LATE in 2014, a post advertised in the Church Times grabbed my and my husband’s attention. “Did we dare to live God’s promises? Would we like to put our toes in the water and minister somewhere quite different?” it said.
We had been in Gloucestershire for ten years: I as Priest-in-Charge of four parishes in two benefices, and my husband as self-supporting associate priest for our parishes, and diocesan adviser in well-being and support. In this post, he provided occupational-health advice to clergy and diocesan staff.
I had begun to sense that it was the time for something new; and, after a reorganisation, it looked likely that my husband’s secular job would become “surplus to requirements” within a couple of years.
So, having both, independently, noticed the advert about ministry in Western Australia, we began to wonder whether this was one of those “God-incidences” that should not be ignored: a chance of adventure, perhaps?
After prayerful consideration, we submitted an expression of interest. In January 2015, we travelled to London for a first interview. After that, we were invited to visit the diocesan offices in Perth, where we visited a couple of typical “country” churches, and some churchwardens with one of the bishops.
Within a few weeks of our return, we were asked to consider working together in a sort of job-share: ministering in two adjacent parishes 50 to 60 miles north-east of Perth, just inside Western Australia’s wheat belt. In short, rural ministry within a couple of hours’ drive from central Perth.
WE UNANIMOUSLY felt God’s leading. Notice served, house cleared, and overseas move committed to, we arrived in Perth early in Advent 2015.
December is normally dry, sunny, and in the high 30s Centigrade, and those first long, dry months in our new parishes were full of pitfalls — or, should we say, “learning opportunities”? — as well as spiders, snakes, creepy crawlies, biting ants, and more. We were made immediately welcome, however, and we remain grateful for the kindness of the church communities that guided us then, and continue to do so as we adapt to Aussie ways.
We quickly adopted some local habits, such as getting up at about 5.30 a.m. to get things done before the heat made sustained work outdoors unbearable. Nevertheless, Ash Wednesday was a memorable “learning experience”, as we ran late-afternoon services, which melted the congregations and us (early-morning is the way ahead). It was not long before we understood the Aussie “country” way for relaxed vesture in high summer (when out of sight of the Bishop).
There are some similarities with rural ministry in the UK. In the C of E, we are coming to terms with the multi-parish benefice. In Australia, you may have one parish, but a number of churches in it serving different congregations. Thus, our two parishes have a total of seven church buildings, albeit one an early “Pioneer” church building, which holds only a few services per year.
The difference is that each parish often covers a vast area. The diocesan website advises that “some country parishes can be the size of small European countries.” Others are more equivalent to a English diocese.
In our case, St Stephen’s is next to our rectory in Toodyay, but five of the other six churches in our two parishes (in Bogart, Calingiri, Culham, Gingin, Goomalling, and Bindoon) are between 45km and 75km from home. We commute an hour each way to any of these places, and can commute for an hour between churches. Hence, for us, “back-to-back” services mean one at 8 a.m., followed by another at 11.30 a.m. For that reason, the usual frustrations of not living in the place where you minister, such as finding it hard to remember names, and carrying the never finished to-do list, still apply.
While kangaroos can be a traffic hazard, it is not usual to see another person or vehicle during the commute. Mobile-phone coverage is patchy; so it pays to have a reliable vehicle (my husband’s is a Harley-Davidson); carry water and protective clothes; and to keep vehicles well-fuelled, in case of the need to divert around a bushfire in summer, which can add another hour to the journey.
Parochial visiting needs to be planned and takes time, but there is not an overriding expectation that only the Rector’s coming constitutes a church visit. Most visits and local support, including hospital visiting, is undertaken by members of the congregation. Parishioners are also willing to start, even run, services if the priest is delayed or unexpectedly absent.
Although we drive off in different directions on a Sunday, my husband and I work together on occasions, especially when leading Bible study, home groups, or special services at Christmas and in Holy Week. In recognition that most people travel significant distances to attend weekday activities, home groups and Bible studies tend to be arranged in blocks of four to eight weeks, rather like Lent and Advent courses, with respite periods of a similar length between series.
In the really remote communities in Western Australia, priests may visit only two or three times in the year, and services are likely to be held in the meeting area at the roadhouse (a bit like a small motorway service station). This is similar to the ministry originally offered by the clergy who served the colony in its early days.
Parishes have to fund all the costs of the ministry that they receive, which includes covering the stipend and pension for the clergy, but also clergy housing, expenses, and transport costs. Not all parishes can afford all these costs, which is a factor that sometimes contributes to the part-funding of priests.
THE Anglican Church of Australia is not the Established Church. There is not the expectation that weddings or funerals will take place in church, and my husband and I are also state-registered as wedding celebrants; so we can, with the Archbishop’s blessing, officiate at weddings in venues other than churches, using the Anglican Church’s rites.
Funerals often have to be held in a community centre, since attendance is often large, and historic church buildings tend to seat 100 at most. That said, funeral directors are happy to arrange speakers and video links to allow an overspill congregation to participate in the churchyard.
