume that there is a misunderstanding or an honest mistake rather than accusing people of political scheming to ‘get ahead’.

Some people have seen the Rick Smith campaign’s reluctance to issue the list of nominators as some clever and subtle manoeuvre. Others have seen the Glenn Davies campaign’s errors and corrections in publishing their list of nominators as trying to beef up their support. However, it is better to see that both sides have had difficulty with administering the details of the nomination process – making simple mistakes without ill intent. One group acted publically the other decided to wait for official confirmation – neither side were acting suspiciously. No doubt I will come into criticism for writing on the election, just as I have been criticised for remaining a shadowy silent figure in the background. You cannot win with cynical people but we must be wary not to get caught up in believing the web of conspiracy theories.

Both teams will be meeting privately to work out the best way to present their candidate in the best light for synod. Such private conversations and meetings, plans, and yes ‘tactics’, are perfectly appropriate – indeed desirable – so that synod members have the clearest case as to why one candidate is to be preferred over the other.

Another way the election is quite different to the world’s elections is the lack of the candidates campaigning or making promises. Government elections are run by the candidates giving something of a policy and programme statement full of promises as to what they are going to do when elected. But our candidates are elected to be the man of God who will lead us in the future – not with a new programme to change the face of the diocese but by prayer and faithful preaching of God’s word to advance the cause of Christ. As such the candidates do not organise a campaign, their nominators and supporters do. The candidates do not give ‘policy statements’ about what they would do when they become Archbishop. They do not address synod or answer its questions. After the presidential address at the beginning of synod, they withdraw from the synod hall and do not return till the end of the process when one of them is invited to become Archbishop.

The synod meetings themselves are closed to the public and the media, so that members can have some freedom to express their opinions about the candidates without it becoming a matter of public debate. Some would prefer greater openness but others find it difficult enough speaking negatively about a Christian brother within the closed meeting of 800, without worrying about it being on the front page of the newspaper the next day.

If a member has some strongly negative feeling about a particular candidate it is important that synod hears it and evaluates it before electing the man as our Archbishop. This is very difficult and can cause some considerable hurt. Yet, electing a man with character flaws that the synod has not been informed about beforehand, would cause greater hurt.

Not all negative accusations are to be believed. It will be a rare leader who has not offended somebody somewhere in their life and the synod floor can be used to air grievances rather than inform members. But the networked knowledge of the diocese, especially amongst the clergy and the collective wisdom of the synod can usually be trusted to separate the wheat from the chaff in these debates.

Some people, especially those not present, need to be wary of repeating charges that certain speeches were ‘character assassinations’.  To make such accusations may be a character assassination of those who in good faith and with much prayer felt that they had to inform the synod of what they knew of the candidate. I am reliably informed that when I was a candidate in 1992, certain people made some dreadful accusations about me in the synod debate. It was right that they did, not because I believe those things to be true, but because it was important for synod to hear how people felt about me, and if they were true to know why they should not vote for me. I hold no grudge, nor do I believe other candidates do about such assessments. It is just part of the process. In general it is those who supported candidates that did not get elected who find it hardest to get over these speeches. You do not hear much about the negative things that were spoken against Peter Jensen in the last election because he was the one elected so most people have forgotten them – and just as well.

In the next articles I hope to spell out a bit more about what we should and should not look for in an Archbishop. This will form the backdrop to consideration of the candidates who have been nominated.

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