The wild, wide open spaces of the north of Western Australia make a big impression. Eugenie Harris sends us a postcard from the Diocese of North West Australia.
Arriving in the Diocese of the North West, my first impression was of ‘Australia on steroids’. Everything seems extreme. We’ve got the busiest port, the hottest town, most isolated community, most dramatic gorges…and the list goes on, because the region effectively powers our nation.
This vast land area draws people from all over the world, people chasing their fortune, pursuing travel experiences or escaping unhappy life circumstances. And the Diocese of the North West welcomes them all, taking every opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus. We are truly ‘bringing the gospel to the nations’.
The Diocese—two million square kilometres and probably the biggest single land-based diocese in the world—was formed in 1910 as a ‘missionary diocese’. The first bishop was expected to fund his own position and the costs of his own administration. Consequently, the funds needed to fully ‘endow’ the new diocese never eventuated. Still today, the bishop is expected to fundraise for his own position and, with mostly small church congregations, the Diocese relies upon financial support from partners elsewhere for our church ministry.
The Anglican Church here is evangelical and stands on the shoulders of former bishops—most recently Bishop Tony Nichols and Bishop David Mulready. These men, along with the current Bishop Gary Nelson, have worked faithfully and tirelessly to recruit ministers who are gospel-focused, theologically-trained, Jesus-loving servants of the Word. No matter which church you enter, you will hear the Word preached faithfully, you’ll be invited to join a Bible study and pray, and you’ll be encouraged to trust the Lord Jesus and be equipped to serve him.
Though most of our congregations at any point in time remain small and poorly resourced, our mission reach is large. The communities are so transient that it’s common for the whole congregation to turn over within a couple of years. (Regular ministries are hard to sustain.) However, in this way, God has given us the privilege of sowing seeds for the kingdom which we pray and trust bear fruit elsewhere. If all the people who have been blessed by the ministry of this diocese stood shoulder to shoulder, there would be a great gathering.
Belinda would be among the crowd. As a young teacher in the outback, her closest Christian minister lived six hours away. Once a month he would arrive by motorbike, run a service for a couple of people and spend the night in a swag on the church floor. It was in the days before the internet and cheap communication, and this faithfulness spoke volumes to her. She credits this precious Christian fellowship with helping her persevere in the faith and endure the isolation.
Why, I wonder, is it so hard to recruit ministers to the North West? There are always churches without a minister, often for long periods of time. Former Bishop Tony reckoned he’d make 100 approaches for each appointment. Currently, the Karratha church is without a minister and Bishop Gary has had more than 40 knockbacks and counting. I guess there’s not the allure of serving God overseas. There’s no excitement of learning new language, culture or customs. It’s just outback Australia, with incredible isolation (it’s cheaper to travel overseas that fly to the NW), extreme heat (most days over 39 degrees in Kununurra Oct-Jan) and an assortment of odd characters.
Nevertheless, there are many joys and I am encouraged by the strategic role of the Anglican Church in these towns. In a number of places the church has the only full-time, theologically trained minister, which provides important opportunities for faithful gospel proclamation to regional Australia. A full picture of ministry in the North West Anglican Church must include mention of two other key ministries—ministry to Aboriginal communities and ministry to seafarers.
There’s a growing ministry in West Kimberley with CMS Missionaries Chris and Karen Webb working in the Broome Parish. Aboriginal people are coming to know Christ and finding freedom and hope in the cross in miraculous ways. Efforts are beginning to increase ministry in the East Kimberley and the Pilbara region.
More than 6500 international seafarers a month visit Mission to Seafarers centres at Geraldton, Port Hedland and Dampier. The chaplains provide seafarers with care and love, sharing the gospel and the Scriptures with men who are often away from home for months at a time.
A friend told me it’s wise to avoid personal topics early in a friendship in the North West. That’s because a number of people find their way here as a result of family dysfunction, trouble or tragedy. ‘Where’s a good place to go on the weekend?’ is a much better question than ‘What brought you here?’ It’s a reminder that we are all broken people who need Jesus to bring forgiveness, healing and salvation. The Anglican Church in the North West is an excellent place to come and meet the Saviour.