Gospel Ministry and Church Politics: What’s the Connection?

Posted on December 1, 2016 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

Bruce Ballantine-Jones, former President of the Anglican Church League, has this month published his book on the Sydney Diocese: Inside Sydney.

Based on his PhD thesis, the book describes a number of momentous events which have taken place over the last 50 years, many of which he participated in, and others he witnessed.

In this interview with ACL Vice President Lionel Windsor, Bruce explains the place of politics in the church, and why it is a proper and necessary part of diocesan life. 

(Read about the book at this link.)

Lionel: So Bruce, what is the connection between gospel ministry and church politics?

Bruce: Sydney has always been known for its fierce commitment to reformed, evangelical and protestant theology and for its commitment to evangelism. Working backwards, if you want people to be saved and you want gospel hearted churches you need good ministers to lead good churches. In Sydney, the method of choosing ministers involves five elected parishioners, four elected members of Synod and an elected archbishop. All have to agree on a name, meaning that whoever gets to lead a local church is the result of a political process. We need to be involved in these political processes, to ensure that the gospel remains central to the life of our churches.

I know that not everybody agrees with this. For example, former Archbishop of Melbourne Keith Rayner once said:

I don’t believe the Kingdom of God is a political programme to be ushered in by political methods. In Melbourne, I publicly deplored party tickets in Melbourne synod elections. I had the same view of the political methods of the Anglican Church League and REPA in Sydney. It is my conviction that this kind of politicking puts human manipulation in place of trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life and decision-making of the church. (C. McGillion, The Chosen Ones, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2005, p. 55)

However, it’s just a fact that every bishop is appointed as a result of a political process. Furthermore, bishops of every hue will use political means to achieve their purposes. They do it through the exercise of influence, patronage, control of committees and the selection of ‘agenda items’ for discussion in the halls of power. So it’s simply inaccurate to say that politics plays no part in church life, in any place or denomination.

Lionel: But the word ‘politics’ tends to have negative connotations for most people. What do you mean by the word ‘politics’?

Bruce: Politics, in any organisation, has three elements: firstly, understanding the constitutional environment of the organisation concerned; secondly: pursuing certain policies; and thirdly, seeking ways to implement those ideas (that is, political action).

Lionel: But why do this in a body like the Anglican Church?

Bruce: I am one who is very committed to the ‘Knox’ view of church and denomination.

Broughton Knox (Principal of Moore College from 1959-1985) argued that while man-made denominational structures may serve the interests of local churches, those structures are not themselves ‘the church’. He saw the denomination as a secular organisation that exists to pursue the interests of local churches.

Denominations with a democratic constitution, such as ours, give members the opportunity to decide what policies should be pursued and who should be the leaders. You can disagree with given policies and leaders, and you can change them. That is how it is in a democracy. Democracy may not be perfect. But, as someone once said, it is better than all the alternatives!

Knox was not against denominations as such. He recognised that as service organisations they provide many benefits, such as expert advice, training colleges and a pool of ministers to draw on. In addition, they provide financial facilities for buildings, superannuation and cheaper insurance. These are all good, but he pointed to some of the problems: ‘… centralisation, worldliness in the form of high sounding titles, [and] invoking influence that does not arise out of the power of the gospel’ (D. B. Knox, Thirty-Nine Articles: The Historic Basis of the Anglican Faith, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967; as reproduced in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works Vol. II; pp. 147-48)

It is precisely because of the considerable benefits denominations provide and the potential for considerable harm that the people in charge should be committed to the biblical faith. The method by which evangelicals seek to achieve this outcome in Sydney is – politics.

Lionel: So how is Sydney Diocese like a secular democratic system, and where does politics come into it?

Bruce: The distinctions I mentioned before between politics as dealing with constitutional and structural matters, politics as dealing with policies, and politics as dealing with organised action are relevant to any consideration of politics in the Sydney Diocese.

For example, on the constitutional front, Sydney Diocese operates very much like the system of government in the United States. Just as the President has control over the day-to-day operations of government, so the Archbishop has extensive powers over clergy and parishes. However, power to raise money and make laws in both cases belongs to the legislature: Congress in the US, Synod in Sydney.

Both the President and the Archbishop have the right to veto legislation passed by their respective legislatures. The President appoints his cabinet to assist him to implement his policies and the Archbishop appoints his bishops and archdeacons to assist him. In both systems, these appointments require some form of consent from their respective legislatures.

The US has its judicial arm, and the Diocese has its disciplinary tribunals.

Just as control of the White House and Congress is at the heart of politics in the United States, so the election of an archbishop and control of diocesan organisations set up by the Synod is at the heart of politics in Sydney.

