DIOCESE OF WANGARATTA
40TH SYNOD – 2nd SESSION
21-22 May 2021
The Right Rev’d Clarence E Bester
11th Bishop of Wangaratta
Theme: The God of Possibilities
Acknowledgement of Country:
As we meet today for the second session of the Fortieth (40th) Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta, I acknowledge the Bpangerang people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
Welcome and Expression of Thanks
It is six months since we had our first session of the Fortieth Synod and today I welcome you all with no new recruits since then or staff changes, other than the appointment of the Bishop’s Chaplain.
As we are still in Covid times, we are not quite where we were hoping to be but, at least at our Synod Eucharist tonight, we will have others who will join us from across the Diocese, including some of our clergy with Permission to Officiate. We will also welcome the Principals, some of the teachers and students from the three Anglican Schools at the Eucharist and we look forward to what the Principals will share with us on Saturday morning.
It is with deep gratitude and great excitement that we welcome the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, The Most Rev’d Geoff Smith, who will be our guest preacher at our Synod Eucharist this evening and guest to our Synod. In addition to being the Primate, Archbishop Geoff is also the Archbishop of Adelaide. As first among equals, the Archbishop has the task to chair and coordinate a rather unique part of the Anglican Communion – the Anglican Church of Australia – which operates quite differently from other Anglican Provinces. As a relatively new Bishop, I am most impressed with the way in which the Archbishop has been chairing meetings of the House of Bishops and for his intuitive, wise, caring and compassionate leadership style.
Having only had Synod six months ago, we have not been able to do as much as we set ourselves to do. We have however begun a process of intentional conversations which took place from February until April with the Bishop engaging with the Parish Leadership Teams – both Clergy and Lay – of 22 Pastoral Charges. These Leadership Team meetings were held within the boundaries of each parish and proved to be very informative, fruitful and forward looking. It gave Parish leadership Teams the opportunity to share their views and express their sentiments and to have robust discussions with the Bishop in relation to the shape of ministry.
In addition to this, we have been able to exercise a ministry of visibility, availability and presence, creating opportunities for some re-organisation of our ‘modus operandi’ through our four-area deanery structure, to ensure ongoing conversation about our Ministry Action Plan. There will also be opportunities for the training and development of our Laity for their respective ministries. Our Diocese covers a wide geographical within the North East part of Victoria and I have covered thousands of kilometres over the 3 month period, enabling the privilege of continuing these conversations by ‘cross-pollination’ and ongoing interaction.
I look forward to the discussion that will take place tomorrow, facilitated by various Deanery representatives. It is my sincere hope that clear directions will be prioritised and that we will engage in a ministry strategy that will foster the growth and development of all of God’s people within the Diocese.
The God of Possibilities
Knowing the difficulties and challenges we often face as a Church, whether within the congregation, on Diocesan or national level, there is always this sense that things will work out, even when we can’t foresee the eventual outcome. Knowing much about the God of Surprises as I tried to articulate last year, this year I have chosen as theme for this Synod Charge, ‘The God of Possibilities.’ I have always believed that challenges create opportunities and that opportunities give way to all kinds of possibilities. In the parable of the rich person in Luke 18:18-29, we see a rather bizarre comparison of a rich person entering God’s kingdom with what seems almost impossible – a camel going through the eye of a needle.
We know that Jesus’ response to the rich person – whom he invited to go and sell everything; and the man’s own sadness in response – was just to illustrate how difficult it is for people to change or to live up to challenges. We know all too well that, when it comes to the concept of change, people would prefer the ‘usual’, the known and the familiar and that anything that resembles change can be difficult to consider.
As a Parish Priest for many years and having served different congregations on three continents, I have heard of, seen and experienced this resistance to change and challenge, especially if people are used to doing things as they have for many years. One could almost contextualise this parable and say that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for change to be affected within congregations, where we face the inevitability of not being able to continue because of a lack of numbers, massive generational gaps and genuine financial constraints.
We are aware that, for the disciples, even though Jesus was still with them, this was difficult to understand – they became concerned about the concept of salvation, to the extent that Peter made quite sure to remind our Lord about the disciples leaving all and everything to follow Jesus. For us too, the comparison may sound ridiculous, but that is because our minds also are not capable of seeing what the God of Possibilities can do.
