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Listening: Australia's provincial secretary upholds unity, diversity as hallmarks of Anglicanism

[Episcopal News Service]  The Rev. Canon Bruce McAteer has been provincial secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia since October 2004. While en route to the World Council of Churches' General Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, McAteer visited New York to learn more about the Episcopal Church and "to make some connections, build some bridges, and open channels of dialogue because of the issues facing the Communion worldwide," he said.

In an interview with Episcopal News Service, McAteer explained that, in the lead up to the Lambeth Conference in 2008, "it is essential that the various arms of the church -- the spokes of the Compass Rose -- start to talk to each other, and I suspect that that is not happening as effectively as it should be."

The full text of the interview follows:

ENS: We've heard a lot about listening recently and I particularly make reference to the listening process that saw fresh impetus at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Nottingham last year. How important is listening at this time in the life of the Anglican Communion?

McATEER: I believe it's absolutely crucial and I'm a little concerned that I don't think we're doing enough listening in Australia ... That's part of the reason why I'm here. I think a lot of the action will happen here in the United States and the rest of the Communion will focus on what happens here, and I think it is important to be listening and dialoguing.

ENS: How would you describe the leadership of the current Australian primate, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall?

McATEER: He's only been primate since July 2005, so he's still finding his feet. His hallmarks, I find, are gentleness and tolerance and he's striving to keep the various divergent sections of the Anglican Church of Australia together. He's trying to focus on maintaining the unity of the Church, with which I totally agree, and will try to support him in any way that I can.

ENS: And his predecessor, Archbishop Peter Carnley, is still very active in the Anglican Communion?

McATEER: Yes, he is chairing the Panel of Reference that Archbishop Rowan Williams set up last year and he is still very much involved in the theological discussions with the Roman Catholic Church. He is a world-renowned scholar and contributor in that area and, I think, well respected by the present Archbishop of Canterbury as he was by his predecessor, and that's the reason they've snapped him up in his retirement.

ENS: There has been a lot of discussion in the Anglican Church Australia in recent years about women bishops and lay presidency. Could you tell me about those challenges?

McATEER: Women bishops is on the agenda again as it was for the last two General Synods. Towards the end of last year, a group of members of General Synod posed a question to the tribunal which is still dealing with this issue and it could well be another 18 months before they have a verdict or an opinion. It's really a legal type of situation but what has to happen, we believe, is that a canon of General Synod needs to be passed, and that was tried twice and very narrowly failed last time ... Some people expect a result tomorrow but for me, I am prepared to sit back and let the Spirit drive the agenda.

Lay presidency is the child of the Diocese of Sydney and probably the Diocese of Armidale in Northwest Australia ... For some dioceses perhaps it would be an issue of not being able to supply full-time clergy or even non-stipendiary clergy to provide the sacrament in certain areas. For the rest of us it's not part of the order and tradition of the Anglican Church and therefore it's not acceptable.

ENS: Do you get the sense that Anglicans in Australia value their place in the Anglican Communion?

McATEER: That relationship is very, very dear to us. It's very important for us to be part of the Anglican family and I guess that is why I am trying to build bridges with the Episcopal Church and other places around the Communion. We may have different views in some things but we want to be part of the same family.

ENS: What are you hopes for the relationship between the Anglican Church in Australia and the Episcopal Church?

McATEER: I hope that we could share ideas and expressions of ministry and that we could learn from you and hopefully that you may be able to learn from us. For me one of the biggest challenges is declining attendance and involvement in Anglicanism as one of the mainstream denominations. Right across the mainstream sector of the Church we're finding that the established institutionalized Church is not attracting people -- young people and middle-aged people. So the majority of members in our Church now are 50 to 75 years and older, and even the bottom limit seems to be going up as the baby boomers move through. It's the groups such as the evangelicals and Pentecostalists that are capturing them -- not always holding them for long term -- but capturing them initially.

We find in Australia that there is a growing spiritualism. In other words people are searching for meaning and direction in life. They looked to the established Church but find that they are not being well served, so they go elsewhere or go nowhere at all. So, our last General Synod set up a task force to do more work on this. It's not a new thing. We've been warned about this for 20 years. We're working quite closely at the moment with the English Mission-shaped Church movement ... and we're looking at how the Church of England has tried to address this issue and hopefully we can build some connections here to see what the Episcopal Church is doing. Each culture is different and each parish is different so it's going to be an area by area thing, but we just feel like we've got to do something, and one of the frustrations for me is that the issues of sexuality and women bishops detracts resources and energy from the core task of the Church, which is to build up the kingdom of God.

ENS: As you begin to focus on the World Council of Churches' General Assembly, how are the ecumenical relations in Australia?

McATEER: Very, very good. We're able to accommodate the Orthodox churches much more easily these days. However, there are people starting to question how long councils of churches, as such, will be needed. What can they accomplish that hasn't already been accomplished and what is the agenda for the future?

ENS: What is your vision for the future of the Church?

McATEER: My vision is the great hallmarks of Anglicanism: unity and diversity. That we could find a way to be diverse, to celebrate the differences that we have as Anglicans around the world rather than to allow those differences to blow us apart. That would be my vision for the church and I would do everything that I could to bring that about.