Tony Nichols: a man in relentless pursuit of the glory of God

Bishop Anthony Nichols enriched innumerable lives in memorable ways, from an unassuming beginning in industrial England to quiet faithful service on the other side of the world, according to Kate Roach, a former student and fellow parishioner of one of the greats of the Australian church, who died on Saturday, August 24, aged 81.

“The breadth of Tony’s life spans from the cold of England to the heat of the Northern Territory, from the echelons of Moore Theological College to missionary life in Java, Indonesia, in the 1970s, from the solo life of a theological student to the rich life he had as husband of but one wife, father of four children and grandfather of 14, as well as friend and mentor to most of those who passed within any of those many spheres of his life,” Kate writes in memory of her spiritual father.

If Bishop Tony Nichols had been only a missionary in one of Indonesia’s most populous Muslim provinces, he would have made a significant contribution to the growth of God’s kingdom. But he was also the third Principal of Australia’s most significant indigenous Christian institution, Nungalinya College in Darwin, fostering the first group of Aboriginal ordinands and introducing its first courses for indigenous women. And as Anglican bishop of North Western Australia, he was largely responsible for its becoming Australia’s most evangelical diocese.

Born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, towards the end World War II, Tony came with his family to Australia when he was nine. He came to faith in Christ at age 14 through personal Bible reading, after being asked to lead Sunday school at a “fairly dead church” in Bulli, near Wollongong on the NSW south coast.

While studying Latin and history at the University of Sydney, he became vice-president of the Evangelical Union. On graduating, he spent a few years teaching high school students at Temora, in rural NSW, before serving with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) as a teacher North Borneo from 1962-63.

Feeling God’s call to ordained ministry, he studied at Moore Theological College in Sydney and became an Anglican minister in 1966. After graduating from Moore, Tony was invited to serve there as a lecturer in biblical languages. During that period, he met and married Judith, who was studying theology. Soon afterwards, they went out together with CMS to Salatiga in Central Java, Indonesia, from 1972 to 1981. It was here that his four children were born, while he trained Christian ministers in the theological faculty of the Satya Wacana Christian University.

From 1982 to 1987, he served as Principal of Nungalinya College in Darwin, a period hailed by Wayne Oldfield, the college’s current Anglican Dean, as a period of significant developments including the dedication of the Keith & Merle Cole Library in 1982. Other notable achievements included the introduction in 1983 of the first courses specifically designed for indigenous women. These were the Certificate in Family and Community Services (FACS), then Bi-Cultural Life Studies Certificates (previously Women’s Studies) and Certificates I and II in Family and Community Services.

In 1983, he oversaw the creation of Wontulp-Bi-Buya in Cairns – the Queensland branch of Nungalinya College which is now independent from Nungalinya; and in 1985 he inaugurated the first Manapanmirri Open Day. The Manapanmirri word means “coming together in celebration”.

“Nungalinya College is holding a Languages Conference over the next two days, called ‘Multiplying the Multitude’, and we hope that it continues Tony’s work (and many others) among Indigenous Australians to be able to love and follow Jesus in their own heart language,” Wayne writes.

In 1991, Tony accepted the role of Principal at the CMS training college, St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne. It was there that Peter Rodgers, the current International Director/CEO of CMS Australia, came under his influence.

“He was a man of utter integrity, honesty and loyalty.” – Peter Rodgers

“For me, Tony embodied all that I love about CMS – a love for people from other cultures, a passion to see God’s church around the world grow and flourish, and a commitment to do all things well. I have not met a wiser man,” writes Peter Rodgers, also a former missionary to Indonesia.

“I was privileged to have been mentored by Tony during my time at St Andrew’s Hall in 1991. Since then, Tony journeyed with me as a friend and adviser. What I appreciated in Tony was a person unafraid to speak the word of God when needed, someone who feared God and not man, and someone who relentlessly pursued the glory of God above all else. He was a man of utter integrity, honesty and loyalty.”

“I had never even been a rector of a parish.” – Tony Nichols

In 1992, much to his surprise, Tony was elected Bishop of North Western Australia, covering two million square kilometres, and served there for almost 12 years.

“I had never even been a rector of a parish,” he told the Sydney Anglican in 2003 on his retirement. “The prospect was daunting. The Diocese was lacking in material resources, and huge [the largest in the world] and largely made up of transient, fragile communities.”

The vastness of the Diocese is hard to grasp. Staying in touch with his clergy required considerable effort. He sometimes had to travel 3000km to visit the most far-flung parishes.

In 2003 he and Judith made their home in Perth, where they both taught on the staff of Trinity Theological College in Leederville. It was here that he enriched the lives of numerous students such as Kate Roach, who describes him as “the most godly, staunchly faithful, humble and generous person I will ever have the privilege of knowing in this life.”