This does not mean that everything will happen automatically, with no effort on our part, but it creates an understanding, as with Jesus’ promise in the gospel, that God is with us through all the changing circumstances in life. As people of faith, we can bear testimony to this through our own experience, our Christian walk and journey. God does not make empty promises, but is with us, walks alongside us and will support and sustain us irrespective of the many challenges that we might face.
There is this growing concern, and rightly so, because of the difficulties that we are facing as a Church as mentioned above as well as, within our context, the inability to attract people to serve as clergy within multi-centred and wide geographical areas. This is not a Wangaratta or regional or rural concern alone, but seems to be a difficulty within many of our Dioceses and the Church throughout the world. What makes it especially difficult for us is that we have become too complacent and it would seem as if we are waiting for the final countdown or the sinking of the ship.
We engage with forming mission and ministry plans, but still have a greater emphasis on things temporal than spiritual. We are still caught up with maintenance and cannot move into a mission and outreach mode. The committee-syndrome is still on the increase and we talk the language of big corporate business when we use concepts that really do not apply to us. Our focus and agenda even in Parish Council meetings has much to do with the day to day running of the church plant and hardly any intentional conversations about the concept of, as the Lambeth theme puts forward, being ‘God’s Church for God’s World’.
Yes, it is good to report on and maintain things temporal, but our business is about God, God’s people and God’s Church. The core of who we are and what we are called to do is not explicitly defined within our Constitution, our Diocesan Acts or meeting procedures. It is foundational in our calling as the baptised community, whose identity is rooted and grounded in God. Our task is to bring about the dynamic change that God desires for God’s Church by being disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ who will live our Christ-centred lives in such a way that we are true to the one who calls and equips us for this mission and ministry to the world. We have no choice but to stick to the agenda of Christ.
This very ministry and manner of being Church will need to move beyond the worshipping community on a Sunday or whenever we meet. It needs to take into consideration the challenges that are before us, but also the opportunities that these challenges present. We are exercising a ministry of ‘surviving’ in waiting for the last one to turn off the lights, instead of allowing the God of Possibilities to move us from a surviving to a thriving mode. And yes, this is possible. It is made possible by the one who calls us and equips us for ministry, the one who showers us with love and who is the same one who promised that he will be with us always. Just consider a paraphrase of the way Jesus responds to Peter in verses 29-30: I assure you that anyone who leaves home, partner, siblings, children, parents for the sake of the Kingdom, will receive much more.
In discerning God’s will and direction for my future ministry in 2014 and navigating through many websites of Dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, I discovered a Diocese called Wangaratta, a place that I would later come to, a place that I now call home. The process of our visa application was extremely complicated to the extent that I almost gave up on the process because I thought that the challenge was too great. I failed to see what the God of possibilities would make possible, or to confidently surrender to God’s will for me – and now I serve God and you as God’s people within this ministry.
In 2016 at the 3rd session of the 38th Diocesan Synod, just after we received with great excitement the Strategic Plan for 2016 to 2020, there was a sense that we might not continue as a Diocese, but rather would explore the possibility of joining those with whom we bordered. It was my maiden speech at that Synod as a fairly new arrival, when I said that nothing ventured, nothing gained and that the small seed we planted that day was merely our activity. What we needed to do was to water this plant and allow God to do God’s part, for growth is not ours, that belongs to God.
In saying this, we are not saying that it will always be easy, but here is an opportunity through our ministry, as articulated in last year’s Synod charge, to exercise this ministry with hospitality, simplicity, humility and great generosity. We need not engage in ‘rocket-scientific technology’, we just need to do what Jesus calls us to do and be faithful in that calling by sticking to the agenda of Jesus.
Spirituality and Prayer
At my ordination as a Priest within the Church of God on 15 December 1996, the exhortation given to me, and all those who have been ordained, was a reminder that the task I was about to undertake was a weighty responsibility. The sequel to this reminder was that this can only be undertaken by an ever-deepening practice of prayer. This is what has sustained me throughout these 25 years and will continue to sustain me in the years ahead.
