Australia's Anglican Church has elected a progressive archbishop and theologian, Dr. Peter Carnley, as its new head.

The choice is likely to annoy church conservatives who have not forgotten that Dr. Carnley was the first bishop to ordain women priests in Australia, ordaining ten in 1992 before women's ordination had been agreed by the church's General Synod and starting a rift that some argue has not healed. Choosing the new Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia was apparently not straightforward for Australia's 20 bishops (all male), 12 clergy and 12 lay people who took part in the vote. They elected Dr. Carnley February 3, only on the fourth ballot. He won 24 votes to 17, ahead of Dr. Harry Goodhew, the conservative archbishop of Australia's most populous and powerful diocese, Sydney, who has yet to ordain a woman.

Dr. Carnley's progressive views on theology have long been a cause of concern among conservatives who claim his questioning of the physical resurrection of Christ, expressed in his book The Structure of Resurrection Belief, is heretical. But Dr. Carnley is no stranger to criticisms from the conservative camp within his own church. When the clergy argued in the 1980s over whether the church should ordain women, he sent a letter to priests in his diocese suggesting that those opposed to developments should leave.

In an interview immediately after his election, Dr. Carnley tactfully chose to address an issue on which all Anglicans agree. He told the West Australian, Perth's only daily newspaper, that the church had to address falling attendance figures. (The Anglican Church was for most of the twentieth century the biggest in Australia, but it has in recent years been overtaken by the Roman Catholic Church.)

Promising to address the issue of church attendance, the newly-elected primate said: "We have to get into the modern world and find new ways of communicating to the world. We need to address the question of electronic communication and market the Gospel in new ways."

Dr. Carnley has in the past been a highly successful communicator of what he sees as the Gospel message adapted to the modern world. He has spoken out on a range of issues from abortion to Aboriginal land rights and gambling, sometimes angering the conservative federal government in Canberra.

His signature on a letter to The Times in London in June 1997, in which he and three other co-signatories called on Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to raise the issue of Aboriginal land rights with his Australian counterpart, John Howard, who was making a visit to Britain, shocked many Australians both inside and outside the church. Prime Minister Howard dismissed it as "a stunt," and the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth—who has a strong national profile—criticized Dr. Carnley for taking a domestic issue abroad. (Archbishop Hollingworth had been tipped as the favorite for the position of primate, but lost in the third round of voting yesterday.)

At the time Dr. Carnley was unperturbed about reaction to his letter to The Times, justifying his actions with the comment: "Internationally we all played a role in the dismantling of apartheid."

He indicated yesterday that he was not about to moderate his views simply because he was now the church's national leader: "People expect church leaders to respond to requests for comment, and I have always been accommodating in that regard," he told the West Australian.

Dr. Carnley, aged 62, can be expected to fill the primate's position until he retires at the age of 70. So he is likely to be in the chair when the issue of women bishops—a highly controversial subject for some Anglicans which is already being considered by a church working group—is considered by the General Synod for a final decision in 2004. He is believed to support the introduction of women bishops, a view likely to dismay conservatives, particularly in Sydney, where many Anglicans believe that men should be head of the church and the home.

Dr. Carnley was elected Archbishop of Perth in 1981. He has a doctorate from Cambridge University, England, and in 1998 was made an officer of the Order of Australia, under the national honors system.

Archbishop Carnley has been acting primate since the retirement in November of his predecessor, Dr. Keith Rayner, Archbishop of Melbourne. A new archbishop will be elected to run the Melbourne diocese, one of Australia's most influential, later this month.

Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

The site of the Anglican Church of Australia doesn't offer much beyond a brief introduction to the church.