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Anglican church governance: an exposé, Part I

In reading this post, please keep its age in mind.

Now that I’ve got your attention, I must apologise if the word ‘exposé’ led you to think that my intention is to shock or surprise you. It’s not. Nor is the description of governance that follows intended to imply that anybody is trying to hide the truth. Yes, it took some digging to get the information, but it’s all from sources that should be available to the public. Having said that, if you’ve never been exposed to the ways of governance in those established churches that the European settlers brought to Australia, some of the facts should be at least interesting, perhaps here and there a little surprising. And although it’s not deliberately hidden, church governance is not normally something that gets much light either. So let’s flick the switch. Remember though, this is going to be on the boring rather than the racy side of things, so I understand if you click out of here. Before you do, though, do you know somebody on a Parish Council or would be the kind of person who might end up on one? Then please do them a favour and send the link to them first. Thanks.

Last year my wife and I joined an Anglican church for the first time. As I have long had an interest in corporate governance, and, since becoming a Christian in 1994, church governance, and being interested in the process that God has put in place to manage our giving to that church (and lead us), it was natural that I would explore their system of governance.

This article documents not only the results of that research but also, because what makes up a governance system is sometimes, apart from being a little hidden, complicated, it also documents the process that I used.

The church’s constitution

The starting place for an understanding of the governance of an organisation is its constitution. And in this day and age, we turn to its website.   Or if you knew about Australia’s new regulator of charities, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, to the regulator’s website (www.acnc.gov.au).

Unfortunately, the place in the church’s entry on the register of charities where one would normally find the constitution, Charity’s documents, is blank. (This is not unusual – the ACNC has not had the resources to follow up on all the blanks.)

The register does record though that the church is an unincorporated body, which tells us that it does not have a legal existence separate to that of its members (and that therefore those members do not have the protection of limited liability for the actions and debts of the church). This means that there’s no legislation similar to that for, say, an incorporated association, that we need to look up in researching the church’s governance.

In the absence of a constitution on the ACNC website, we turn to the church’s website.

The constitution is there, but not available unless you a ‘member’. However, as the password is on the back of the bulletin given to anybody who attends a service, and the constitution is meant to be on the ACNC register, I see no harm in disclosing the few paragraphs relevant to the current topic.

The bigger picture

An organisation, other than one composed only of a few people associating locally for a common purpose, usually sits within a bigger picture legally. In this church’s case, there is a strong clue in the Pre-Amble (sic) to the constitution:

In the event of any ambiguity arising between the modified ordinance and the existing ordinance, Governance of the Diocese Ordinance (2000), the existing ordinance shall prevail [paragraph 0].

Apart from raising the question of why a previous version of something would overrule its replacement, we have a reference to a body outside the church, a ‘diocese’. The thesaurus on Word gives ‘bishopric’ as the meaning, a far from common term. One of the synonyms is helpful though: ‘district’.

So it appears that this church exists within some larger district body or association called a diocese.

The Diocese

We have to go outside the constitution in order to appreciate the connection between this church, a diocese, and an ordinance. Back on the church’s website we are told that the church is part of the Anglican Church of Australia (www.anglican.org.au), and, more locally, The Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn (www.anglicancg.org.au). On the Diocesan website we learn that

The Diocese is, under the care and authority of the Bishop, the unit of organisation of this Church for carrying out its mission and ministry within the geographical area of the Diocese….Ministry Units of the Diocese include 59 Parishes and specialist ministries such as Basement Ministries, Open Sanctuary and Lanyon Valley [‘About Us’].


So the church is part of the Dicocese. And is likely a type of ‘ministry unit’ called a ‘parish’. But ordinances, specifically the Governance of the Diocese Ordinance (2000)?  My thesaurus in Word gives the meaning of ‘ordinance’ as ‘decree’, with the next three being ‘order’, ‘rule’, and ‘regulation’. The flavour here is something authoritative, something with which one has to comply.

Nothing relevant comes up in a search of the Diocesan website for ‘ordinance’, but going up one level, to the Anglican Church of Australia’s site, the ‘About’ page leads to a very helpful document entitled, An Outline of The Structure of The Anglican Church of Australia. On page 10 it says that Section 51 of the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia (1961)empowers diocesan synods to make ordinances for the order and good government of the Church within the diocese” (emphasis mine).

So, going back to the church’s constitution, the larger picture in which it sits is the rules made by the district of which we are a part, including the Governance of the Diocese Ordinance (2000).

These rules (ordinances) are publicly available on the Diocesan website, although a little hidden. Even though ‘Registry’ on the right hand side says only ‘services such as payroll, property and admin (sic), it reveals, in the left hand side menu, an item called ‘Governance’. This takes you to a page about ordinances via ‘Structure and Ordinances’. Then select the line ‘Consolidated Ordinances’. And there on the second page is the ordinance referred to by the church’s constitution, the Governance of the Diocese Ordinance 2000 (CONSOL).

So what is the relationship between this Ordinance and our constitution? As we have seen, the local church is a ‘ministry unit’.

Ministry units

Part 5 of the Ordinance is all about these units, and the first section gives us the purpose of that Part:

The purpose of this Part is to provide structures within which the members of this Church within the Diocese may be enabled to participate in the corporate life of the Church within their local area.” [section 21.1].

Synod therefore provides for the establishment of ministry units that are organised either on a geographical basis or to serve particular objectives of mission and ministry [section 21.2].


Here then is a new concept: ‘synod’. It is not defined, but later in the Ordinance we see what it is and what it does:

The Synod is a meeting together of the Bishop and the representatives of the clergy and the laity of the Diocese–

to affirm and celebrate our common life in the Lord Jesus Christ;

to conduct the business of the Synod which is-

the expression, through the resolutions of the Synod, of the mind of the people of the Diocese on matters of common concern relating to this Church in the Diocese and to the world in which this Church is called to exercise its mission and ministry;

the ordering of our common life by the making of ordinances;

the oversight of the conduct of the affairs of this Church in the Diocese by the agencies and officers of the Diocese [section 42].

Summary – the bigger picture

To summarise then, our local church has been established, by the Synod of the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, so that members of the Anglican Church of Australia (section 4.1) can be Anglicans within our area. And the parent, the Synod, makes the rules under which the children, our local church, and other ministry units in the Diocese, have to operate. And the principal set of rules from the Diocese on governance of a church within the Diocese is the Ordinance identified above, the Governance of the Diocese Ordinance (2000) (the Ordinance).

So it is to this document that we will turn in Part II.