A correspondent alerts me to the more recent history of the great Anglican Diocese of Sydney, in response to my mention of SD’s encounter with a (perhaps deliberately) obtuse bishop from that part of the ecclesiastical world. Sydney Anglicanism has always, from its foundation, had its own particular character, one shaped by conservative evangelicalism. It is the only Anglican diocese in the world in which chasubles are banned, and some Australian parishioners I knew in Lamford used to attend the university chapel in Sydney in order to get a glimpse of one, as it was outside the jurisdiction of the diocese. The diocese has raised – though not followed through – the possibility of allowing laypeople to preside at the Eucharist. Tracts lie around its churches announcing that Christians must accept the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in order to be Saved. The cathedral doesn’t have a permanent altar, but trundles in a table on wheels when the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated.
Some years ago the diocese of Sydney was unstoppable. Ever-so-slightly hysterical articles about its habits, beliefs and activities would periodically appear in the Church Times and other outlets. What I didn’t know was that from the early 2000s a daring programme of investment had begun, raising the diocese’s assets from about $200M to around $550M by September 2007, and income accordingly. The prosperity was underpinned by an equally dramatic degree of leveraged spending which, as in so many other ways, marked Sydney out from worldwide Anglicanism. This was not merely some kind of ecclesiological greed: there was a messianic quality about Sydney’s acquisitiveness. The money would fund the flow of graduates through Moore College, the diocese’s ultra-conservative theological seminary, as well as the construction of new churches, carrying its message of resistance to the modern world and its works out beyond the diocesan boundaries to the Australian Church as a whole, and to the globe, supporting other conservative Anglican structures into the bargain.
Then came the financial crash of 2008. A year after its peak, the value of the Sydney diocesan endowment had slumped to $126M. Curiously, this was a repeat of what had happened about twenty years before when the diocese had invested massively in property and then massively lost out in the then Australian recession, bailing out at just the right moment to maximise its losses. Archbishop Peter Jensen addressed the diocesan synod that October, trying to work out why God had apparently withdrawn his favour from Sydney’s masterplan. He couldn’t really. While admitting that God might be chastising evangelical Sydney, he never suggested what its sin might have been: words such as ‘hubris’, ‘vainglory’, or ‘triumphalism’ did not force their way past the Archbishop’s lips; as redundancies and cuts slashed their way through the diocesan structures, he wondered whether Sydney’s Christians were being ‘tested’, or whether God was thwarting something ‘right in itself but not in accordance with his secret will’. In the end everybody was forgiven, nobody was held accountable, answers were not really sought or found, and the Synod restated that it ‘continues in thankfulness to and dependence on our Almighty Father’, which of course it did because what on earth else was it going to do. I wonder whether the ground is prepared for the whole cycle to happen again a generation down the line.
A few months ago I mentioned reading Tim Harford’s great book Adapt, one part of which touches on the mechanisms people adopt to avoid facing the fact that something they’ve tried hasn’t worked, and the real reasons why. It’s the kind of thing we all know but need spelling out to us now and again. Harford introduced me to the phrase ‘hedonic editing’ (not his coining), describing the phenomenon of reinterpreting experiences of failure so that they become part of a larger, more emotionally-acceptable narrative, or in fact successes in disguise. We all do this as a means of coming to terms with our experiences, and in many cases we have to in order to assimilate and make peace with situations we can’t do anything about, but very often the process is delusory, and Christians are subject to peculiar sorts of delusion.
If God controls your life and the conditions in which you operate to the extent that he not only wants you to learn from particular events but has in fact brought them about so that you can learn special personally-tailored lessons from them – and you believe he will reward you for learning them – you are positively compelled to seek a theological meaning and purpose in your failures when all they actually reveal is the normal processes of the world.
Archbishop Jensen told his Synod eight years ago that “I do not feel that gearing was ethically dubious … though I had to have an argument with myself to come to that conclusion.” Funny that when people have arguments with themselves they invariably conclude that what they did was right after all. And of course once you’ve worked out what the lesson in a particular experience is, you’ve learned it, haven’t you? You can go out and do the same thing again, in the sunny expectation that God will bless your endeavours this time round. Good luck with that.