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IN 2020, THE RURAL ANGLICAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIA IS RESILIENT AND RELEVANT

This year, 2020, our precious rural Anglican churches in our beautiful Diocese are experiencing both joy and grief. For example, earlier this year we (that is Bishop Mark and Monica Short) excitedly visited the beautiful rural community of Jindabyne, celebrating with Trent, Alice, Henry, Maisie and Siena McGrath as they commenced ministry there (Yay! – very exciting). We are thrilled about this partnership between our Diocese and the wonderful Bush Church Aid Society.

Around the same time and when the roads reopened, we also visited rural communities affected by the horrific bushfires. It was such a treat to see people’s handsome and precious faces. We listened to detailed accounts of radical destruction and people repeatedly shared with us that they are left hurting spiritually. People continue to report to us that providing physical resources is essential but by itself insufficient – people desperately need spiritual healing and God’s love. In these conversations, people poignantly explained to us the importance of their much-loved local rural Anglican church. Now the rural Anglican church is dealing with COVID-19, and again for a while closed roads.

It might be tempting for some to wonder could the bushfires, and now COVID-19, extinguish the rural Anglican church in our Diocese? Our response is, ‘Absolutely not’! It is too early to outline the impact of the bushfires and COVID-19 on the rural Anglican church. However, the anecdotal evidence is as follows. We are already hearing inspiring stories of people in rural Australia praying for the first time. Others are telling us they are bravely testifying to their neighbours how God has helped them in surprising ways. The further fantastic news is that some people who do not go to church have started watching online Anglican church services. Furthermore, several places are planning to run Alpha or similar courses. Faith matters. The fires and COVID-19 may have sharpened many people’s faith. Praise be to God, the rural Anglican church appears to have shined its light during the most challenging of times in 2020. Based on the Bible’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 9, we are confident that God is thrilled by congregation members generously and increasingly caring for their rural neighbours and showing God’s love during difficult times.

With reference to the fires and COVID-19, how do we (Mark and Monica) know that the rural Anglican church is resilient and relevant? We have three short answers to this question. Firstly, resilience is part of the very nature and identity of the locations of the rural Anglican churches. Sociologically speaking, a rural town and its rural Anglican church are symbiotic – continually defined and redefined by their relationship to each other. Historically, the rural Anglican church has always been a grassroot and resilient religious and sociological phenomena. Thanks also to God and his grace, the rural Anglican church is more robust than old farm boots. It survives drought, floods, fires, hail, locust plagues, mice attacks, economic up and downturns, rural disadvantage and isolation.

Secondly, theologically, authors such as Stone and Body, and Withycombe, highlight the history and strengths of the rural Anglican church. Since its inception, God’s Holy Spirit and His mission have always grounded the rural Anglican church, and this continues. I (Monica) propose the following definition of the rural Anglican church, which is informed by Broughton’s depiction of the church. The rural Anglican church is defined as ‘gatherings of people located outside major cities who identify as Anglicans. People gather in the power of God’s Spirit as churches to learn about Christ, pray, sing, support each other and eat together.’ Its people, character, history and definition testify to its current relevance and resilience. These descriptors point to God’s Holy Spirit as determining the currency, relevance and resilience of the rural Anglican church.

Lastly, evidence-based research grounds our (Mark and Monica’s) perceptions of the resilience and relevance of the rural Anglican church. Alongside co-authors Broughton, Ochala and Anscombe, we participated in a co-operative inquiry titled – ‘Connecting to belonging: A cross disciplinary inquiry into rural Australian Anglican church engagements with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds’. This research project highlighted that the rural Anglican church can be a source of hope providing wonderful stories of connection, welcome, participation and belonging. More recently, we continue to hear inspiring stories about our precious rural churches in our much-loved Diocese.

With this in mind, please join us and in solidarity pray regularly for each rural Anglican church and all ministry units in the Diocese. Please pray that God will continue to grow their resilience and relevance during this most unusual and complex year. May God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

By Bishop Mark and Monica Short