Presidential Charge to Thirty-Seventh Synod of the Diocese of the Northern Territory

Bishop Greg Anderson’s Charge to the Synod of the Diocese, Friday 17th September 2021.

It is only a year since the 36th synod met by Zoom on Friday September 11th, 2020, but a lot has happened in that year. We were still in the midst of COVID contingencies, and meeting by Zoom was sensible, but I didn’t expect that COVID would still be such a big part of our thinking in late 2021. Just over a week ago, the diocesan office staff met to consider whether we should move this synod to a Zoom platform as we had done in 2020, because of the risk of a snap lockdown. We decided to go ahead, but who would have imagined a year ago that such a risk would still be possible. Synod is not over until it is over, and we can pray that we will continue to be COVID free and that all synod representatives can return home on Sunday or Monday without problems.

We can be grateful to God, again, that the Territory has so far been a very safe place in the pandemic, and that the disruption to our lives has been so small. There have been lasting benefits that have flowed to us from the changes that we had to make last year. Electronic meetings have become much more normal. The diocese has benefited from being able to gather ministers electronically for a monthly catch-up by Zoom, and having Diocesan Council by Zoom has reduced costs and made the meeting arrangements easier.

The wider Australian and international situation seems to remain relatively unstable until vaccination rates increase. The Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops has again been postponed, to 2022 (if then!); the national Anglican General Synod for Australia likewise. These and other postponements have their own consequences, when pressing national and international issues for the church remain not dealt with.

The Territory Government’s roadmap back to ‘normal’ raises questions about the small proportion of people who will remain unvaccinated by choice or need, and how our churches are to deal with them, whether as attenders or volunteers. No doubt the Government will have more to say in the weeks ahead. I am heartened that 88% of our diocesan clergy have been double vaccinated and the remainder have had their first jab.

So in the face of the ongoing COVID uncertainty, it is very good to be able to meet together in person for synod this year. The informal time together over a cup of tea or a meal is very valuable in giving us the opportunity of building deeper relationships across the geographical and cultural spread of our Diocese.

Last year, we had planned to launch a form of consultative council that would bring together Aboriginal church representatives from remote parts of the Diocese. Unfortunately, COVID prevented that happening. According to our current strategic plan, we want to provide ways for the Aboriginal voices of the Diocese to be heard loudly and clearly. Synod itself doesn’t seem the best way for that to happen. Of course, the bishop and the Ministry Development Team travel around the diocese, and many students from the community do courses at Nungalinya College every year. But to have a focused group meeting together regularly to share and talk together about the hopes, challenges and opportunities in their churches and communities is a good thing to do. The pre-synod conference that Aboriginal representatives from our remote parishes have been having this week has enabled us to take the next step forward towards this goal. So I am delighted to announce the formation of WALK. There are still some details to work out, and there are still some representatives to be chosen, but this group will enable Aboriginal church representatives to walk together with one another, and to walk together with the rest of the Diocese, as we seek the best ways of strengthening the life of the church and gospel witness in all our churches, and particularly in Aboriginal communities. WALK is an abbreviation for the word for ‘word/story’ in the main languages of our remote Anglican areas.

W – wed (Kriol, spoken across a wide area of the Southern Top End, including Ngukurr, Minyerri, Kewulyi and Urapunga)
A – ayakwa (Anindilyakwa, spoken on Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island)
L – lhaawu (Wubuy, spoken at Numbulwar)
K – kunwok (Kunwinjku, spoken at Gunbalanya and Western Arnhem Land)

The first meeting of WALK is planned for the early Dry season in 2022.

The state of our churches
There is so much to thank God for as we look around the ministries of our parishes. We are blessed with capable ordained church leaders, other stipended lay ministers, and dedicated volunteers. There is consistent numerical growth in many of our churches, and growth in financial commitment of our members. Bigger numbers are nice, but what is important is more people understanding about God’s saving work through Jesus Christ, and their understanding being reflected in their lives, individually and as community, as they seek to show what God’s care for the world looks like and what the shape of his blessing is. We are in the situation where a number of our parishes can now pay a second minister (part-time or full-time), either from their own resources or because of the generosity of outside financial partners. God has also blessed us in providing well-trained clergy and lay people to move into the Diocese from other places for various roles outside parish ministry; but who throw themselves into contributing in our parishes because they are committed to what God is doing among us. Since our last synod, Rob Llewellyn has begun as Dean at the cathedral, and has passed the first anniversary of the arrival of him and his family in Darwin. Jo Vandersee has begun as Families and Outreach minister at Sanderson, having recently arrived from Brisbane. Nightcliff parish, after more than a year of searching, and a few nibbles, are making progress towards hooking a third ministry staff member. Fred’s Pass parish has only been vacant since the end of June, following the departure of the Zamagiases, but I hope and expect to be making an announcement about an appointment there on the last Sunday of September. Ruth Walton joined the staff of Fred’s Pass at the beginning of the year and took on particular care for St Francis’, Batchelor. She is currently the locum priest in the parish. Craig Rogers was ordained deacon in October 2020 in the parish of Ngukurr. I am anticipating that there will be more ordinations in remote parishes in the next month at Numbulwar and Minyerri, after various new requirements for ordination have been met by those candidates. Kristan Slack is in his second half-year as rector of Alice Springs, and has Topher Hallyburton as his assistant minister. Steve Davis finished his six months of being locum at St Paul’s Katherine, and Glenys has stepped into that role for the present. Please pray that God will provide the right person to be rector in Katherine.