This is also true for us a Church and for our Diocese and within whatever ministry action plan we navigate together. We need to be soaked in prayer and allow our voices to rise like fountains before God, whether we join corporately or individually. Prayer is central to the Christian faith, as is the concept to love. We might not all be contemplatives, living in cloisters or an abbey, but we are called as God’s people to engage in this prayerful relationship with God.
You would have noticed that, through the ministry of the Bishop’s Chaplain, one of those focus areas would be for us as a Diocese to create more opportunities of gathering for quiet reflection, meditation and prayer days. I hope that this Diocesan ministry will spill over into each parish so that we can seek the mind of Christ and create opportunities for spiritual renewal, enrichment and refreshment, so that we can enjoy one another’s company in the Lord. A quote from Evelyn Underhill, says that ‘Divine renewal can only come through those whose roots are in the world of prayer …’ (Evelyn Underhill, ‘Call to the Inner Life’, a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, 1931, in On Priesthood – Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards, Stephen Cottrell (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020), p. 78). Our worship services provide us with some opportunity to experience this kind of renewal, but focused times will further enhance this, when our people will see the richness of experiences of praying together, other than just the normal ritual of meetings with set agendas.
This could be seen as the return to the basics of our Christian journey and experience, but I do believe that it is very important for us, especially during times when we can easily lose sight of our call and purpose, our mission and ministry as God’s people, especially when the temporal supersedes the spiritual. More so, we need to engage in that kind of ministry where we depend on the strength of Christ through our prayers and spirituality, so that we can visualise what is possible because God makes it possible. It becomes possible because we allow ourselves to be directed by God and open ourselves to the God of possibilities.
Ministry Action Plan
I have always held to the concept that if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Effective planning is therefore an important factor as it helps us to achieve the goals that we will be setting for ourselves. Having had the conversations with the 22 Parish Leadership Teams, we have some idea of what each group sees as priority areas. This will assist our conversation today, but also captures the many expressed desires and directions towards which we must aim. Naturally each Team described what would be important for them, but then also suggested directions for our collaborative ministry within the Diocese. The activity of continuing these conversations within Deaneries has also helped us greatly in getting a clearer direction and this session of Synod will provide the opportunity to shape together a plan for the Diocese.
Much of what I am sharing within this Synod Charge is as a direct result of these many conversations, but also my own prayer and writing retreat as I continue to seek the mind of Christ in my role as bishop. I will continue to work, walk and witness alongside all of our congregations so that we can remain faithful to our call and the task we are setting for ourselves. It is my belief that we as a Church are not called to be successful, but we are called to be faithful.
I believe that I am called to have the tongue of a teacher and the ear of a listener so that the Lord may give me and all of us within the gospel enterprise, the words to give to the weary. As I listened as people across the Diocese expressed their desires for the way forward, an important priority is for the further enrichment of our Spirituality and Prayer life. There are also deep expressions of hope that our ministry will build relationships through our interaction with the community and giving relevant attention and action to issues of social justice. The concern about the generational gap evident within our Churches is compelling us to revitalise our Parish ministry by being attractive to the ‘absent’ generation.
This does not in any way mean that we abandon what we are doing, but to creatively look at our liturgy, our ministry and the way we interact with others. Great emphasis has also been placed on our Pastoral ministry and for the need to look for opportunities outside of our normal Sunday services and activity and to be a consistent presence.
Yes, there is a need to ensure the financial viability of our Parishes, but without an intentional discipleship programme we will not be able to reach others and hopefully encourage them to become part of who we are. There also seems to be a strong emphasis on the collaboration between laity and clergy and the need to provide our laity with the tools which will enable them to assist and to lead services.
During lockdown in 2020 and for the periods that we have not been able to meet, our clergy excelled in their creativity and their connection to members of their congregation. As we could not gather in person, we used the resources available to us and we often used one of the offices of the church – morning or evening prayer.
Inasmuch as we are a sacramental church, we have discovered how we can be with each other as we share our prayers and praise. When the opportunity to resume services came about in November, many moved back to business as usual with mainly the Eucharist service, which can only be celebrated by those ordained as Priest. Once again, we prefer the familiar and the known and sometimes find ourselves covering huge distances to provide as many Eucharistic services as possible on a Sunday.
