Presidential Address to the 3rd Session of
the 38th Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta
Acknowledgement of Country
I acknowledge the Bangerang people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet for this third session of the 38th Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta, and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
In making this acknowledgement of country I want particularly to express my thanks to God for the life and witness of Uncle Wally Cooper whose earthly life came to its end in December last. Bangerang elder Uncle Wally was well-known for his work in local schools, with groups such as the Warby Range Landcare Group and the Victorian Farmers Federation, and in appointments including membership of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. He was a passionate cultural ambassador. Wally played a major role in breaking down barriers and promoting an inclusive approach to cultural education. I offer the condolences of the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta to the Bangerang people on the passing of this significant community leader.
I bid you welcome to this third session of the 38th Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta. This is the 8th time that I have stood to deliver the Presidential Address, the first time in this new venue. So may I welcome you to St John’s Village, which is, inter alia, the new home for the Bishop and the Registry. I hope that you will take the opportunity to have a look around while you are here, always remembering that whatever else it is, it is home for our residents. You will get a chance tomorrow to test the new catering arrangements at St John’s and use the chapel for the Saturday morning Eucharist.
I also welcome our Synod guests, Christopher Brooks from the Anglican Board of Mission; Susan Benedyka to present final draft of the strategic plan for the Diocese and Fiona Tinney to lead us through a detailed consideration of it: Peter Laurence CEO of the ASC and principals Adrian Farrer, Steve Gale and Sue Shaw who will present on our Schools; Glenn Phelps from St John’s Village and John Sharwood and Donna Walsh from Kellock Lodge; Geoff Ryan from Anglicare and our Diocesan Investment Adviser David Ritchie.
Last year in review
From a personal point of view last year had some particular highlights. I have greatly enjoyed my journey around the Diocese spending a weekend in each of the parishes. The program has varied depending on the place. Yea takes the prize for the most diverse – ecumenical dinner, the Bishop the Baptist and the Buddhist in public conversation, a pilgrimage walk from Yea to Molesworth, which I might add nearly finished me off!, the local and excellent amdram production of The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as worship. Not all visits have had such an eclectic program, but each has been worthwhile, and has provided a chance for us to delve below the surface and connect at a deeper level.
Margaret and I also deeply valued our time at the Oxford Theology Summer School. It was good to be able to engage for a while in theological reflection and to mingle with colleagues from around the world. It was also an enormous privilege to be ask to preach at and celebrate the weekday choral Eucharist with a full Christ Church Cathedral. And to celebrate my 65th at the Trout Inn with the ghost of Inspector Morse added icing to the cake. I thank the Diocese for making all this possible.
I have resigned from the Board of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and from the chairing of the Theological School Committee. I have also taken a step back at St John’s Village, becoming Deputy Chair, and am delighted that Glenn Phelps has taken over chairing this Board. All of this frees me up to spend more time in the Diocese, where my heart lies and where leadership continues to be needed.
Arising from the work of the 2nd session of this Synod, the Diocesan Corporation has now come into effect, and work continues to make this new body fully operational. Consultation has continued on the Diocesan Strategic Plan, and you should all have received an updated copy for consideration over the next days.
Our schools are now fully integrated into the ASC and are thriving. You will hear a presentation tomorrow, and I am sure that it will ‘blow your socks off’. From being a constant problem our schools have become significant factors in our missional endeavour as a diocese. Relations between Diocese and Schools have never been closer and I am delighted to see the way that this has evolved. The beginning of the school year saw an induction day for new teachers facilitated by Peter Laurence and Philip Goldsworthy of the ASC. This exciting initiative identified clearly to our new staff the culture of the schools they were joining, especially the Anglican Christian faith component. And in June I am leading a retreat for the principals and senior staff of our eastern schools, a local expression of what takes place in the West.
Having made a significant educational contribution to the life of Trinity Anglican College, principal Stephen O’Connor has left us to become principal of All Saints College, Bathurst. He goes with our thanks for his great contribution and our blessing for his future endeavours. We welcome Susan Shaw, an experienced principal who is providing interim leadership at TAC. The process is underway to identify the next leader of this great school.
The new sense of collegial mission in the Diocese is further evidenced by the deepening of the relationship with St John’s Village. Working together to make St John’s viable into the future has had the spin off benefit of closing the gap between church and agency. This has led to St John’s demonstrating its support for the Diocese by providing comfortable and functional office space, and by supporting the Bishop with the gift of a personal assistant. For seven years I carried my own administrative burden as well as the task of being Father in God to you my people. I did not do administration well, and was close to being submerged. Enter Nikki Collins. If you have not got to deal with her yet, you will over time. In just a few months she has become invaluable to me, and I know that you will find engaging with my office a much more efficient and pleasant experience going forward.