Glen Elsegood was added to the number of defence chaplains at the beginning of the year, serving with Army in Darwin, as well as attending St Peter’s Nightcliff; and it was a good surprise to have Scott Doran-Sargent, State Director of CMS Tasmania, arrive in Darwin as a reservist chaplain for two months a few weeks ago.

There are subtractions as well as additions. Mike Nixon is leaving the Territory (second attempt) next month, to take up medical practice in Hervey Bay in Queensland. Mike has been an honorary assistant priest at the cathedral for the last many years, but those who were around early in the century will know that he was also Dean of the cathedral from 2003 to 2007. We wish Mike well in his new place.

I want to pay tribute as well to the late Didamain Uibo, who passed away last month and will be buried at Numbulwar, where she originally came from, on September 28th. She was born in the year that the Rose River Mission began, 1952, and married Mick almost 50 years ago. Over the last decades she made an enormous contribution to the Diocese, serving in virtually every capacity that a lay person can serve: diocesan synod, General Synod, Diocesan Council, Bishop Election Board, Kormilda College Board, Nungalinya College Board. She was integral in the Aboriginal congregation that met at St James’ Sanderson for a number of years in the early 2000s. She was the embodiment in many ways of cross-cultural communication.

This year was a national census year, and in due course, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will let us know how many people ticked the box saying they were Anglican. That is only a small proportion of people in the Territory who are yet to hear the good news of Jesus in a way they can understand. This year is also the National Church Life Survey, and we will be asking our parishes to roll out the pencils and filling in the forms to provide another snapshot of the current state of our churches, and how they have changed in the last five years. It is always helpful to have this kind of information as we seek to shape our ministries.

The state of the diocesan office
At synod last year, the appointment of our new Business Manager, David Ray was announced. David has quickly worked out how to add value to all the diocesan systems, and has identified the key risks, including financial. We are financially vulnerable in the medium term, and really need to find ways of increasing the diocesan income to be able to meet what we must keep doing, including safe ministry compliance, and what we want to keep doing, including supporting ministry across the diocese especially where that support is needed most. Significant stress is placed on diocesan staff at the time of big events like synod, clergy conferences, mission partner consultations, and from 2022 WALK, and we are considering how best to configure staff so that the everyday operations can continue smoothly, as well as being able to deal with high-demand periods.

There has been a high rate of change of diocesan staff since last synod. Apart from David, we have Lee Walton working as Deputy Diocesan Business Manager, concentrating on the complex portfolio of properties. The financial accounts presented at synod indicate the large amount that has been spent on making the remote area properties liveable, and there is yet more to spend. Ruth Walton is funded by Bush Church Aid Society to be the Dean of Anglican students at Nungalinya College, and has begun to deepen relationships with key church leaders in the Anglican parishes that send students to Nungalinya.

Simon Koefoed is working part-time as Associate Ministry Development Officer, spending most of his time as the Diocesan Safe Ministry Officer. He has been able to substantially improve the currency of our system so that it can run more efficiently.

Naomi Ireland, funded by Bush Church Aid Society, arrived in the middle of the year as our new Diocesan Children’s Ministry Officer. The plan is for her to spend a couple of months early next year living in a remote parish to build her knowledge of life and ministry in that context, and she has already been able to meet many of those who are involved across our parishes in teaching and discipling our children.

Jenny Madden finished as Bishop’s EA, and returned to Sydney to be able to care more for her mother and sister. This led to a slight office restructure, so that Mary Martin came in as Office Manager, thrown in at the deep end, with the big event of the clergy conference followed by the big event of synod.