The financial pressures on our Parishes, especially with Jobkeeper coming to an end in March, have constrained us into Parish cooperative ministry arrangements, as we no longer have the financial resources to cover full time clergy in most areas. One such arrangement came into place last year at the end of November, another to be finalised before the end of May, with the prospect of one more before the end of September. This being the situation, it will be important for us to develop the skills of our Deacons and Lay People to be able to lead Morning Prayer.
Our Director of Vocations and Training, together with a team of Lay Trainers within each Deanery, has outlined a training programme for laity, as well as a matrix to define the requirements for the different categories of ministry. Later this year we will also provide an opportunity for online theological training through the Australis programme hosted by the Diocese of Bendigo and previously known as the Bishop’s Certificate.
Further to this, we will inaugurate a yearly memorial lecture in honour of the late Canon Lyall Turley who was very involved with Theological training and discernment processes within a few Dioceses. Canon Lyall was our Director of Vocations and put many of our processes in place. This Lecture will be combined with a Diocesan Ministry Conference and will be on the Saturday following the Friends of the Cathedral Dinner. More details will be shared about this in due course, but the theme for this year will be: ‘Being confident in the confidence of Christ.’ There will also be a great emphasis on our Pastoral networking and training as a priority identified through our intentional conversations.
In moving towards this style of ministry of collaboration, I need to share my prayerful reflection and deep theological understanding that each order of ministry needs to minister according to that order. In 2019, we brought a regulation before Synod to approve a service to be used in Retirement Villages, Nursing Homes, Hospitals and to the Sick at home. This would mean the correct use of a service with the reserved sacrament being used exclusively within the context as regulated. It was never intended that this service would be used by a Deacon or a Lay Minister within a Church during Divine Service on a Sunday or any other time for the gathering of the people of God within any Church. I ask kindly that we follow our own rules and give notice that I will not turn a blind eye or give permission for this.
Reserved sacrament services on Sundays or other days when people gather has been described as an outcome of financial constraints and that the people still need to have communion. Covid and lockdown has shown us something different and I hope we can build on that creativity.
I do hope that our clergy with PTO can assist where possible and that those who feel called to the ordained ministry, as either Deacon or Priest, will follow the process of our Diocese and be discerned for that ministry.
A further development to this is that, as a Diocese, we have now abolished the Apprentice Model of Ministry and will return to the traditional Curacy Model, where trainee deacons and priests will work in a parish under the direction supervision of a Priest-In-Charge or Incumbent. Last year at Synod and within our March/April edition of the Advocate, I once again expressed great gratitude to God for the Ministry of Deacons and the valuable contribution they make towards the edification of God’s Church through their specialised ministry of service. In saying this, I am also very open to explore other models of ministry regarding Local Shared or Ordained Ministry, but this would need to be developed further and follow a similar discernment process.
I pray that, as we continue to walk, talk, discover and plan together, we may see all things come to fruition, irrespective of the outcome and that we will do and become what God wants us to be as we look at various possibilities for our ministry together. This is a process of interaction and we will continue to engage with one another and work for the common good.
Embracing the Future
The 2016-2020 Diocesan Strategic Plan is entitled ‘Embracing the Future.’ I have already highlighted some of the difficulties that we are faced with, but also what can become possible through an applied ministry plan. The mission of the Church is God’s mission and we are called to be part of that mission. We must also be open to God leading, directing and guiding us, especially as we focus on the important elements of being Church.
To describe the concept of Parish, last year describing it as the whole of the community served, I would think it well for us to remind ourselves regarding the concept of what it means to be Church. In my ministry as the Archdeacon for Ministry Development and even through the many intentional conversations about our ministry direction, Church for many is all about the building and how we need to ensure that the building remains open. For many it seems as if Church is the place we go to and not always the people we gather with for worship, prayer, praise of the almighty God and for the breaking of bread. The Church it would seem remains the gathered community who need to ensure that the ‘usual things’ happen.
