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Tom Frame: A House Divided? The Quest for Unity Within Anglicanism

Bishop Tom Frame is the author or editor of twenty three books, including A Church for a Nation: A History of the Diocese of Canberra & Goulburn; Church and State: Australia’s Imaginary Wall; Anglicanism in Australia: A History (edited with Bruce Kaye, Colin Holden and Geoffrey Treloar) and Agendas for Australian Anglicanism: Essays in Honour of Bruce Kaye (edited with Geoffrey Treloar). Losing My Religion (UNSW Press), Tom Frame’s masterful survey of changing religious belief, identity and behaviour in Australia, received the 2010 Australian Christian Book of the Year award. He has been Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, and Head of the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, since January 2007.

A House Divided? The Quest for Unity Within Anglicanism (Acorn 2010), is, according to the back cover, ‘a frank assessment of the [Anglican] Church’s disorder and disunity, its inability to attract and hold new members, its ailing structures and inadequate strategies, and its failure to promote a vibrant vision of Christianity. Contentious and controversial…’

Tom Frame on page one castigates his church for its ‘internal squabbles, distracted leadership, weak discipline, contradictory strategies and self-serving opportunism’ and on page three calls for Australian Anglicanism to ‘shed much of its antiquated Victorian accoutrement and stifling English mindset’: so we know from the outset what we’re ‘in for’!

How can this bishop be so brave/bold/frank? Ah… simple: he doesn’t possess a licence to exercise episcopal ministry, and writes as one ‘without interest in institutional advancement’. May their tribe increase!

Speaking of tribes, he reckons Conservative (especially ‘Reformed’) Evangelicals have formed their own ‘tribe’ within Sydney Anglicanism and beyond; their tribal chief is Phillip Jensen, Dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Some of these Anglicans ‘have no respect for the Prayer Book, little interest in liturgical worship… and scant regard for the importance of the sacraments’. (So why aren’t they Baptists or Presbyterians? Frame and others are fond of asking!).

Another ‘tribe’ comprises Anglo-Catholics (chapter 2), who have formed an unholy alliance (my words) with Evangelicals in opposing the ordination of women, but are horrified at many Evangelicals’ acceptance of lay presidency at Holy Communion (vide Canon Broughton Knox, once principal of Sydney’s Moore College). Anglo-Catholics are strong on ‘Apostolic Succession’: without it ‘a body of Christians is nothing more than a sect’ (Vernon Staley). Pope Benedict XVI has made history in approving an Apostolic Constitution allowing former Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church if they’re willing to accept papal authority. Hence the current (accelerating?) drift of Anglo-Catholic priests – many of them married – into the Catholic church.

A third tribe – Liberal Anglicans – are opposed by Evangelicals because of differing views about the authority of Scripture, and by ‘Anglos’ because Liberals tend to undermine Tradition. Liberals, says Frame, are noted most for what they’re against rather than what they’re for: and at the furthest end of the Liberal theological spectrum we have the ‘non-Christian philosophies championed by John Selby (sic) Spong… and Don Cupitt’.

Homosexuality is, of course, the major presenting issue dividing Anglicans globally. One of the problems here is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth (Bishops’) Conference have no legislative authority to impose a particular view – even a majority view – on the whole Anglican communion. We have come to the point, writes Frame, ‘where there is no longer any adequate reason for the Archbishop of Canterbury to head the Anglican Communion’. Like Humpty Dumpty the Anglican Communion cannot be put back together again, but ‘it was good while it lasted’ (!).

Bishop Frame eschews tribalism and the ‘closed-mindedness’ infecting relations between dioceses, and espouses what he calls a ‘Consensus Anglicanism’, comprising some Evangelical, Catholic and Liberal insights. His heroes/mentors are William Temple and F D Maurice; another – especially with regard to the value of mysticism – is Dean Inge. So what should all Anglicans stand for? ‘The best short summary (from the 1930 Lambeth Conference): an open Bible, a pastoral priesthood, a common worship, a standard of conduct consistent with that worship, and a fearless love of truth’.

Here’s a pot-pourri of his views on other matters:

* ‘I’m not convinced that synodical government… is either biblical or efficient… synods, like all committees, are wary of radicals, mavericks, prophets and reformers. They tend to prefer those… who will never challenge the prevailing orthodoxy or suggest institutional risk-taking’.

* ‘I have a high view of the ministry of individual bishops but a low view of the Episcopate’s place in the Australian Church… Bishops no longer provide the intellectual leadership they once did’.

* ‘In very few instances have I seen effective demonstrations of a deacon, priest or bishop in full-time ministry committing themselves to continuing theological education’.

* ‘In my view, the Australian Church has too few creative individuals and too many critical observers… The Church seems to produce more renegades than revolutionaries, and more would-be iconoclasts than innovators’.

Sometimes Tom Frame’s polemics lead him into making generalizations which can be questioned. For example, he says about ‘positive atheists’: ‘There is no attention to the historical basis for the Church’s claims about Jesus and no conversation about the resurrection of Christ.’ A good book which refutes this assertion is ‘Did the Resurrection Happen?’ – a series of dialogues between the English-speaking world’s most brilliant atheist (who became a theist before he died) – Professor Antony Flew – and Gary Habermas.

But I put many more exclamation-marks than question marks in the margins of this challenging book. Like here:

‘The person who believes in Christ attests to the reality of Christ’s salvation as something intuitively known… There is a sense in which the Holy Spirit becomes intertwined with the human spirit so that the union of human and divine is gradually perfected…’

It’s interesting that the Anglican who spoke to more individuals throughout the world in the 20th century than any other – John Stott – doesn’t get a mention. Some of Stott’s views about Anglicanism would strike a chord with Tom Frame (though on matters theological Stott is more conservative).

Footnote: This reviewer has had the privilege of speaking to several Anglican diocesan and regional clergy conferences throughout Australia (about 20 in all). I would describe myself as a ‘(Progressive) Evangelical on the Canterbury Trail’ to borrow Robert Webber’s phrase. There’s a rich diversity in Anglicanism – theologically and liturgically – which is quite unique among Christian denominations. I’m equally at home in their cathedrals as in the seminars at Melbourne’s St. Peter’s Eastern Hill Jan and I attend regularly, as also in rural and suburban parish churches where I preach from time to time. However, having interacted with hundreds of Anglican churches in John Mark Ministries’ ‘Marks of a Healthy Church’ seminars, I have to say I agree with all of Tom Frame’s recommendations for renewal: every parish and seminary and clergy conference would benefit from a serious study of this wonderfully provocative and helpful book.

Rev. Dr. Rowland Croucher


August 2010


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