Anne Lim has come on to the team part-time and pro bono as the editor of Top Centre. She brings long experience as a journalist in secular and Christian publications. Having professional expertise in this vital communications area is so important, particularly as we see the need to increase the Diocese’s profile and raise financial support.

On the down side, Kate and Tavis Beer have announced that they are finishing up as CMS missionaries in the Territory and returning to Melbourne at the end of the year for their Final Home Assignment with CMS before moving to other ministries. Their contribution to the Diocese over the last ten years has been enormous, and having been church members at Ngukurr, Katherine, Palmerston, the cathedral and Sanderson, they have a breadth of knowledge of our churches that is unsurpassed. As Ministry Development Officer for over six years, Kate has worked to resource clergy and churches across the diocese in many ways, particularly in remote areas. She has had oversight of safe ministry training and other safe ministry areas, professional supervision for church workers, professional development for church workers, the leadership pathways portfolio, and has been involved in seeking and acquitting project funding from donors such as Anglican Board of Mission and Mothers Union. She has brought a deep understanding of structures and systems to the diocesan office, to our great benefit. She mentored Miriam Numamurdirdi during her two years as a trainee in the diocesan office, and has resourced and taught trauma healing workshops. She visits the women’s prison, has served on Diocesan Council, Bishop Election Board, Anglicare Board, and has been involved in the upfront ministries of the parishes she and Tavis have been part of. Tavis in recent years has been the Ministry Resource Officer, and member of the Ministry Development Team. He has produced the North Australian Lectionary, lots of training material including sermon helps and study material for the NAL, and with Kate has co-ordinated the development and production of the Kriol Preya Buk. He has led the ordained and soon-to-be-ordained men on their leadership pathway. He has pastorally cared for Aboriginal church leaders, and has been locum at Katherine, the cathedral and Sanderson, as well as serving in upfront roles in the churches where he has been ‘just’ a parishioner. (All this is just a dry run for their actual farewell at the end of the year, so that the important things that I’ve left out this time can be added in then.) At the pre-synod conference for Aboriginal representatives this week, the farewell event for the Beers on Wednesday night provided a very real sense of the emotional connection and deep appreciation that our remote area churches have with them.

All of that means that of the eight people who are part of the diocesan office a lot of the time, when we get to the end of the year, only one of those people will have been in place for more than eighteen months. That means that there is also a lot of ‘learning how to work together well’, which we have taken steps to continue.

So much of the ministry that I’ve just been referring to and the people who do it is provided because of the generous giving of outsiders, channelled through various agencies as well as churches and individuals. Many of those agencies, like CMS, BCA, ABM, MU as examples, have been supporting Territory ministry at a very high level for decades, and we are very grateful for that. Then, just in the last six months, there have been three very significant approaches to the diocese from individuals who have been blessed with financial resources that they are eager to commit to further developing and supporting ministry among us, and I am personally very grateful for that, as well as for those who give regularly and consistently on a smaller but no less faithful scale.

Anglicare NT
Anglicare NT continues to be part of the family of the Diocese, and we can be proud of the work they do across a wide range of the social services sector. In the last couple of years, Anglicare has taken big steps towards increasing its partnership with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, as government funding is more and more given to those organisations (rather than mainstream organisations) for Aboriginal-related programs. Meanwhile, some significant areas of service that Anglicare had engaged in for many years have been awarded to other service providers, including out-of-home residential care for young people. A key ingredient in Anglicare’s stability and resilience in these changing circumstances is its CEO, Dave Pugh, who has wide and deep knowledge of this sector, and passionate commitment to Aboriginal social justice and welfare. Dave has flagged that he will retire from this role at the end of the year. There will be more to say about Dave’s contribution closer to that time, but I urge synod reps and our churches to pray that God will lead the Board to the right person as the next CEO, as recruitment processes begin to get underway. The work and advocacy of Anglicare NT is an important expression of God’s kingdom and a demonstration of the blessing of God’s rule.

National Redress Scheme
I have talked in previous synods about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to child abuse. One outflow of the Royal Commission’s recommendations was the establishment of the National Redress Scheme (NRS). The NRS provides a mechanism so that people who have experienced abuse when they were children, in a range of institutions including church settings, may receive some financial redress, and the opportunity for a direct response from those responsible for these institutions, if the survivor of abuse would like that. Sadly, there have been many instances of abuse occurring in the past in areas that now come under the Diocese of the Northern Territory (even though it did not exist at that time). It is good, and even a privilege, that the Diocese is able to participate in helping survivors move towards closure, and have their trauma recognised. The NRS has financial implications for the Diocese. Contingencies were made at the time the Royal Commission was being set up, based on what we thought might be the number of cases coming forward. However, at current projections, those contingency funds will be used up before there is an end to survivors coming forward. This is a significant risk for the synod to be aware of. We are not the only Australian Anglican Diocese in this position, and we are in an unfolding story without having much idea of how the story will end. But we trust that God will provide whatever is needed for his church to continue to grow, even if it is in ways that we can’t yet imagine.

