Hurrying the Murray

Damian Feeney on the formulation of a strategic growth plan in a diocese in the Province of South Australia

It all began with a telephone conversation. The newly minted Bishop of The Murray in South Australia, formerly the Bishop of Plymouth, st arting to formulate and plan his priorities for his new role. We spoke of resources, of methods, of a whole host of ideas. But Bishop John Ford is a persuasive man, and by the end of the conversation something a little more enduring had been hatched. I was due to take a sabbatical from pa my role in Oxford; I would fly out to South Australia, and spend about five weeks alongside the Bishop, visiting the various parts of the diocese and formulating a plan for growth.

In the event, we received so many more blessings more than we could ever have asked or imagined that attempting to put it all on paper is a somewhat daunting task. When I left the diocese on 3 June, it was with a strong sense that the experience of the diocese may have something valuable to offer traditional Anglicanism across the globe.

Beginnings

The diocese is one of three in the Province of South Australia. It covers the South East region of South Australia, the Fleurieu Peninsula, Riverland, Adelaide Hills, Murraylands and the southern suburbs of Adelaide and includes 22 parishes or pastoral districts. It was formed from the Diocese of Adelaide in 1970. Prior to Bishop John's arrival in November there had been an episcopal vacancy of three years, accompanied by a great deal of angst and difficulty. On his arrival the bishop had shared with the diocese seven pressing priorities those of Prayer and Worship, Partnership, Collaborative Ministry, Mission and Evangelism, All-Age Belonging and Giving and Social Action. All of these are, of course, interdependent. In a diocese with a number of small, scattered worshipping communities and a scarcity of resources, further questions of formation and deployment were raised. What emerged was the beginnings of a strategic plan for the diocese which was already in operation prior to my arrival, entitled Taking the Plunge.

Gathering statistics

The Bishop asked the parishes to put together a statistical presentation describing the kind of area being served, and the location of members of the worshipping community within it. The purpose was to see parishes in a new way where people meet, what social provision exists, how the church relates to other organizations. This information was brought to the Cathedral in Murray Bridge as the diocese celebrated the Chrism Mass together on Maundy Thursday. This was information on which future planning and discernment would be based. Twenty-two meetings were planned, across the diocese, during my stay, at which we shared a vision of a future in which the church prayed for, planned for, and worked for growth. In particular we focused upon methods of planning which would enable parishes to use the statistics they had gathered positively, seeking opportunities for simple acts of proclamation and faith exploration. The conclusion of this month-long process was the (annual) meeting of the Diocesan Synod, which took place over two days in Morphett Vale, a suburb of Adelaide. At this, Synod unanimously agreed the following resolution:

That this Synod recommends to the wider Diocese the practice of Mission Action Planning as integral to the Mission of the Diocese, and requests that in their Mission Action Planning each parish takes seriously the call of Jesus Christ to faithful discipleship, loving witness and prophetic lifestyles, and that these principles inform the structure, form and delivery of the life of the Synod.

Vision

To walk the way of holiness

Priorities
To pray, worship, study and learn.
To support the mission of the parishes and pastoral districts,
To organise our common life so as to equip parishes and pastoral districts to become effective in outreach, nurture and service.
To be the president of a community which lives eucharistically for the sake of others.
To provide well trained and formed ministers of Word and Sacrament.

The immediate outworking of this was the sharing of the Bishop's own Mission Action Plan:

Plan

A mission programme to equip for service,
An ongoing discipleship programme, open to all.
Organise an education, training and formation programme for authorised and ordained ministry.
Develop a light touch structure, based on the principles of subsidiarity to deliver a praying/worshipping, serving and witnessing community in every settlement in the diocese.
Regular evangelistic events at all levels of diocesan life,

Evangelistic events

We learnt much from the various meetings we attended; we also learnt much from the conversations which were the inevitable consequence of travelling about 3,000 miles between them. Pentecost saw the launch of the diocesan discipleship programme, a gift to Bishop John from one of his previous dioceses, and which is to be run for the rest of the year for parishes and communities across the diocese until Christmas. (There was a slight delay in the publication of workbooks for this, as far more people signed up for this than was anticipated about 550 across 22 parishes!)

