Scripture trumps Constitution​

Scripture trumps Constitution​

Given continuing debates around the Anglican Church of Australia and elsewhere about the status of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and the Articles of Religion (commonly called “The Thirty-Nine Articles”) of 1571, it may be timely to publish the brief speech I gave to the 2019 Synod of the Diocese of Grafton in response to the following motion:


That this Synod affirms the authorised standard of worship and doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia as set out in the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution.

The constitution referenced in the motion is the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, and the particular clauses of the constitution seeking to be affirmed by those supporting the proposed motion appear to have been the following:

(2) This Church receives all the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation.

(4) This Church, being derived from the Church of England, retains and approves the doctrine and principles of the Church of England embodied in the Book of Common Prayer together with the Form and Manner of Making Ordaining and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons and in the Articles of Religion sometimes called the Thirty-nine Articles but has plenary authority at its own discretion to make statements as to the faith ritual ceremonial or discipline of this Church and to order its forms of worship and rules of discipline and to alter or revise such statements, forms and rules, provided that all such statements, forms, rules or alteration or revision thereof are consistent with the Fundamental Declarations contained herein and are made as prescribed by this Constitution. Provided, and it is hereby further declared, that the above-named Book of Common Prayer, together with the Thirty-nine Articles, be regarded as the authorised standard of worship and doctrine in this Church, and no alteration in or permitted variations from the services or Articles therein contained shall contravene any principle of doctrine or worship laid down in such standard.

Not only were clauses 1 and 3 of no particular interest to those supporting this motion, but they explicitly claimed that clause 2 took precedence over both clause 1 and clause 3.

While the motion referred to the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution, it was actually adherence to the Ruling Principles which they wished to promote.

Affirming the first three clauses—which the Constitution itself identified as the Fundamental Declarations of the Anglican Church of Australia—would not have served their intention, which is simply to limit the worship practices and the doctrines of the Anglican Church of Australia to those which were developed in the Church of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This is an especially odd position for the Australian Anglican Church to adopt, since neither the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 nor the Articles of Religion have that same status within the Church of England today. Nor do they have any status at all in some other provinces of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church of Scotland and the Episcopal Church (USA).

Adherence to the doctrine and liturgies of the late-1600s and mid-1700s—at which times we were literally killing each other over differences in faith and practice—is not an essential attribute of Anglicanism, but it is a requirement for ministers and other office-bearers of the Anglican Church of Australia.

In other words, the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia is a flawed document that reflects the theological factions who dominated the process when the Constitution was drafted and adopted.

All of that was too much information for a brief two-minute speech under the Standing Orders of the Synod of the Diocese of Grafton, so my speech was crafted to tease out the essential issues and urge Synod to reject this motion.

As a footnote, the motion was overwhelmingly rejected by the Synod, and even many of those who supported the motion say they did so only because they could not bring themselves to vote aganst a motion which purported to uphold the Constitution.

Of course, the motion was not about upholding the Constitution but rather was a tactical move seeking to align the Diocese of Grafton with the extremely conservative views promoted by the Diocese of Sydney and its allies. A similar motion had been brought to the previous session of Grafton Synod and also rejected.

This is part of an on-going culture war in contemporary western society, and within the religious campaign of that ‘war’ the focus is on sexuality; particularly marriage equality and non-binary understandings of gender. The battle continues in the wider domain with demands from the same groups for special legislation to ‘protect’ them from religious persecution and to allow them to discriminate against other people on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation or marital status.

My brief speech to the Synod was as follows:

Mr President, I rise to oppose this motion.

After more than 40 years of ordained ministry in the Anglican Church of Australia, I have repeatedly affirmed the Constitution of our Church including the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles.

These are not paragraphs which we have any option to amend at this point in time.

This motion, therefore, makes as much sense as our Synod being asked to declare that sun will rise tomorrow morning.

Whether we say so or not, the sun will rise tomorrow.

Whether we pass this motion or not the Ruling Principles will remain in place.

Until our General Synod agrees to re-establish itself with a new constitution, there is nothing we can do about the Fundamental Declarations. They remain in place. They define the boundaries within which we seek to live faithfully and generously as one church.

However, there is a deep problem with the existing Ruling Principles, as set out in paragraph four of the Constitution.

As this motion reminds us, those Ruling Principles elevate the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and The Articles of Religion as the standard for worship and doctrine.

Not the Bible!

In other words, those who promote this motion ask us to affirm that Scripture has less influence in our church than the BCP and the so-called Thirty-Nine Articles.

As a Reformation Christian, I find that to be a faulty view of authority.

It is a mistake.

One day—hopefully soon—our Church will replace the Fundamental Declarations and the Ruling Principles with provisions that better reflect the authority of Scripture in our Church and the diversity of worship and doctrine across the Anglican Communion.

As someone who takes the Bible seriously, I look forward to the day when the Ruling Principles are replaced. Until then, as duty bound, I submit to these inadequate words and reserve the right to advocate for their replacement.

And I look forward to the sun rising in the morning.

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  1. Thanks, Greg,

    I am so glad that you throw your weight behind all attempts to freeze our Church in 16th & 17th century world view.

    Those who do strive for that have a fascist mind-set, I.e. there is only one “truth” and we alone have it.

    Keep me in the loop.

    The book for which you so kindly wrote the blurb for the back cover should be out any time now. I will see that you get a copy.

    Best wishes,


    Sent from my iPad


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