Whilst in Samoa in December, I made contact with our fledgling Anglican School in Apia. I took a stock of educational resources to help them on their way, and my teacher daughter Nell provided in-service training to the local teachers in their use. I had hoped that Nell would be able to give you a presentation tomorrow, but a death in the family has taken her and her husband back to Samoa. I am working with our schools to develop a reciprocal partnership so that we can offer support to them, and they can teach us from the riches of their faith. I have committed financial support for their teaching staff from my discretionary funds. A modest sum for us is a years pay for a primary teacher. We will hear further about this exciting mission initiative in due course.
Again we have been well served as a Diocese by our Registrar Tim and his staff. Julie Torpey and Fiona Van Bree work tirelessly to keep the motor of the Diocesan administration in good shape. They give of themselves above and beyond the call of duty and I thank them for all that they do. Fiona Tinney oversees our coms a day a week and is invaluable. Our Diocesan Treasurer Norm Kenny retired from his accountancy practice this year – which seems to mean that he has more time to give to us. And don’t we need it!
I am well supported by my Senior Staff. The Dean is revitalising the Cathedral, and the appointment of Hugh Fullerton as Director of Music has added considerable depth to the worship life of the mother church. The two Archdeacons give freely of themselves, despite the fact that they both have busy parishes. Archdeacon Jarrad has indicated that he wishes to retire in October. Alan Jarrad is a devoted Wangaratta man. He has spent the whole of his ministry in this Diocese, and I opine that he loves it as I love it. He has been a loyal, hard-working and wise senior colleague and the Diocese and its Bishop are the better for his ministry. We are blessed that he will continue to serve in a part-time capacity at St John’s Village as chaplain, a role that he has greatly developed over time, and which he now shares with Scott Jessup. We will farewell him and Jayne later, but as this will be his last Synod as Archdeacon of the Goulburn, it is right that we acknowledge his service and show our gratitude to God and to Alan for the gift of his ministry.
I acknowledge the work of the members of Bishop-in-Council together with the members of the Finance and Property Committees. I recognise the work of the various Boards and Councils of the Diocese and its agencies. I am also deeply grateful for the wise advice of my Chancellor Justice Croft, and the Diocesan Advocates David Parsons and Rachel Ellyard.
The Area Deans provide great support to the clergy of their respective areas. I acknowledge their work, and especially thank Michael Jones for his great contribution in this role. He has handed over the mantle to Peter Tinney and he, together with Glyn Rees and Kim Benton will continue this important aspect of ministry.
Most importantly I thank God for the gift of the clergy and people of the Diocese. I am richly blessed to have the privilege of being your Bishop. I can ask for no more than to complete my ministry in this office and in this place.
Of those who have died in the last year two require special mention here: Ken Still who served this Diocese as its registrar and Mother Rita Mary of the Community of Christ the King. Rest eternal grant unto them, gracious Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.
At the heart of the business of this session of Synod is the ongoing work we are doing around the development of a strategic plan for the Diocese. Our strategic planning is being undertaken in the context in which we live, and I have spoken about this on previous occasions. There are challenges which we face which just will not go away, no matter how much we wish they would. The fact is that we are not in a unique place. Many of the challenges which we face are faced by the other rural Dioceses of our Church. The Viability of Dioceses report to the last session of General Synod spells this out clearly. My brother Bishop Garry of Ballarat said this in his address to his Synod last year.
…some of the problems we face are deeply entrenched in rural Australian life and in the life of our Church and will not be fixed easily. There are big challenges for us as we look to the future of our Diocese and, indeed, to the future of the Church in rural Australia.
The Bishop identifies five matters of challenge and these we share. They are:
1. Difficulty in attracting suitable clergy to serve in the Diocese
2. Lack of finances
3. The heavy weight of a large number of aging properties
4. General rural decline
5. A general decline in Australia of religious observance and, in particular, of Christian church-going.
Looking at each in order.
First, then, clergy. Whilst the evangelical colleges of Moore and Ridley are churning out ordinands a plenty, the more Catholic colleges are not. And of those students with evangelical leanings, few see their vocation in rural ministry. The more Catholic Colleges have a dearth of ordination candidates. In the Diocese we have a small seekers group, and I am delighted that Paul Hobby is testing his vocation by serving pro tem as a licenced lay minister at the Cathedral. Nevertheless we are not attracting enough candidates locally to meet our needs. The problem will only become more complex for us over the next couple of years as a number of our clergy look to retirement.
Second is the question of financial viability. Whilst we have eliminated the critical risk to the Diocese which the schools once posed, so that each of the schools is now flourishing as part of the Anglican Schools Commission (of which more will be heard later in this session) and have made some small progress in rebuilding the reserves of the Diocese, there are still major challenges we need to face in securing long term financial viability. Much of this lies beyond our control. Our investment advisor serves us well and we are getting a return of around 6.5% on our investments, but the depressed nature of the share market has an adverse influence on one of the three sources which we have to balance the Diocesan budget. We are using our property as well as we can to maximise income return on the precinct. Of course both the Diocese and the Cathedral depend on that income source. The parishes pay a 10% levy to the diocese which is low in comparison with many other Dioceses. But a significant number of our parishes are themselves feeling the pressure of lack of income, and in my judgement an across the board increase in assessments would drive some parishes to the wall.
