Peter Hollingworth keeps his ‘holy orders’ and victims are understandably angered

I have to confess, I was shocked to read that Peter Hollingworth has kept his holy orders. I was also surprised to learn that he hadn’t been removed from ministry years ago. 

Peter Hollingworth served as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane from 1989-2001 when he was appointed the Governor General of Australia. He was also made the Australia of the Year in 1995. Two years into his role as the Queen’s representative in Australia, Hollingworth resigned due to serious allegations made against him for covering up pedophile priests. Calls for Peter Hollingworth to be stripped of his ‘holy orders’ led to an inquiry which has this week determined that he is fit for ministry. While the Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church recognised Peter Hollingworth’s failures and has limited the type of ministry he can now engage in, he will remain a priest of the Anglican Church and able to conduct weddings, funerals and baptisms. 

Our society often gets it wrong when it comes to evaluating churches and church leaders, but sometimes they are right. And it’s frustrating when churches cannot even meet that low standard. The standard for churches is not the same as society at large. It is far higher, or at least it ought to be. 

I want to be clear and make the important distinction between the bar for someone becoming a Christian and the bar for those wanting to serve as Christian pastors. The bar for becoming a Christian is in one sense, very low: the Son of God died for sinners. Repentance is necessary and trust in Christ, but God justifies and forgives on account of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, not by any resume or sense of holiness that we might attribute to ourselves. That’s good news because I’m not redeemed by religiosity or spiritual intensity, but simply by saying yes to the one crucified and raised from the dead. By definition Churches are not made up of the self-righteous but those who realise we are not. But of course, that kind of life-saving work turns life around and begins to change affections, attitudes, and actions.

However, for those who desire to serve as ministers, the bar is set high. Take a look at this one example passage from the New Testament, 

“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”

The role and responsibilities attached to being a shepherd of Christ’s church are so important that the qualifications are set high. Hence, I appreciate why many people are not only scratching their heads this morning, but are feeling sick at hearing the news that the Anglican Church believes Peter Hollingworth is fit for duty.

The Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church is perhaps privy to information that the public is not. Although, Peter Hollingworth has admitted fault. I acknowledge that I am not across this story as fully as others, but the optics look bad. More than public perception, there is a serious question here about doing what is right in the eyes of God and for the sake of victims of horrendous evil. 

It shouldn’t surprise us to see that where denominations or dioceses play loose with the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and where orthodoxy is treated as optional, morality and godliness is also found wanting. Where doctrine falls it only takes a few steps for godliness to fail. Indeed, it often works the other way around; we change our doctrine to fit our desired morality.  Of course, there are other reasons for excusing or covering up child sexual abuse: complicity, fear,  power, and an array of unbecoming qualities for any who has the responsibility to care for Christ’s Church.

I think it is also the case that even 20 years ago,  we were unaware of the extent to which such evil was taking place in some ecclesial quarters. Churches and Christian denominations have certainly upped their game in recent years.  There are healthy and rigorous processes in place, not only for those seeking ordained ministry but in order to keep their qualifications. That is a good thing. But that’s what makes this decision so baffling and understandably survivors of sexual abuse are angered, confused and losing even the tenuous hopes they had in churches doing the right now. 

If you are baffled by the decision made by the Professional Standards Board of the Anglican Church, so am I. At the very least, greater clarity needs to be provided as to why Peter Hollingworth is fit to keep his ‘holy orders. In the meantime, I grieve the repeated failures of our churches. I know most are unlike the villains portrayed in the media, but can we blame our secular friends for finding it difficult to see the difference?

These words from the book of Ezekiel are formidable. The religious leaders in Ezekiel’s day weren’t taking the responsibilities seriously, both in terms of what they taught and how they lived. God gave a damming assessment, and it’s one that perhaps ecclesiastical leaders need to once again read and tremble before, 

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.”

Thank God He provides a Shepherd who never fails or falls short, the Good Shepherd, 

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.”