The Anglican Church of Australia is established under a constitution which came into force in 1962. The first section of the constitution sets out the basic character of the faith of this church and the succeeding sections detail the way in which the church is organised and its life regulated.
The General Synod is the national assembly of the church and it makes decisions by resolution, or passing a rule or a canon. The canons are the enduring regulations, which govern the details of the life of the church.
The essential character of the church can be seen from the first part of the constitution which can be downloaded below. A copy of the full constitution and the canons and rules currently in force is available below:
Constitution Canons and Rules of General Synod 2014 (This is often referred to as "The Green Book")
Following publication of the "Green Book" there were some minor edits - please refer to the Corrigenda - The Constitution, Canons and Rules of General Synod 2014 .
The existing constitution had its genesis in the attempts of Bishop Long and others from 1916 to upgrade the status of the various dioceses of the Church of England in Australia into a national church. In the 1920s, these attempts got close to success, indeed the Tasmanian Parliament even passed an Act of Parliament annexing the constitution to come into effect if all other States passed similar legislation. This condition was never fulfilled.
The then Archbishop of Canterbury visited Australia in 1950 and submitted a draft constitution which progressed its development. The Church finally agreed on a constitution in the late 1950s and it was enacted by each State and Territory Government in 1960/1.
A number of observations can be made about this approach:
- the constitution is a schedule to a series of State Acts of Parliament. Although the covering clauses of the various Acts differ, the schedules are identical. The Acts permit the Church to alter the provisions of the schedules by a series of prescribed procedures. However, there may be no alteration of the Fundamental Declarations and limited alteration of the Ruling Principles;
- although the constitution looks like a 1960s document, it is closer to being a 1920s document as it essentially deals with the perceived issues of that era and not a later one;
- the effect of the constitution was to create a new church. Before the constitution, the various dioceses were part of the Church of England but following its enactment, the dioceses became part of the autocephalous Anglican Church of Australia;
- the constitution used polysemous language in places. Although this brought initial agreement, various sections of the church have understood certain provisions differently.
Although a Constitution can seem remote and removed from daily life nevertheless it exerts a profound influence over our shared life together, even if is largely unseen by many.
For some time now, a discussion about the Constitution and the need for reform has occurred. The discussion has principally focussed on whether the existing constitutional arrangements suit the essential attributes of Church at present and will allow for appropriate flexibility in the future. A Constitution Review Task Force has explored the matter and the following issues raised below.
The Uniqueness of the Australian Church
The Anglican Church of Australia differs from other churches in the Anglican Communion in ways that can be easily overlooked.
The Church of England in England is part of the State machinery and performs some governmental functions as part of that machinery. Clergy discipline is performed by ecclesiastical courts that are part of the State system. Its bishops are formally appointed by the cathedral chapters, but the government has considerable input into the appointments. Diocesan synods are of little significance and decisions are taken at national or provincial level. Consequently, although the English church has officers with identical names to their Australian counterparts, considerable differences often exist and so they often cannot be equated.
The Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA) is different again. The ECUSA has 97 dioceses plus a further 16 Anglican groups who have parted from it for some reason or other over the past century and a half. The ECUSA is governed by a General Convention, which is organised in two houses and sits for two weeks. The size of the church means that lay membership tends not to make a large contribute to decision making because of insufficient continuity.
While the Australian Church consists of 23 dioceses the strengths, problems and needs of each of diocese are quite different. The social environment of each diocese is as diverse as the landscape and climatic zone they live within. The percentage of the population of the inland has decreased whilst the cities living on the coast have become increasingly multicultural. Needless to say, conditions for ministry in Thursday Island, Adelaide, country Victoria and western Sydney are very different.
The equity gap in the financial capacity between country and urban parishes and dioceses continues to grow. The decline of inland towns has meant that it has become very difficult for some to maintain a full time Anglican minister. By contrast, some city parishes are so large that they have become powerful ministry units in their own right with a few Sydney parishes having budgets greater than some country dioceses. Clergy stipends and whether parishes are burdened with paying diocesan contributions have a very significant impact on their capacity for ministry. Furthermore, it seems that in the cities at least, parishes are increasingly becoming non-territorial in scope, whilst for country parishes, their ability to undertake ministry depends heavily on the population living in their immediate geographic area.
Significant theological differences also exist which can prevent closer co-operation between dioceses. The conferencing approach and development of community fostering initiatives have served to improve mutual understanding and co-operation on matters of considerable importance, such as child protection.
A "Bottom Up" Church
Although the Anglican Church of Australia is one church its structure means that political control is vested in the dioceses and the parishes rather than held centrally by the General Synod. It is sometimes said that the National Church resembles the Australian Federation. This is true, but only up to a point for unlike the Federal parliament, the General Synod has very little power to make rules. Any rule involving a matter which could affect a diocese must be adopted by the dioceses. In this sense, the national church more resembles the political landscape of colonial councils rather the Federation post-1901.
The diocese is the basic unit of the Australian church. However, it is clear that a number of factors may affect the nett operation of this provision. These include the reality that:
- some existing dioceses have limited long-term viability;
- some large parishes now employ a large number of clergy and professional staff through trust funds that are outside the control of the diocese; and that
- ministry among sharper ethnic, social and theological lines may suggest that the notion of a diocese being a family of parishes may need to be re-examined.
What few people realise is that this bottom up structure means that the Primate, the Archbishop or the General Synod have only limited authority to speak on behalf of the church. Consequently, the church is often criticised for not being able to respond quickly enough to changing political or legal situations. When it tries to address these situations, the Church seems rarely capable of speaking with a single voice.