Paul F. Cooper & David A. Burke (eds), Principle & Principal: the other side of the Rev Dr Peter Cameron heresy trial. Stanhope Gardens, NSW: Eider Books, 2023, 249 pp, […]
Paul F. Cooper & David A. Burke (eds), Principle & Principal: the other side of the Rev Dr Peter Cameron heresy trial. Stanhope Gardens, NSW: Eider Books, 2023, 249 pp, pb, ISBN 978-0-6450875-5-0, RRP AUD$28.00.
It is now over thirty years since the “Cameron case” in the PCNSW, when the Presbytery of Sydney began disciplinary proceedings against the Principal of St Andrew’s College at the University of Sydney, the Rev. Dr Peter Cameron. He was subsequently found guilty of “making statements which are inconsistent with Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith”. A proper historical treatment of this episode is, some would argue, long overdue. Its treatment in the denominational history Iron in our Blood (2001) was sound but necessarily compact. In Burning or Bushed (2017), the affair was misleadingly relegated to a chapter on women’s ministry. By 2023, most of those who supported Cameron have gone and even the ranks of the youngsters who didn’t are thinning. Overdue or not, this book is timely. The church always needs to know and evaluate its past. The problem in this case is that most of what has been published on this topic is superficial, prejudiced and/or inaccurate – mostly, thinkingly or unthinkingly, supporting Dr Cameron. Paul Cooper and David Burke are to be congratulated on another important contribution to educating Presbyterians (and others) about their beliefs, history and traditions. They and several of their contributors write as participant-historians, a position which confers some advantages but also often presents difficulties. Overall, the writers maintain sufficient detachment and the personal insights are often illuminating.
In their introduction, the editors, who also contributed six chapters, a quarter of the book, carefully explain their choice of title. They wanted to present “the other side”. They do this and do it well. At the same time, the book often reveals that there were at times more than just two “sides”, as well as presenting opponents’ situations fairly and at times with a measure of understanding and respect. The use of the word “heresy” in the sub-title is interesting because the book itself makes clear that, though the word was “bandied about” by the press, it did not apply because Cameron “had not been deposed or even sentenced” (Cooper, p. 188). Nor did the word appear in the libel of charges. (Oh yes, old Scottish legal terms are explained.) The editors defend the use of “heresy” in the subtitle as a “concession to popular culture [or usage?]” and add that it is “retrospectively appropriate”.
The book is divided into six parts, which provide a comprehensive view of the subject. Section 1 has two essays on Cameron’s life and his theology by Peter Barnes and Stuart Bonnington which are well-researched and balanced, including in the latter case comparisons with Charles Strong and Samuel Angus. Section 2 has five essays on the theological and cultural backgrounds to the case. Andrew Bain and John McClean helpfully discuss the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of Scripture and the role of Confessions as a response to false teachings. These chapters reminded the reviewer of the writing of Carl Trueman, such as The Creedal Imperative (2012). Creeds are as important for what they rule out as for what they rule in. Cameron’s transgression was not trivial. The issue was not the ordination of women. It was the authority of scripture, which is blindingly obviously “essential to the doctrine … taught” in all reformed Confessions. Andrew McGowan and William Morrow clearly set out the differences between the Church of Scotland and the PCA in the 1990s, which Cameron did not comprehend. Mark Hutchinson paints an even broader canvas of changes in tertiary education, consumerism, immigration and pluralism in Australia. At the end, he shows Cameron as a poster-boy for expressive individualism.
Section 3 is the longest, as it deals with the case itself, starting with a helpful chronology. Bruce Meller gives 25 pages to the court proceedings, showing how careful, correct and fair they were, contrary to overwrought headlines. An excellent diagram clarifies the very complex process. The editors add discussions which clarify, add political detail and context, analyse voting patterns, discuss the pros and cons of various options including the formal process chosen and disentangle the “woman question”. Cooper then adds greater local breadth by discussing the differing visions of Church held in the PCNSW in the 1990s and the changing balance of power at the time. He covers some of the same ground as part 2, but differently. Bruce Christian recalls his experience as “Christian prosecutor”. His handling of the case was consistent with what I have long known of him; his calm courtesy and reasonableness refute all the calumnies heaped on him by critics. At this point, I was reminded of a question John Knox asked a friend in 1567: “whether the church dependeth upon godes word or godes word upon the church.”
The three essays in Section 4 deal with the media “feeding frenzy”. Paul Cooper’s experience as the Media Spokesman for the Presbytery fascinated me. I stand in awe of the courage, intelligence, patience and calm under fire with which he represented the church to the feral media at the time. There are two pieces written in 1993: an op-ed piece for the Sydney Morning Herald by Peter Hastie and a young Greg Clarke’s editorial in The Briefing. They both show vastly more breadth and balance than most secular commentary at the time. The issues they canvas are still with us.
Section 5 deals with Christian reactions, different Presbyterian ones, non-Presbyterian and American. Claire Smith’s essay was originally written in 1995 for an apologetics unit at Moore College. I hope she received an HD. The reviewer can’t argue with Cooper’s essay on non-Presbyterian reactions; he observed the case at the time from the Uniting Church. There is some reference to UCA perceptions of the case in Barnes’ chapter 1.1, which overlaps a little with Cooper’s essay here. I hadn’t realized that Gordon Moyes, who was widely respected amongst evangelicals in the UCA, had gone so badly astray. But I do remember reading about the Cameron case in Insights, the magazine of the UCA Synod of NSW & ACT. An interview of Cameron by the Rev. Rex Hunt appeared in June 1993. Alarm bells rang before I even read it: there was a picture of the Principal standing in front of a portrait of Samuel Angus, a sub-head including the word “demonic” and Hunt had form as a neo-unitarian-cum-panentheist. Reading the interview, I found it as thoroughly one-sided as Cooper evidently did and thought Cameron didn’t have a leg to stand on, despite a potential concern about legalism (which this book dispels). In the August issue, four letters were published, three of which utterly condemned Cameron. I had no doubt that they were fairly representative of the views of UCA laity at the time, who were fighting their own battles. Scottish reactions in Life + Work were similar, with backlash as well.
The final part has one essay, “Was it all worthwhile?” by Neil Chambers, who was one of those who first raised questions about Cameron’s infamous Dorcas Society sermon at Ashfield on 2 March 1992. Chambers’ five positive consequences at the end ring true. The PCA may have its challenges, but we all know which denominations are shrinking fastest – in Canada, the United Church prompted the observation, “the more liberal or progressive churches have a harder time answering the question ‘Why do we need to exist?’” Read this book and see how to stand for truth, endure adversity and ponder what the church is for.
– Malcolm Prentis is a member of Chatswood Presbyterian Church.BO