Domestic and family violence
The national Anglican church has had a research project for the last couple of years into the experience of domestic and family violence by people in our congregations. The rates of domestic violence in the Territory are particularly high, and this is something that churches must be concerned about. The national Anglican working group has produced a list of commitments that we are being encouraged to sign up to as a diocese. Recognising the existence of, and the signs of, family violence and intimate partner violence, are a necessary first step to dealing with this issue. We need to go further and be aware of what resources are available in our communities for those who need immediate help and safety. And those who have responsibility for teaching in our churches must take every opportunity of underlining that there is no valid interpretation of the Bible or Christian doctrine that permits or condones violence. Wherever a Bible passage could be twisted or misunderstood so that people who engage in violent, coercive or controlling behaviour, believe that it justifies their action, we must take the opportunity of undercutting that wrong belief.

This synod
We have some church law business to deal with at this synod, but not too much, partly because the national General Synod has not met as expected, and usually they have passed a number of laws and resolutions that flow down to us for our consideration. The most significant law matter before us is the proposal to change the structure of Diocesan Council. This issue has been brewing for at least as long as I have been bishop, because we are all keen for Diocesan Council to reflect the make-up of the Diocese, to have the right balance between ex officio members and elected members, the right balance between clergy and lay, and a sense of the geographical and cultural stretch of the diocese. (Establishing the WALK will do something to enable the cultural breadth of the diocese to be recognised.) I suspect that amendments will be suggested to the proposal that has come to us, and I hope that we can engage with this issue thoughtfully and clearly for the best outcome.

What is not coming before us this synod is a new strategic plan, although the plan that the 2017 passed was labelled 2017-2021. In discussing the strategic plan renewal at Diocesan Council earlier this year, we felt that it was more important to engage more deeply than could be done in the time still available, and that the current settings were enough to keep going with for the moment. So I expect that the new strategic plan will come before the next synod, after plenty of time for working on at the grassroots and every other level.

The wider Anglican church
Tensions continue to be felt between conservatives and progressives (if I can use such labels) in the Anglican church across the world and in Australia. The decision of the Appellate Tribunal that the blessing of an existing marriage, regardless of the sex of the couple, was permissible within the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, has been met in most places with restraint. In accordance with the Canon Concerning Services of General Synod, I indicated to clergy in this diocese that I had made a determination that such blessing services would not be edifying in this diocese and that to conduct such a blessing would be in breach of that Canon. Meanwhile, GAFCON Australia has established a company that would provide fellowship and recognition for churches or parishes who believe they cannot remain within their diocese because of the action of their diocesan bishop or the decisions of their diocesan authorities in this matter (or perhaps similar matters). I am not aware of any parishes yet joining that company. I understand that what is anticipated is that if there were a sufficient number of such parishes in the company, the company would become a diocese, which would not be part of the Anglican Church of Australia, but would be recognised as Anglican by a number of dioceses in Australia and elsewhere. These are troubling times, and many questions remain.

I have been encouraged to write up a job description for myself. This is an interesting request. The Ordinal in our prayer book sets out the tasks of a bishop, but the real life work seems often to only overlap slightly with what the prayer book says. I am surrounded by a great team, both in the diocesan office and among the clergy and laity of the diocese, for which I am more grateful than I can express. I also have the love of a loyal and loving wife, which makes life much easier even when life doesn’t seem easy.

I am no longer the shortest-serving Bishop of the Northern Territory, and by the time next synod meets, I may be the second longest serving. Most bishops have stayed here six to eight years, and I am about to begin my eighth year. I read in leadership books that leaders must reinvent themselves about every seven years. The work of bishop in this diocese is very varied, challenging, encouraging, but the key thing for all of us, clergy and lay alike, is seeking to follow the road that God has set before us, bringing glory to him because of his saving love in Christ, laying aside distractions, and devoting ourselves to his service. His service—being his slave in other words—is actually freedom.

So, welcome to the 37th Synod. A particular thank you to all those who have put in a lot of time and energy to making synod work: especially the diocesan office team, who all deserve a long holiday.

Bishop Greg Anderson