During our diocesan tour, the bishop challenged each parish to plan an evangelistic event for the local community, during Advent, which in the diocese is guaranteed barbecue weather! Each parish was offered a small sum to 'prime the pump' for such an event. The season of Lent 2015 wouldbe marked by a quiet and prayerful Lent course, to be written and offered by the Bishop; the whole programme concludes after Easter 2015, when the Bishop and I will offer the Leading Your Church into Growth course to representatives of every parish and pastoral district in the diocese. The 18-month-long process of Taking the Plunge concludes on the eve of Pentecost 2015, with a huge open-air party planned at a farm near Murray Bridge.

Enthusiasm

We were aware that all this activity flies in the face of what we are so often (and rightly) taught about the Church's mission that activism is never a sufficient response to the mission of the Church, and that what we have proposed seems 'busy and, indeed, it is. What has been surprising has been the response of parishioners, who are experiencing a sense of release through active engagement in the life of the church after what has been a very difficult period in the life of the church. Very seldom did we experience anything less than full-throated enthusiasm for what was proposed. In addition and there is no point in pulling punches here as things stand at the moment, the diocese has probably about ten years of life left. The need to engage afresh in a church growth agenda (which the Bishop described as The only show in town') is essential if the church is to survive. Hence the need to 'Hurry the Murray'.

Autonomy

If this all seems a little gloomy, let me offer the other side. First of all, there is a wonderful natural disposition in these congregations expressed in hospitality (outrageously so, especially in the wine-producing regions!), friendship and boundless good humour. Such communities have a natural and infectious sense of welcome which is a terrific advantage when it comes to growing the church. Secondly, there is an autonomy in diocesan life which would be scarcely recognizable in England. Bishop John spoke in his own plan of a light touch structure, based on subsidiarity. In other words, nothing more should exist than is necessary for the growth of the local church. A minimum of centralization, a minimum of bureaucracy in all things, a basing of the life of the church on sure ecdesiological rather than merely managerial lines.

The intention is to free the people of God, lay or ordained, to be the people God has called them to be, ensuring that institutional needs do not supplant the needs of mission in the local church. To the Church in England such words should challenge and reinvigorate as we contemplate the frankly ridiculous demands of a centralized bureaucracy which can all too often feel like a hindrance to mission rather than an aid to it. This does not mean that things are undertaken irresponsibly or without accountability. Rather, tasks are undertaken because the need for them is more readily apparent, and as such performed more readily.

Ministerial training

Part of this is expressed in the area of ministerial training, formation and deployment. There is no central Ministry Division serving the church throughout Australia. Each diocese is responsible for these matters themselves. Historically such training has been offered through colleges based in major cities. But the stated priority of providing well trained and formed ministers of Word and Sacrament requires a different approach in a diocese such as The Murray, where clergy are scarce, and where so many communities are served by heroic retired clergy travelling huge distances to say Mass on a Sunday. It became clear that a new system was needed.

A seven-year local training course has been devised, using local and global resources: the intention is that ordination to the diaconate would take place after two years, and to the priesthood after three. The first year of this is the discipleship course I mentioned earlier; each year thereafter contains a biblical studies module, a module of history/doctrine/ethics, and a module of pastoral/mission theology or spirituality. To begin this process five `fast-track' candidates have been identified, who will complete the first year by Christmas this year, and then receive intensive tuition from two of the Society's bishops, Bishop John Hind and Bishop Michael Langrish, as they visit the diocese next year. In this way clergy training and deployment can be responsive to the needs of the local community and diocese. The intention is that such training will be rigorous and realistic, given that some of these candidates are in full time employment, and are aware of what God's call in their lives is coming to mean.

Blessings and opportunities

And so, amidst undoubted difficulties and challenges, there are blessings and opportunities too: the chance to tailor the mission of the church to the needs of the area: natural hospitality and good humour; faithful Christians, united around word and sacrament, serving and being served ever more faithfully. And then there is the area itself so much natural beauty, such a sense of space, such a contrast between the Limestone Coast in the south and the Riverlands to the north; and, of course, it is impossible to forget the astonishing range of local produce, whether seafood on the coast or the wonderful wines of the Coonawara, McLaren Vale and (further north) the Clare Valley. It is truly a foodies' paradise!

I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the support of the staff and House Council at St Stephen's House for enabling me to undertake this sabbatical, and the financial support generously provided by The Number One Trust and the Cleaver Ordination Candidates Fund. In addition, my gratitude to Bishop John and Bridget Ford for their wonderful hospitality and care can scarcely be adequately expressed and I am so much looking forward to a return visit, in 2015, for the LeadingYour Church into Growth Course.

Watch this space!

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