"Risk for a legalistic church"
Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 5 October 1999
The Anglicans painted their bishop into a nasty corner, writes CHRIS McGILLION.
Most people would be acquainted with the passage in the Gospels in which Jesus says it
would be better for a man to have a millstone tied around his neck and be tossed into the
sea than for him to cause a believer to sin.
It sits oddly with another passage in which Jesus advises a mob eager to put to death a
woman caught in adultery that the one among them who is without sin should cast the first
The fact that the second passage has been referred to repeatedly by those critical of
the way the Anglican Church’s Special Tribunal (which hears complaints against bishops)
has dealt with Bishop George Browning of Canberra-Goulburn may say something about where
the faith community has moved in terms of its attitudes towards sin and forgiveness.
But the fact that the sentiments expressed in the first passage seem to be more in line
with what the tribunal members themselves feel says something equally as interesting about
the Anglican hierarchy.
The complaint against Browning was that, while a priest, he committed a single act of
adultery 15 years ago with a parishioner he was counselling at the time. The technical
offence was that he had engaged in conduct likely to cause scandal to the faithful.
The prosecution case fell to the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Harry Goodhew. At a
cost of about $80,000, Archbishop Goodhew commissioned legal advisers to put the case that
Browning should suffer the maximum penalty – which is a complete withdrawal of his right
to perform all priestly functions.
As it was, the tribunal opted to admonish Browning instead, a lesser penalty. Even so
it was a very public admonition – involving a press conference called by the head of the
tribunal and Anglican Primate, Melbourne’s Archbishop Keith Rayner – and it included an
instruction that Browning seek the confidence of his diocesan council before continuing in
Browning was painted into a nasty corner and resigned rather than subject his diocese
to further embarrassment. The tribunal’s verdict can be defended on the grounds that a
woman had been harmed (albeit long ago and not criminally), that in the wake of evidence
of widespread clerical sexual abuse in the churches over the years community tolerance for
such behaviour has been exhausted, and that church personnel need reminding that no-one is
Yet Browning’s humiliation – and resignation – seems a high price for him to pay for a
one-off failing everyone agrees he sought to rectify. And no-one seems to have imagined
that spending $80,000 of church money seeking to have him defrocked might have scandalised
the faithful much more than the original offence.
The logic that seems to have operated is that what upholds the rightness of the faith
is the absolute integrity of its individual leaders rather than the collective compassion
of its practitioners.
If so, this has backfired, with the church hierarchy appearing overly legalistic,
puritanical, and completely out of touch with the feelings of its members.
What may rescue this debacle is the groundswell of support Browning has received.
At a meeting called with his clergy to inform them of his decision to step down,
Browning received a standing ovation. His diocesan council not only carried a motion of
support in him but another apologising on behalf of the Anglican Church for the demeaning
and destructive process through which Browning and his wife had been put.
Parishioners have made their thoughts known in letters to the press: overwhelmingly
they have criticised the harsh treatment their bishop received and have sought to
encourage Browning to reconsider his resignation.
Even the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Francis Carroll, offered the acid
remark that "as Christians we are nothing if we are not first a community of forgiven
sinners, ready to share the forgiveness we have received with others".
Casting stones carries its own risks. But as this incident has demonstrated, rolling
out millstones risks sinking the church.
* Chris McGillion is the Herald’s religious affairs editor.