LATE in 2014, a job advert in the Church Times grabbed our 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.
My husband and I had been in Gloucestershire for ten years: me as Priest-in-Charge of four parishes in two benefices, my husband as a Self-Supporting Minister (SSM), licensed as my associate priest and also with his own sector post as diocesan adviser in well-being and support, providing occupational health advice to clergy and diocesan staff.
For my part, I had begun to sense that it was the time for something new. And, in parallel, after a reorganisation, it looked likely that my husband’s secular job would become “surplus to requirements” within a couple of years.
So, after having both, independently, noticed the advert about ministry in Western Australia, we began to wonder if this was one of those God-instances that should not be ignored: a chance of adventure, perhaps?
We had been to Australia several times on holiday, visiting friends and family with our now grown-up children. On almost every trip, when we went to church on a Sunday, we found a church in “vacancy” with services being lay-led. It had prompted us to think that, when we were ready, we could spend a couple of years in Australia and offer to do cover for parishes that needed cover. But now, perhaps, Australia beckoned us for something more?
After prayerful consideration, we submitted an expression of interest. In January 2015, we travelled to London for a first interview, not really being sure of what we thought, nor of what the process might involve. After that, we were invited to visit the diocesan offices, in Perth, just after Easter. And we visited a couple of typical “country” churches, and met 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 Wheatbelt. 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” — besides 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 (next year it will be an early-morning service). It wasn’t long before we understood the Aussie “country” way for relaxed vestments 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. Here, 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 of land. The diocesan website advises that “some country parishes can be the size of small European countries.” Others are more equivalent to a UK diocese.
In our case, St Stephen’s, an Anglican church, is next to our rectory, in Toodyay, but five of the other six church buildings 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 held at 8 a.m., followed by another at 11.30 a.m. For that reason, the usual frustrations of not living in the place 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. Mobil- telephone 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 bush-fire 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, in the event that 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, both home groups and Bible studies tend to be arranged in blocks of four to eight weeks, more akin to Lent and Advent courses, with respite gaps of similar time between series.
In the really remote communities in Western Australia, priests may only visit 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 not dissimilar to the ministry originally offered by the clerics who served the colony in its early days.
Another difference is that parishes also have to fund all the costs of the ministry they receive, which includes covering the stipend and pension for 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.
UNLIKE the C of E, the Anglican Church in Australia is not the Established Church. There is not the expectation that weddings or funerals take place in the church, and my husband and I are also state registered as wedding celebrants; so we can, with the Archbishop’s blessing, also conduct weddings at venues other than the church, using the rites of the Anglican Church of Australia.
Funerals often have to be held in a community centre, as attendance is often large, and historic church buildings tend to seat 100 at best. That said, funeral directors are happy to arrange speakers and videolinks to allow an overspill congregation to participate in the churchyard.
While Australia is a very secular country, within a town there may be Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Uniting Church (formed by an amalgamation 40 years ago of Australia’s Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist Churches), and Christian Fellowships, or house churches. In common with many rural UK churches, our congregations tend to be aged over 50, and weekly church attendance averages 20-30 (about 5000 people live in each catchment).
Ecumenical working is common and encouraged. Within our parishes, we meet quarterly with the other church leaders and retired ministers; the congregations meet monthly for an ecumenical prayer meeting; and an annual open-air carol service 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 to 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 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 as it is, without apology. If you do not get it right, someone will say; if they do not agree, they will say.
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 worthwhile for us 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 very 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 (perhaps not that different from rural ministry in “the old country” after all). People’s stories are important, and communities are strong. They are resilient and resourceful with robust survival mechanisms. And, here, everyone needs to have their say; so parish councils are well represented and strong. 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 complete our first 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. And for any who may find themselves out here, if you happen to pass by on your travels, please do knock on the rectory door. You will certainly be welcome for a cuppa.