Church under Coronavirus: Bathurst Diocese

Why was there no special gathering to mark the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Bathurst on 5 May 2020? Was there much to celebrate anyway?

Consider the state of the Diocese. Spasmodic rainfall has not broken an extended drought in the region. In recent decades the church has been impoverished. Successfully sued for a multi-million dollar debt, it had to sell much church property. Griefs for these losses endure. Only the generosity of Sydney Diocese keeps things going.

More property still must be sold to help redress wrongs done to victims of sexual abuse. The Diocese is clouded with sadness for those “scarred and forever damaged”, as Mark Calder, Bishop of Bathurst, recently described the victims.[1]

In a commendably frank public statement he mentioned these difficulties facing the Diocese. “We cannot just simply say ‘Let’s celebrate!’”, he wrote.[2]

Even if celebratory occasions had been planned, they could not have been held. The pestilence of COVID-19, which killed many thousands in other countries, made gatherings in Australia unlawful.

How is the Diocese of Bathurst faring under the coronavirus? Undaunted, with strong, trusting confidence in Almighty God. As Bishop Calder wrote: “We thank God for a new chapter of ministry and a new bishop”.[3]

Bishop Calder, who came to Bathurst six months ago, has produced two pre-recorded video services each week—one contemporary and one traditional—for circulation and use in his Diocese. He conducts all the services and he preaches all the sermons. Others are involved in Bible reading and praying.

At least three benefits follow. First, people within the Diocese and beyond it have opportunities to become acquainted with the new bishop. Repeated exposure to, and experience of, his ministry draw them closer to him than if they saw him only seldom in their parish churches. People who have attended church regularly, or almost never, have commented positively about this.

Secondly, people are re-introduced to the services of Morning Prayer and the Litany. For a hundred years, Holy Communion has been the liturgical focus in Bathurst Diocese. It has been a spiritual enrichment to engage in other forms of service. The Litany provides a wide, perhaps comprehensive, coverage of topics in brief prayers, for example for deliverance “from all spiritual blindness, from pride, vainglory and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred and malice; and from all uncharitableness”.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a fresh acquaintance with—even an introduction to—expository preaching. At Easter we heard a sequence of sermons about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This was followed by a series related to the pandemic: grief for losses, pains and anxieties; the vital perspective on the life of the world to come; confidence in God in the face of every uncertainty, with a bold grasp of opportunities. All have been Christ-centred, since he is the one in whom our personal, penitent faith must rest.

In these ways Bathurst Diocese is returning to its original patterns. The first minister of All Saints’ Church, now the cathedral, was Thomas Sharpe, a faithful evangelical. Samuel Marsden, first bishop here, was an evangelical. Thomas Smith, the dynamic evangelical founder of St Barnabas’, Broadway, came out to this diocese in 1873.

The esteemed Australian church historian Ruth Frappell said it was Bishop Long of Bathurst who in the 1920s “wanted a great many sermons cut out: in other words, he was suggesting that Anglican worship should become a ministry of the sacraments, not of the Word”.[4] Generally speaking that altered tradition, away from Thomas Cranmer’s priority of biblical preaching, endured for a century. But the pendulum has begun to swing back to the tradition established by Frederic Barker of Sydney, who was bishop over what is now Bathurst Diocese from 1854 until 1870.

In his sovereign grace God is bringing blessing out of the current adversity. We depend on him. We hope in him. We look to him to bring people to himself through Christ and to bind us together in a common purpose to glorify his name.

[1] ‘From the Bishop re 150th anniversary’, Anglican Church of Australia Diocese of Bathurst, 7 May 2020, viewed 22 May 2020.

[2] ‘From the Bishop re 150th anniversary’, Anglican Church of Australia Diocese of Bathurst, 7 May 2020, viewed 22 May 2020.

[3] ‘From the Bishop re 150th anniversary’, Anglican Church of Australia Diocese of Bathurst, 7 May 2020, viewed 22 May 2020.

[4] B Edwards and R Frappell, Every Valley, Hill, Mountain and Plain: A History of the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2011.