Jordan Baker “Charming and unapologetic: Sydney’s Anglican archbishop isn’t afraid to be out of step with the times”
But the most unusual thing about Raffel, in the annals of Christian archbishops, is that for the first 21 years of his life he was a Buddhist. He meditated, chanted Buddhist prayers, and went to the temple. He watched his mother – a doctor, who was widowed young – perform acts of charity to accrue merit for her late husband.
But that all changed one hot, sleepless summer night, when he picked up a gospel given to him by a friend. By dawn, he was a Christian. “In a sense, it was kind of unavoidable,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything else.”
We meet at Spiced by Billu’s in Barangaroo, the closest we could find to Sri Lankan cuisine in the city on a Tuesday. Raffel orders curries, dhal and chutneys, toning down the heat after I sheepishly admit to being a spice sook. Raffel lifts his foot above the table and hoicks up his trouser leg to reveal a sock decorated with red chillies. “I wore them for you.”
The 57-year-old is accustomed to heat, both in his food and in his job. He was elected as Sydney’s Anglican leader a little over a year ago, and is presiding over a diocese that is increasingly at odds with the views held by many in the city, and even the views of its fellow Australian Anglicans, when it comes to women, divorce and same-sex relationships.
Parents at Anglican schools are fighting an edict from Sydney’s synod – a kind of Anglican parliament – requiring principals to affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman. Due to its view that men and women are designed for different roles in life, Sydney also remains one of the few English-speaking dioceses to refuse to ordain women as priests. Divorce is bad, too. A few years ago, a popular rector had to resign from his parish because his marriage ended.
Raffel is funny, charming and diplomatic. He has been described, even by some who disagree with him, as a nice chap. But he is also, ever so politely, unapologetic. Sydney’s Anglicans won’t be changing their interpretation of the bible to suit the times. “There’s no doubt we are at the counter-cultural end, rather than culturally accommodating,” he says. “This isn’t a matter of pigheadedness. We’re trying to follow Jesus.”
As the papadams crackle, we delve into Raffel’s family history. His father, Lorenz, was a supervisor on a tea plantation, whose parents were Christian and whose European surname was brought to the subcontinent by the Dutch East India Company. His mother, Lilamani, was a Sinhalese Buddhist doctor, whose upper-class father, also a doctor, played bridge with the country’s first prime minister.
Their parents did not approve of the match, so the young couple moved first to England, where Raffel and one of his two sisters were born, then to Canada, which was too cold for a family from the tropics. In 1972, they moved to Sydney. Six months after they arrived, his father died of a heart attack. Raffel’s mother was alone in a foreign land with three children.
They lived in Carlingford, in the city’s north-west, where Raffel attended the local high school. “After my sister left, I was the only non-white person in the whole school,” he remembers. On the school’s debating team, he argued against his future wife, Cailey. The children would say their Buddhist prayers at night, and when Wat Buddharangsee opened in the inner west in 1975, they would attend on special days, such the anniversary of his father’s death.
He remembers his mother as a woman of deep integrity, compassion and independence. “[She had] a Buddhist sense of caring for the poor,” he says. She would throw parties for children at what was then known as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, an act of charity that would accrue merit for her late husband. “The Buddhist idea is that you can do good acts, and then commit the good karma to that person,” Raffel says. “That was her expression of her faith.”
When Raffel was in his third year of an arts-law degree at Sydney University he decided to deepen his understanding of his faith. He pored over books in the temple library. He meditated. And he pondered the metaphysics of rebirth. “I was very committed to the program, as it were … the shape of the ethics around wisdom and compassion and the eightfold path.”
Shead gave him two gospels to read. Raffel read Mark the next day. It’s the shortest gospel, and the most action packed. Weeks passed. Then, one restless night when heat kept him awake, he decided to keep his promise to Shead and read the other.
John’s is the most poetic gospel. It begins with a sentence – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – that reminded Raffel of a fairytale. He kept reading. “You get a very strong sense of [Jesus’] personality. You don’t get that when you read Buddhist scripture … [Jesus is] a very compelling character.” The message was that Jesus divides. It made Raffel think about what side of the divide he was on.
That hot, summer night, he became a Christian. Believers would say the Holy Spirit was at work. “I just thought, well, this is what I have to do. I’m going to follow Jesus.”
The arrival of goat and chicken curries, eggplant masala, dhal makhani, garlic naan and mango chutney jolt us back to the present where, in Sydney, seven Manly players are making headlines by refusing to wear a rainbow pride jersey due to their religion and, on the other side of the world, Anglican bishops are attending their once-in-a-decade conference in Lambeth, England, to discuss challenges facing the church such as disagreement about same-sex marriage.
Put simply, the fault line is between progressive Anglicans – most of whom are in the Northern Hemisphere and parts of Australia – and socially and theologically conservative communities in the global south. Unlike Catholics, Anglicans have no central, papal authority. It’s more like a family. And like many families, they can disagree and become estranged, to the point where some no longer turn up at the reunion.
Sydney did not attend Lambeth, and has not been since the late 1990s. On women and same-sex marriage, Sydney’s Anglicans align firmly with the south. “They are heroic, joyful churches,” says Raffel. The diocese is a member of GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference), which is dominated by African countries and seeks to guard and proclaim “the unchanging truth in a changing world”. As the divisions between Anglicans over same-sex marriage and women grow, some believe the Australian church will become irrevocably divided and formally split.
Critics argue the Sydney crew takes the bible too literally. Raffel disagrees. He does not believe it’s magic, and that sticking a pin in a random verse will provide an answer to the day’s problem. But he does believe that, when the Old Testament, the gospels, and the epistles are consistent on an issue, such as marriage being between a man and woman, then that’s that.
“That teaching … has been affirmed,” he says. “Jesus is kind of counter cultural, and he was in his own day. And I think it’s right to say the Christians who’ve made the biggest impact are probably the ones who are willing to stick with Jesus. Even when that was culturally awkward.” He knows many Christians find the position hurtful. He “regrets and laments” their pain.
Most of the time, people’s religious views have little impact – beyond offence – on those who do not share them. But where church and state collide, there is increasing tension. The issue has flared in parliament, and in sport. It is festering in Anglican schools, where – particularly in socially progressive parts of the city, such as the eastern suburbs – the views of parents are increasingly at odds with those of the diocese.
Raffel says Anglican schools welcome feedback from parents. But “they are not parent-controlled schools,” he says. “We do think the heads of Anglican schools should be able to affirm Anglican faith. That’s only natural, really.” The church sees its schools as a way to “share our story”, he says. “We don’t compel people to believe in it.”
At the most recent national Synod, bishops vetoed what would have otherwise been a successful motion by Sydney to affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman. It strengthened fears of a formal split. Raffel describes the tensions in the church as painful. “But we are talking about what it means to be faithful to Jesus,” he says. “And if it is the case that there is no agreement about what faithfulness looks like, then there will be a very sad kind of distancing. To some extent, there is already.”
We’ve finished eating. I ask Raffel if he enjoys being archbishop. He laughs. It’s a learning curve, a privilege, humbling. “There are all kinds of tensions and challenges. As you know, I’m but a man. I feel the weight and pressure.”