Archbishop Peter Jensen agrees we need to talk about marriage, yet he gets a bit annoyed at constantly being asked why gay Australians shouldn’t be able to tie the knot.
As Sydney’s top Anglican, he has a well-known set of conservative beliefs, which means he has become a lightning rod for those pushing for same-s-x marriage. Critics accuse him of being a dinosaur with outdated ideas, but as an effective media performer he’s far from extinct.
“I don’t think it’s much of a debate, as far as I can see there is a great deal of posturing and very little real engagement with the issues,” he tells The Power Index, adding the media cycle has made the nature of debate less reasonable.
The man knows how to make a headline. Just the other week, he hit the front pages for sticking up for Australian Christina Lobby boss Jim Wallace over his comments that smoking was healthier than being gay.
There’s more. Writing in his church newspaper in June, Jensen contended that gay marriage could lead to polygamy and inc-st. The same month he sent out letters co-signed by other denominational leaders rallying opposition to a parliamentary vote on the issue.
He also gets invited to appear on shows such as Q&A (where he most recently sparred with outspoken atheist Catherine Deveny) and write op-eds for Fairfax (one recent offering supported new Anglican marriage vows asking brides to “submit” to their husbands).
Jensen says he would much rather talk about other issues that interest him such as prison reform or disability but the “obsession” from others forces him to keep talking about gay marriage. “I think it’s good that people are talking about marriage … [but] it’s not something I dream about or think about. It’s not the subject I wish to be known for,” he says.
As the representative of the nation’s largest and wealthiest diocese, Jensen is the most influential Anglican in the land (out of 3.6 million). He’s also the key man making the Sydney branch of the church more conservative, including the push to stop the ordination of female bishops.
“The Church has politics in it, I’m not embarrassed about that … If there weren’t factions I’d be worried.”
As well as that, Jensen is leader of alternative Anglican forum GAFCON, an international group that wants to see the Church return to the “old ways” of the Bible. The project has been particularly active opposing the consecration of gay bishops.
But it’s his main gig that gives him his power, although it’s not unfettered.
“I am not a great authority, I cannot sack a clergyman, I can’t move him around,” he says. “I do have powers of course, but the powers are limited by the synod, but the law under which we operate and by custom.”
He may like to play things down, but there will be no shortage of contenders contemplating taking Jensen’s place in the near future. Elections are set to take place next year in the hunt for a new Sydney Archbishop, with diocese rules stating an archbishop must retire at 70.
At the beginning of our interview, Jensen runs The Power Index through the political brinkmanship that occurs in getting a man (it goes without saying) elected to the top job. The synod, which comprises 23 Anglican dioceses, gathers together about 700 representatives who put forward a candidate, which then goes to a vote. As with any good election campaign, nominees hand out supporting literature such as DVDs and leaflets. Church factions also play a part, although Jensen prefers the word “groupings”.
“The Church has politics in it, I’m not embarrassed about that,” Jensen says. “You’ve just got to make sure its good politics not bad politics. It’s a good system … If there weren’t factions I’d be worried.”
There are also key endorsements. At the last election in 2001, World Vision boss Tim Costello went the other way, raising concerns over Jensen’s appointment in an op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald. He believed Jensen would be a divisive figure.
Jensen says his relationship with other Church figures is good, including Catholic counterpart George Pell. He says he meets with the Cardinal “three or four” times a year to have a meal and discuss the challenges being faced by both Churches.
“We have each other’s phone number, we can ring each other up if there’s anything that we need to talk about,” he says.