From her first Hebrew lesson, Kate writes that Tony taught not just the technical knowledge of the language of the Scriptures but “gave a deep appreciation of how to carefully handle that knowledge to build up others in love.”

“A man of staunch faith, who strived in everything to bring others to a saving trust in Jesus’ words of eternal life.” – Kate Roach

“Recounting in that lesson how he had been in a discussion panel with a rabbi, he illustrated how being able to communicate with members of the Jewish community in their own sacred tongue, even just the opening words of Genesis, had broken down barriers and enabled a free exchange of thoughts and ideas. That theme of striving for the good of the other, to bring them the words of saving grace, coloured all that I saw Tony do in his time on staff at Trinity Theological College while I studied there, and then subsequently as a fellow parishioner at Dalkeith Anglican,” Kate writes.

“While I stumbled through Hebrew, Tony was also the leader of my pastoral care group at Trinity. It was in those weekly lunchtime meetings that the true essence of who Tony was in every fibre of his being began to show even more clearly – a man of staunch faith, who strived in everything to bring others to a saving trust in Jesus’ words of eternal life. Ever patient with this student, whose marks were less than stellar, Tony maintained an inexhaustible supply of support and encouragement.”

Kate also gives a lovely insight into Tony’s dedication to the lost art of letter writing.

“Crafting correspondence containing words of encouragement and exhortation to former students, fellow pastors, missionaries old and new, friends, family, colleagues – the list would have been nigh endless. At times, he would give friends updates on the latest missive, either sent or received, and at times recount letters he had received over the years he considered precious – letters from great towering names of theological literature and from the undistinguished and unschooled. For Tony all were created in the image of God and were thereby equally worthy.”

Peter Smith, Rector of Dalkeith Anglican Church in Perth, where Tony served for the past 15 years in the lowly role of assistant minister, honours him as “one of Australia’s most gifted bishops and theological thinkers but few were aware of his genius.”

“He was never interested in appearing clever or using his finely honed biblical and linguistic gifts to humiliate or impress. The goal was ever to give glory to God by focusing on the hope of Israel’s messiah, Jesus Christ,” he writes.

“His humble ministry had a profound and lasting effect on both the preachers and the people of the parish. Tony delighted in the power of the undistilled word of God and make it his goal to let the Spirit speak with power through his mighty word. Biblical truth with an economy of words and pastoral sensitivity was enough. The congregation was spellbound. The congregation loved him like a father because he cared so deeply for each one and made it his goal to build up and encourage. We weep for his loss but rejoice that he is with the Saviour. He was our true north, a mentor and friend who is sorely missed.”

Allan Chapple, Lecturer in New Testament at Trinity Theological College, says the more he got to know Tony, the more he came to admire him as a Christian man of great quality.

“What stood out most was the fact that – unlike me – he was absolutely indefatigable and fearless as an evangelist. On a plane, in a barber’s chair, at a café, anywhere and everywhere, he never passed up an opportunity to speak the gospel – and if such opportunities didn’t come, he set about creating them. I think it was this more than anything else that showed how deeply he treasured the gospel of grace and the Lord who had saved him – and who has now led him home.”

Peter Smith notes that one of Tony’s ministry mottos was, “Don’t despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 3:10). “Tony ministered through the day of small things wherever he went. No need to have large and exciting ministry because his hope was in the Spirit-backed preaching and teaching of God’s word.”

“One of Australia’s most gifted bishops and theological thinkers but few were aware of his genius.” – Peter Smith

Peter Smith adds that Tony was active in the governance of CMS Australia and elected with acclaim to its Federal Council as a vice-president every year as long as anyone can remember. “He was concerned that CMS not lose its focus on ministry to Aboriginal people. In each place Tony partnered with others to lay a solid foundation on the word of God for the building of God’s church. The strength and growth of the church ministry in those places mentioned above are the fruit of his labour, alongside Judith and many others who served with him.”

In recent years, residing in a retirement village, Tony was always on the lookout to share the gospel with other men and, in his quiet unassuming manner, present clearly and winsomely the free gift of grace on offer.

“Tony has left a lasting legacy of not just his four earthly children in the flesh, but a thousandfold more children in the faith. As one of those children in the faith I will sorely miss him, plus all that he could yet have taught me were he to have been granted more earthly years by his Lord,” says Kate.

She concludes: “Goodbye but not farewell, Tony, for those who hold fast to the faith you held till the very end will one day have the joy of again seeing you to say a heartfelt ‘thanks’ for all that you were and all that God did through you. Soli Deo Gloria.”