Bishops John Hind and Michael Langrish reflect on a recent experience in the Diocese of The Murray
On leaving Heathrow, having flown back from three months in the Diocese of The Murray, the over-riding impression is of congestion and claustrophobia on the overcrowded and slow-moving roads. How very different from South Australia with its wide open spaces, and its spacious and low-rise towns and villages.
Sense of space
In fact this spaciousness, and freedom, appears to apply to almost everything. Homes, including rectories and vicarages, are roomy with a real family hub at their heart, but with so many different spaces for each family member to work, rest or play. And this sense of space carries over to lifestyle too – more relaxed and in so many places marked by an extraordinary spirit of generosity, hospitality and warmth.
That, at least, has been our experience of the first quarter of this year spent teaching a new programme of formation for ordinands and candidates for ordained and authorized ministry, providing continuing ministerial education for clergy, and, in the places where we have stayed, presiding at Mass, preaching and offering pastoral care.
Life of faith
In terms of geography the Diocese of The Murray is vast, bigger than Wales and taking six hours to drive from north to south. In population it is small. Its largest settlement, Mount Gambier (itself the second city of South Australia), has just 45,000 inhabitants. In this large rural area with its varied environment and sunny climate, communities are for the most part just that – communities where it is possible for people to really know one another. It is also the setting for an interesting and exciting project to create an expression of the local church which is fitted to its culture whilst being faithful to tradition.
The freedom and space that characterizes other aspects of life are here also a mark of the life of faith. South Australia was never a penal colony with the whole structure of the ‘established church’ which tended to go with this. In fact it was the only part of the continent to be colonized by free settlers, many of whom were dissenters seeking freedom of expression in church structure and belief. The legacy of this is not only that Anglicanism has no privileged position; it is frequently in any community the third or fourth denomination in terms of numbers. But this also gives the diocese an extraordinary freedom, which may enrich not only its own life but also provide lessons for the Anglican Communion as a whole.
Vision for growth
The Diocese of The Murray was created nearly 50 years ago out of the Diocese of Adelaide. Apart from four parishes on the southern end of the city with a total population of 110,000 that are part of the Murray, Adelaide retained the urban areas, the majority of the State’s population and most of its wealth. At its foundation it was poorly endowed, has at times had to struggle, and particularly in the past decade has been through very hard times.
The appointment of Bishop John Ford, the current bishop, came at a ‘make or break’ point in the Diocese’s life. Into this situation he has come with a clear vision for growth – in discipleship, ministry and mission. And it is so exciting to see how the parishes and pastoral districts have begun to respond. At the beginning of last year around 700 people turned out at six locations around the Diocese to hear their bishop outline a road map for the future in which he highlighted seven areas where the Diocese needs to grow. They included a vision for evangelism, worship, lay and ordained ministry, a ministry with children and young people, a vision for social responsibility, Christian giving and stewardship and a partnership in the Gospel. People were invited to join with him in ‘Taking the Plunge Together’, a programme which began in Lent and concludes at Pentecost this year. Plunged into the waters of baptism each was called to grow God’s Church together! And that this has begun to happen we have seen with our own eyes.
Planning the way ahead
Each parish and pastoral district has audited its life in the light of the road map, and has drawn up its own mission action plan to be agreed with the Bishop as their way ahead. A discipleship formation programme, ‘Following Jesus’, has been introduced. A hoped-for 60 participants in Year 1 became in reality a staggering 600, of which probably 500 finished the programme. Further excitement and anticipation has flowed from two visits by Fr Damian Feeney, the most recent being for a vibrant conference on ‘Leading your church into growth’.
In so many places we encountered a deep hunger to grow in Christ, and for good teaching and pastoral care. Frequently people spoke of a resurgence of faith and a return of hope, one of the signs of which has been an upsurge in those being called out for ordination, or for a variety of lay ministries. This was the main reason for our time in the Diocese. In order to respond quickly and effectively to this growth in vocations, a need for priests where currently only 15 stipendiary clergy are available for deployment across the Diocese, and very few local resources, Bishop John has put in place a local programme of ministerial education training and formation. It lasts for seven years, but candidates are ordained to the diaconate or priesthood during this time as the rightness of this is discerned in each case.
Intense and demanding
Our task was to deliver the first two modules in two different parts of the Diocese, and in both cases the ordinands were supported by committed groups of lay people eager to share their journey into deeper understanding. Bishop John Hind taught Patristics 1 – an introduction to the foundations of Christian doctrine, and Bishop Michael Langrish taught Holy Order 1 – the foundations of ecclesiology and the theology and practice of ministry; between us covering a wide sweep of Biblical Studies, Doctrine, Church History, Ethics, Ecclesiology and Pastoral Theology. It was very intense and demanding – for them and for us! But it was such a joy to see people so avid to learn, and so very much on a journey of faith and vocation. From an ordination being a rarity in this Diocese over the past ten years, this year Bishop John will be ordaining four men to the diaconate, as well as one priest.
Relevance and vitality
Whilst it is good to see local growth in this way, we return to the UK convinced also of the need for three or four well-formed and younger priests to hear the call to ‘Come over and help us’ in the next few years. For those who do and respond in this way, they will find a diocese which is young, growing, missional and testimony to the continuing relevance and vitality of that vision of the universal Church which so often feels under threat wherever ‘provincial autonomy’ is exalted above the common faith of the Church. The joy of sharing in a Chrism Mass where all priests may, and do, still concelebrate with their bishop as one, of sharing with Bishop John in confirming young people in three centres across the Diocese on Easter Eve, using a rite shared by all, is something that many of us have not experienced for very many years.
Chance for discussion
Thanks to the hospitality of Forward in Faith, Bishop John will be in the office in Gordon Square all day on Tuesday 4 August. If anyone is at all interested in meeting him to talk about his Diocese and its exciting future, please email him – email@example.com – and fix a time for a conversation. We realize that being August some people might not be readily available. However, Bishop John would be delighted to hear from you in any event and there are a few people here who hold a Commission to be his representatives in the UK with whom you could be put in contact to discuss things further.