Even when congregations are so small with no prospect of growth, we find that sentimentality overshadows reality, which means that we are just keeping the building open for the last one to turn off the lights. It takes a building almost to collapse before we can make alternative arrangements for worship. Most of our Pastoral Charges are multi-centered Parishes and some within very close proximity to each other. Some will even pass a Church to go to another because of their affiliation to that congregation. Sadly, we have become very congregational and parochial and do not see the value in synergising our energies to develop collaborative ways of working together. When one looks at the total number of Churches and the attendees at some of the divine services, it is almost impossible to see how we will ever be able to cover the cost of ministry in some places.
Out of our 23 Pastoral Charges, which equals 67 Church buildings, only 8 of our Pastoral Charges are able to provide a full-time ministry, some who are totally depended on Op Shops and Rental Income from property for income support. Many of our Parochial Districts have attendees well below 20 on average and approximately 22 of our Churches have between 2 and 10 attendees on average on a Sunday, with two Churches to be deconsecrated soon. This does not make mathematical sense, but it also makes it difficult when we do not have the financial ability to continue with ministry in the way we would prefer.
It is also amazing that many of these Churches have Trusts designated for maintenance, but we cannot even use the interest to help and support the actual ministry of the wider congregation and for mission in the community. The words ‘innovative ministry’ have made their rounds as a mechanism of how this money can be used, but also to escape our obligatory contribution of one third to the Church Extension Fund on redundant Parish land sales. The concept that develops here, even as we try and secure the capital amount of these trusts, means that any church could easily become ‘the richest Church in the graveyard’. In saying this, I am not suggesting that we become complacent in our ministry arrangements when there are these monies available, but that, through our Ministry Action Plan, we re-develop, re-design and re-structure our Parochial boundaries to make sense of our purpose and call and to engage in a model of ministry demanded for our times.
This will be an aspect that we will look at very seriously over the next twelve months and I hope that, as good Anglicans, we will put forward a plan of action by next Synod, as we explore best practice and good governance within the framework of our legislative arrangements and ministry commitments. I am committed to ensure that the way forward for our Diocese will be the way of collaborative initiatives, intentional and purposeful conversations, as well as consultative and transparent arrangements. I hope that the last few months of my episcopacy have given you a glimpse of my commitment and intentions, which is for the glory of God, in thanksgiving to God’s kindness and generosity and for the well-being of God’s people and God’s Church. I serve the God of the Church and the Church of God and no other.
Last year I briefly mentioned the concept of caring for creation and want to place greater emphasis on it as we are called through the Anglican Communion’s five marks of mission to ‘strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’ Even though the marks of mission as they are presented have this as the 5th mark of mission, this does not suggest that it is the least important of the five. I am however concerned that, when Rev’d Emily Payne facilitated a discussion with the Lay Leaders of our Diocese, they presented this as the lowest priority, with only one out of 60 people recommending that we use our voice to speak on Environmental issues and four people promoting that we need to lead by example in relation to recycling, use of solar panels and our choice of food in catering.
Interestingly, what is commonly referred to as the first mark of mission, ie. that of ‘proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom’ was the second lowest priority! Knowing and understanding the age profile and who was at this meeting, I am not surprised – this presents only one viewpoint, compared to other discussions with Parish Leadership Teams and with the Clergy.
The priority areas for our clergy have much to do with collaborating with and empowering the Laity as well as using our liturgy creatively, building trust in our church operating system and having a clearer mission focus through family outreach programmes.
Yes, we need to have a ministry action plan and we need to develop those sustainable structures and engage in activities that will fill the generational gap as well as provide the financial capacity to support our ministry. It is important that we look at those things that will hopefully restore the image of our Church through engagement which is vital. It will be sad however if we have all things in place and we forget about God’s great gift to us of creation and our need to ‘strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’ Over the past few years we earmarked a Sunday in September as Creation Sunday and this year I hope that we as a Diocese will embark on a 4 week period to focus on how we can sustain and renew the life of the earth, which is home to us and to all creatures great and small.
It is almost as if Covid-19 had to occur for creation to breathe, for regeneration and development to happen and for the climate to re-settle. It was also a time for us to give ourselves a break, to rest and enjoy the company of our loved ones and to use technology to connect with one another and to reduce our carbon footprint. We did not have to always print things and those with computers, ipads or mobile phones were assisted to make full use of this technology.