While Australia is a very secular country, in a town there may be Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Uniting Church (formed by an amalgamation 40 years ago of the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist Churches), and Christian Fellowships, or house churches. As in rural churches in the UK, Anglican congregations tend to be aged over 50, and weekly church attendance averages from 20 to 30 (about 5000 people live in each catchment).
Ecumenical working is common and encouraged. Within our parishes, we meet other church leaders and retired ministers quarterly; the congregations meet monthly for an ecumenical prayer meeting; and annual open-air carol services in both Toodyay and Gingin, our two largest towns, are hosted jointly by the churches.
Other ecumenical efforts include Messy Church in Gingin, and food support for those in need in our communities, as well as meeting after church services in Bolgart to share morning tea.
Fellowship after services is very important and very social. Regardless of the service time, morning tea (Aussie style) is served after — not just tea and biscuits, but a cornucopia of sandwiches, snacks, and cakes; so maintaining the waistline is a challenge of ministry, and allowing a time after that is at least as long as the service is an essential ministerial duty.
OUR congregations and communities have kept an eye on us, and have always been willing to offer plenty of advice from their experience — which has included being served by Pommie ministers before. The Aussie way is to tell you it as it is, without apology. If you do not get it right, someone will say so; if they do not agree, they will say so.
We have fallen into the occasional linguistic trap (it is not just the UK and the United States that are two nations divided by a common language). Hence, it has been worth while to cultivate a wise mentor from among the flock who helps us to avoid causing upset through ignorance on our part.
Likewise, with liturgy, the Prayer Book for Australia is similar to Common Worship, which can be a two-edged sword: just when I think I am on the right sentence, and launch confidently, without reading, I find that the wording is slightly different. Rubrics and directives are emphatic: for example, not “This is the word of the Lord,” but “For the word of the Lord.”
Aussies are unashamed, unembarrassed, and matter-of-fact about bodily functions, and life and death. People’s stories are important, and communities are strong. They are resilient and resourceful, and have robust survival mechanisms. And, here, everyone needs to have their say; so parish councils are well represented. In the country, it is not uncommon for all the congregation to attend meetings so that everyone can contribute. There is always more to say and dispute.
The spiritual questions are drawn from tough life-lessons, sometimes hampered by issues of drugs, alcohol, and the rural economy. But, as we approach completion of our second year, we are blessed both by the people and the land, mindful of its social issues, and delighting in the sun that shines on us each day.
We dared to begin ministry in a new country, and it is certainly turning out to be an adventure. Our commitment is “open-ended” for a minimum of five years in Australia. After four years in post, we become eligible to apply for citizenship, but are not required to apply if we don’t want to.
If you happen to pass by on your travels, please do knock on the rectory door. You will certainly be welcome for a cuppa.
The Revd Lady Ludlow is Priest-in-Charge of Toodyay with Goomalling and of Ginging with Chittering, in the diocese of Perth.
Equipped for the journey
LIKE many who come to ordination, my period of “training and equipping” began some considerable time before I felt that call to explore a vocation. So, by the time I went through selection conference, I brought with me a whole variety of different experiences of involvement in the Church of England.
My early life was in the Roman Catholic Church, and, for me, there is a deep sense of acceptance of others and of diversity of worship. I still love to work ecumenically: ‘What can we do better together?’ is my constant agenda.
My husband and I began our first years together as members of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, when we were both student — I in nursing, and my husband as a medic. We led Bible-study groups for students, and joined the large congregations.
Thereafter, however, we have seemed always to live in small communities. For more than 20 years my husband’s career as a Service Medical Officer caused us to move often. We learned to be adaptable, and we brought with us a family of six.
In the years before the selection process began for me, I went on some independent theological training courses both in the diocese of Leicester and then in Norfolk. Then, at 39, as I was leaving church after morning prayer, the Vicar asked me: “What are you waiting for?”
Sponsored by Gloucester diocese, I opted to train over three years, part-time, with the West of England Ministerial Training Course, based at the Gloucester Centre, though meeting students from the other Centres in Bristol and Hereford regularly. This training, with its mix of people from different backgrounds and experiences, broadened my outlook further. Worship ranged from the traditional and Catholic to the Charismatic.
Ministerial training taught me to be adaptable, and it has stood me in good stead for working in rural Western Australia. I can’t run home when I have forgotten something; [I have to] adapt and get on with it. Hence, I just create worship within the context of place, from the tiny church with no power or water, where we use battery candles to guide us on our way — as real candles pose too great a fire risk — to coping with a large lizard that has decided to hibernate on the steps into the chancel. Still, since it rarely rains, we can worship outside while she sleeps.
I love variety, and the resources for Sunday worship in A Prayer Book for Australia (1995), are diverse and flexible, allowing me to use different service shapes week by week. I’m even learning Aussie hymns, which can make me laugh with their kangaroos and desert images — definitely not something that I encountered during my training in England.
To my mind, ministry is not a portable “one-size-fits-all” model that can be taken to any location; but that is as true in the UK as it is when you change continents. Was my training geared to equip me for working here? The answer has to be yes and no. But the big “yes” is my certainty that my training equipped me to be flexible, adaptable, and able to improvise, which seem to me to be essential requirements for country ministry here.