Like the US, Sydney Diocese operates under a written constitution. It has laws, it owns property, it has created power structures to advance its policies and it creates organisations to advance it mission. Whoever controls the Standing Committee, the Nomination Board (to select rectors) and other key synod committees, to a large extent control the central functions of the Diocese.

On the policy front, different ideas are hammered out in Synod, Standing Committee and other committees and boards.

On the political action front, there are various people and organisations seeking to influence the political process. In general, political activists employ a range of common political tools to advance their objectives. These include political parties, lobbying of leaders, the use of parliamentary or synodical tactics, the use of propaganda, networks of coalitions and ‘how-to-vote’ tickets. Similar things happen in the Diocese of Sydney; though we want to make sure that they are always done in a godly, Christian way.

Lionel: But why are politics needed at all in a ‘Christian’ organisation? Surely we should simply commit ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word, and God will take care of the rest?

Bruce: I know that many Christians feel very uneasy about participating in political action. But you have to consider what is at stake.

Conservative evangelicals believe that the culture and values of the denomination should reflect the purposes of God as set out in the Scriptures. They therefore promote and defend policies they think reflect those principles. It is a pragmatic issue. Their world view takes into account belief in a sovereign and good God who controls all things. That’s why we must, first and foremost, be people of prayer and the ministry of the word. Yet it also takes into account the duty to take action to preserve core Christian values in their denomination, for the sake of future gospel ministry.

In a theological sense, evangelicals see all of life as a combination of trust in a sovereign God and purposeful human activity. Why should denominational affairs, which are essentially secular, be any different from any other sphere of life?

My own approach to politics involved an adaptation of the German philosopher Carl von Clausewitz’ famous dictum that ‘war is politics by other means’ (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, first published in 1832. For Clausewitz, this meant that politics sometimes includes the use of military power. Within the political culture of the Diocese of Sydney, many of us operated on the view that politics (to adapt von Clausewitz) is ministry by other means. If political action has the ultimate purpose of enhancing gospel imperatives and is conducted honourably and within the rules, it is not only proper but also a necessary part of ministry.

To put it the other way around: if we’re not involved in politics, then we vacate the field to those who oppose the reformed, evangelical faith. The history of the Anglican Church in many other places testifies to the disastrous results of such an approach.

Lionel: How does politics work in Sydney, then?

Bruce: Undoubtedly the Anglican Church League is the most important single element in the political landscape of the Diocese. Since 1909 it has acted to defend the gospel against ‘ritualism’ and liberalism. Many of the great leaders of our Diocese have been committed members and leaders of the League. By its quiet and faithful work, month in month out, the Anglican Church League has been instrumental in preserving the evangelical nature of the Diocese by recommending people to key positions. The absence of such a body in other parts of the Australian Church has, humanly speaking, been a big factor in the gospel witness being almost completely extinguished in those places.

Synod is the centre stage of political action in Sydney. As with other parliamentary arenas, knowledge of constitutions, ordinances and synod procedures is essential. Good debating technique also helps. Public debate can be vigorous and passionate but criticism of individuals is never allowed. Anyone who indulges in personal denigration incurs the wrath of Synod and is quickly rebuked by the Chair.

The other key political player is the Archbishop of the day. He possesses significant constitutional power. Being elected by the Synod, he enjoys a large pool of goodwill and influence. He is like the most powerful piece on the chess board.

As in other political arenas, Sydney politics is a function of personal friendships and networks. Trust, and an almost intangible sense of common identity, is very much the mark of Sydney politics on all sides. Maintenance of cordial relations between participants is highly valued and the danger to Christian witness of public bickering is recognised and avoided as much as possible. For example, though often criticised by opponents, the Anglican Church League rarely responds and even less frequently attacks people who might be considered opponents. They tend to follow a ‘play the ball not the man’, approach. For the most part, they do it without malice and with respect for those who take a different position.

Lionel: Finally Bruce, what else is in your book?

Bruce: I look at how the Diocese has changed over the last 50 years, the great battles over women’s ordination and lay administration. I look at how the Archbishops were elected and I examine many of the controversial issues that occupied the passions and energies of Sydney Anglicans. I examine the Diocesan Mission and I devote a lot of space to what I call the ‘Corporate Machine’, that is the business side of the Diocese. I look at the before and after the GFC.

Lionel: Thank you very much Bruce. I trust the book will be a great resource for many seeking to preserve and promote the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only in Sydney but around the world.


Photo taken from this interview with Russell Powell for SydneyAnglicans.net.

Related: Inside Sydney: An Insider’s view of the changes and politics in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, 1966-2013