Within the Diocese, we have also reduced the number of meetings and, consequently, travelling time and some of our meetings will be held via zoom. We will also be encouraging those who attend some of these activities to use their devices rather than printing papers. I hope that Parishes will follow suit and use the resources available to them so that we can work towards reducing, re-using and recycling.
Challenges within the National Church
Knowing about the ongoing challenges within our local context and our need for a ministry action plan that will help us to remain true to the gospel imperative in making disciples, we also need to be aware of other challenges within the Anglican Church of Australia. In welcoming Archbishop Geoff Smith, I expressed my own admiration for the way in which the Archbishop has chaired meetings of the House of Bishops and I have every confidence that as a National Church, even when we do not agree on some issues, we will find direction for our future whatever the outcome may be.
Two years ago, when there was a concept that those who do not agree with others should leave the Anglican Church, I wrote a letter in which I expressed my sincere belief that we can find ways of working, worshipping and serving together. There is no doubt that structures are being set up by the GAFCON movement to look at alternative Episcopal oversight and planting of congregations. I’m aware that discussions do occur but there is no question about commitment and loyalty within this Diocese because we have made provision for people to exercise their conscience in accordance with the regulations. Schismatic tendencies seem to be a trait of the Church throughout its history through theological disagreements, understanding and interpretation of scripture and even personality differences.
Within our context and what has been developing over the past few decades, there are those who deem the current issue of debate as a matter of salvation. I believe that all matters are matters of salvation and that our task is to love God and God’s people irrespective of person and to try and lead that person into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with Jesus. More so, I believe in the creative power of God who brings something from nothing and a God who loves all that God has made.
I have always believed in a God who is generous with God’s love and that, as one created in the image and likeness of God, I am extremely special and so are all of you. I, and a few of us, might look different from the rest, but we still believe that we are part of God’s divine design.
Please continue to pray for the Anglican church of Australia, for our Primate, Archbishop Geoff Smith and all the Bishops, Clergy and People that God may sustain us in God’s love and that we may restore the true image of a loving God.
120th Anniversary for the Diocese
On 13 March 2022, we will celebrate the 120th anniversary of the Diocese since the Enthronement of its first Bishop, Bishop Armstrong on 13 March 1902. During this time we have seen many changes throughout the episcopacy of ten bishops of Wangaratta, but also the all-sustaining power of God enabling us to this day to engage with our Ministry Action Plan with the 11th Bishop of Wangaratta, the Clergy and the people of the Diocese. Throughout all this time and the time to come, the Church within this place will continue its work, worship and witness, because we acknowledge Christ as the cornerstone and the foundation of Christ’s Church. We also acknowledge that the Church was well in existence before our time and will continue long after we have left this transitory life.
Later this year I hope that we will have a wonderful programme leading up to this very special event and that we will be able to support one another as we give thanks to God for this opportunity to work towards this celebration.
Conclusion & Thanks
I thank God for the privilege of serving you, God’s people, within the Diocese. This ministry is my joy and privilege and I undertake it in great humility, simplicity, hospitality and with great generosity.
I thank God for the opportunity for us to meet in Synod and pray that this session of Synod will bring renewed energy to our ministry together. Thank you for your ministry and the work you do within the Parishes where you serve.
I thank God for our all our clergy and their families and pray for their well-being and ask you to do the same, including for our retired clergy who so gladly and willingly assist.
I am very grateful to all those who serve the Diocese through the various capacities on all Boards, Committees, Ministries, and Diocesan Officials and look forward to the ongoing work of our Ministry Action Planning Team.
As always, the assistance of our legal people makes the task for every bishop so much easier, especially when you get such good, clear and sound advice.
I acknowledge with great gratitude the work of Mr Timothy Williams over the past 12 years and pray God’s blessing on him as he moves to Canberra on 1 July.
I am also extremely grateful for the work of our Office Staff and for their diligence and years of service.
I express my gratitude to God for giving me the will and the strength to be able to perform this ministry and, finally, acknowledge that, without the love and support of Michelle, Kian and Kyle I could not do this work.
The Rt Rev’d Clarence E Bester
Bishop of Wangaratta