The question of viability has assumed a sharper focus for us in the light of the incorporation of the Diocesan Corporation as the employing and administrative arm of the Diocese. We must ensure compliance with Federal Corporations Law, and that means that the Corporation must trade in surplus. Failure to do so will have serious implications both for the Diocese and the Directors of the Corporation, the members of Bishop-in-Council.
The catastrophic experience of the Diocese of Bathurst provides a salutary lesson for the rest of us. Bathurst Diocese through its ADF borrowed $A40m, the bulk of which went to two start-up schools in Dubbo and Orange. The security given was a Letter of Comfort under the seal of the Bishop. The schools failed, the ADF was placed into receivership and the schools were subsequently sold returning the bank only $11m.
The Bank sued to recover its outstanding funds, and the matter was hard fought in the Supreme Court of NSW. In a judgment of Hammerschlag J. on 10 December 2015 the Court held that the members of the original Bishop in Council which approved the issue of the letter of comfort are liable to repay the borrowed monies from both real and personal church trust property including parish churches, cemeteries and halls. The current members of Bishop in Council, the successors to those who had originally approved or ratified the giving of the letter of comfort, are also held to be liable. The possibility of judgments for damages personally against the current Bishop in Council members was canvassed, but, as the Court found, may not be necessary if the sale of properties clears the debt.
The judgement has implications for the Diocese. It demonstrates both the value and the risk of incorporation. As a general principle, decisions on matters that might give rise to a liability will be best made by the Diocesan Corporation, because liability will generally rest with the legal entity, rather than its directors. The directors of the Diocesan Corporation are, however, subject to the duties and obligations imposed by the Corporations Act and would, for example, attract liability were the Corporation to be trading whilst insolvent.
On the other hand, a decision by Bishop in Council that gives rise to a liability will mean, if his Honour’s judgment is correct, that members of the Bishop in Council are personally liable or at least liable to the extent of available diocesan assets. Again, if his Honour is correct, any Bishop in Council that succeeds them is also liable.
This legal minefield is made all the more perilous for us because of the state of the finances of the Diocese.
Given the challenges before us, I have formally invited the National Church Diocesan Finance Advisory Group to examine the financial position of the Diocese and to report to us.
By way of parenthesis, the Bathurst decision has implications for parishes as well as dioceses. Parishes in a diocese are, and continue to be, unincorporated associations, and parish councils, including clergy in charge, remain parties to any contract, agreement or other commitment made on behalf of the parish. Accordingly, as contracting parties, they will be personally liable for any default in payment. The exception is where, under the recent legislative amendments made by our diocese, the Bishop, Rector or Priest in Charge exercise their powers of appointment and dismissal on behalf of the Diocesan Corporation. In those circumstances, the Diocesan Corporation is responsible.
It goes without saying that parishes should not borrow large, or indeed any sums, to finance operating costs. Advice should be sought, at first instance from the diocesan Registrar, before any but the smallest contractual arrangements are entered into to ensure that they are fully understood and that nobody might be unwittingly made personally liable. In many cases it may be preferable for the Diocesan Corporation to be the contracting entity.
I urge every member of Synod to take time to reflect on this section. The implications for all of us are serious.
The third issue identified by Bishop Garry is the heavy weight of a large number of aging properties. We are asset rich, but cash poor. Many of our buildings are in poor state of repair. Many of our buildings are grossly under-utilised. The blessing of our assets can all too soon become a curse, when time and energy are spent on bricks and mortar (or wood) at the expense of ministry. We are attempting systematically to identify and dispose of redundant property although this is not an easy process and is time consuming. Progress is being made, although there remains much to be done.
To promote mission in the Diocese rather than capital expenditure there is legislation before the Synod to amend s.17 (4) of the Parish Administration Act 1984. The current provision means that two thirds of the proceeds from the sale of redundant land is to be used by the Parish for capital development within the Parish unless the Parish Council elects for it to be used for other purposes within the Diocese. The amendment is to provide that the use of the two thirds share is to be determined by the Bishop-in-Council and will be used for capital development within the Parish or any other Parish in the Diocese, but could also be used for the development and sustenance of ongoing ministry and mission within the Diocese.
Fourth is the matter of general rural decline. Demographic predictions show greater Melbourne continuing to expand, at the cost of rural Victoria. The predictions for the local government regions which comprise our Diocese are that apart from the southern area which will become an outer Northern suburb of Melbourne, there will be little more than incremental growth over the next decade or so. The proportion of population over 65 will continue to increase.
