Green shoots in the bush church

There is joy in the bush. “This time last year, we had lost all hope for our church and didn’t know what the future held,” a member of a country church tells their Bishop (regional leader).

“Now (under this new ministry) our church has come alive again. Don’t you dare move him!!”

The Bishop is Mark Calder, who is bringing new hope to a network of churches that has seen very hard times. His Anglican diocese (territory), Bathurst, stretches from the Blue Mountains west towards the SA border.

These churches have been battered by several high profile sexual abuse cases, subsequent redress, and financial mismanagement that saw the diocese have to pay tens of millions to a bank. Three schools and buildings have had to be sold. Many churches did not have ministers. A neighbouring diocese, Sydney, has come to the aid of Bathurst paying for Calder and his registrar (who runs the office).

“It seems that there is an appreciation that I have spoken of past failures with openness and addressed some of the issues… and that people feel there is a new direction and purpose,” Calder tells Eternity.

That new purpose is returning to the task of making disciples with the help of a refreshed clergy team. Calder has used social media and the old fashioned method of visiting the colleges that train ministers to find people to move to the country.

“By God’s grace, three younger people made contact with me in July last year following social media posts where I showed videos I had recorded from parishes without ministers,” says Calder. “All three people were totally wonderful and suited for ministry. I ordained all three as deacons in December.

“Two were immediately basically running their own parishes, and one was appointed as an assistant. Two have since been ordained as priests. Since then, I have visited Brisbane School of Theology and Queensland Theological College in Brisbane, SMBC and Moore in Sydney and Ridley in Melbourne, speaking in chapel and meeting with students to talk about the possibility of working here. That has resulted in some ongoing conversations; however, I don’t have anyone else ‘over the line’  or signed up to work out here as yet.”

Titus was breaking new ground. Calder is rebuilding.

Calder still has lots of towns to find ministers for. “There is a mix of small and larger centres where we need clergy. Among the larger are: Cowra, Parkes, Narromine, Gilgandra, Grenfell, and West Wyalong. The others are Cumnock, Trundle, Condobolin, Nyngan, Bourke, Cobar, Coonamble, Warren, Coolah-Dunedoo, Oberon.”

In some of these towns, ministers will need to raise support, like missionaries or church planters. Or, to put it another way, city churches have a great opportunity to help their sister and brothers. Calder says he is “So grateful for a number of Sydney parishes who have partnered with some of ours – some offering financial support, some prayer support. Others are going to come and run a children’s program next year in one of the holidays.”

Look in the Bible for the office of Bishop – a regional leader of churches – and the letter by Paul to Titus is the best evidence for it. Titus is commissioned by Paul to travel around the island of Crete, appointing people to lead local churches.

(In Australia, the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches have leaders called Bishops, but many other denominations or networks have people who do similar roles. Al Stewart, the national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical churches, a growing network, is actually a former Anglican bishop.)

Titus was breaking new ground. Calder is rebuilding.

” The greatest challenge is to breathe new life and energy into a diocese that has been crippled by financial mismanagement, conflict and a loss of gospel focus,” he says. “The best thing I can do in my relatively short time here is work hard at renewing the clergy team with energetic visionary clergy who will proclaim the gospel, refresh and equip their people and bring new life to the parishes.”

To serve the churches without ministers and because he was aware that smaller churches find it hard to pivot during the lockdown, Calder had been online each week. “We feel like we already know you – you’ve been in our lounge rooms” is how he gets greeted visiting a church he has not been in before.

“Give me 15 minutes to explain why you are more loved than you dare hope” was the title of a recent talk – which is just what Bathurst (and the rest of Australia) needs.