The smaller parishes of the Diocese are all under stress, as fewer and older people strive to keep faithful Christian witness. We are faced with the unpalatable choice of progressively abandoning ministry in our small communities or doing things differently to ensure that ministry continues, albeit in a radically changed way. We have been experimenting with different patterns of ministry in the Alexandra/Yea/Buxton collection of parishes, in Shepparton, Murchison and Rushworth and in Tallangatta/Yackandandah, with varying success. Increasingly we will need to find ways of providing ministry through cooperative patterns of ordained and lay leadership. Sustainability in ministry is at the heart of our strategic planning exercise.
Finally we contend with a general decline in religious observance. Census data tells us clearly that Australia is becoming a much more secular society. Those who identify as having no religion are increasing rapidly and those who describe themselves as churchgoers are decreasing. Only around 13% of Victorians describe themselves as Christians who attend church once a month or more.
Mission has to be at the heart of our response to God. The tendency to retreat into ourselves as we contemplate the challenges before us must be resisted. We need to keep our outward focus, however uncomfortable this may feel.
In the face of the many challenges, I want to offer a word of hope. There are congregations which are vibrant and growing, and these are not just evangelical congregations. I came across an article by the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow, Kelvin Holdsworth. He is, in my view, a bit hard on the 5 Marks of Mission we hold at the heart of our understanding of our response to God. In their place he offers Seven Actual Marks of Mission (or Marks of How to Grow a Congregation):
1 – A community that enjoys singing things. Good music which enables enthusiastic participation is vital. Bad music drives seekers away.
2 – Ability to deal with conflict. (And a leadership structure that allows this to be done). There will be conflict in church because people are people. The way in which we manage conflict is the key to congregational growth.
3 – A sense of humour that isn’t an optional extra. This reminds me of the old joke that we can be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use to anyone. Po-faced religion is a turn off. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of much of our lives. You will have heard me say regularly ‘if it’s not a bit of fun, it’s not worth doing’.
4 – Life changing liturgy and preaching. There is no place for going through the motions. If what we do Sunday by Sunday is not transformative, then I wonder why we bother.
5 – Being truly welcoming. Which means not only welcoming your friends – but being genuinely welcoming of strangers.
6 – Confident leadership. Leaders need to lead. Not bully or browbeat. But lead. We cannot abrogate that responsibility. We have a dominical example to guide us here. ‘As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Mark 6.34)
7 – Ethos, ethos, ethos. As a Diocese and as a congregation we need to have a gospel to proclaim. Are we clear about our story, and can we articulate it clearly? It’s here I think that the communion’s 5 marks of mission make their contribution.
There is much in Holdsworth’s article that merits attention and reflection – and we will touch on some of it at least in our strategic planning. Not that it is a silver bullet – I do not believe that there is such a thing. But it is an invitation to us to reflect on what we do, and how we might do it better for the glory of God and in service of God’s people.
There is one social issue that I feel constrained to address in this Synod charge, and this is the way our nation deals with those who come here seeking asylum. The policy of both major parties is identical, and so I can say this without taking a political stand in this pre-election period. For me this is not a question of politics, it is a question of morality.
A political defence of Australia’s refugee policy can best be summed up by saying that the end justifies the means. We have stopped the boats, which is an end in itself, and that justifies whatever means we have undertaken or are undertaking to achieve that end.
That is wrong at so many levels. Stopping the boats might save us the inconvenience of processing asylum seekers on shore, but it fails to address the wider problem. There are millions of desperate people fleeing war, disposition, starvation, torture. A comparatively small proportion of those end up in our region. As a wealthy nation can we just ignore this global problem?
I am sure that you were as distressed as I was to hear of Omid Masoumali, a young Iranian man who set himself on fire and died later in a Brisbane hospital. Days later a 21-year-old Somalian woman set herself alight. This builds on stories of deteriorating mental health and self harm of those who find themselves without hope or certainty in what seems to me to be an almost Kafka-like hell. Of course we are prevented from hearing the full impact of detention, because there is a media black-out imposed by the Government.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has issued this statement.
There is no doubt that the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention is immensely harmful. There are approximately 2,000 very vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru [and] despite efforts by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, arrangements in both countries have proved completely untenable.
The morality of tormenting already traumatised people so that they become a deterrent to others fleeing intolerable conditions cannot be defended. The ends do not justify the means. Common humanity demands that we find a better solution to the problem than this. For my small part I call on both major political parties to set political rhetoric aside and work together to find a solution to this problem which does not undermine our claim to be a civilised people.
In this as in all things we need to ask ourselves this question: Do our values and attitudes as Anglican Christians emerge from our life in Christ or do we simply echo common opinion around us?
We now turn to the business of Synod. I offer you this commendation using as my own the words of St Paul.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way …. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.