THE Hunter could have its first female Anglican assistant bishop in 2018 after the newly-elected Bishop of Newcastle, Peter Stuart, confirmed his “passionate support” for women in ministry.
Bishop Stuart said he would “certainly be looking at a number of women candidates” for the assistant bishop position he has held since 2009, which he vacates in the new year after his election on Saturday to be the 14th Bishop of Newcastle.
It was the diocese’s first woman Archdeacon to preside over a synod, Sonia Roulston, who phoned Bishop Stuart to say he had the job. He took the call while standing at the top of the Christ Church Cathedral tower “having a look at Newcastle enjoying itself with the Supercar races”, he said.
“It was quite moving to have that communication under those circumstances,” he said.
Bishop Stuart is the first clergyman in more than a century to be elected Bishop from within Newcastle diocese after a synod in 1906 elected the Dean of Newcastle, John Stretch, to be its fourth Bishop.
Like Bishop Stretch, who was known as a social reformer, Bishop Stuart wants to head a diocese that leads on important social justice issues including “supporting Indigenous Australians as they seek fairer representation in Australian decision-making”, speaking up about the treatment of refugees and the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.
“The church at its best is called to make a valuable contribution to society,” Bishop Stuart said.
But that can only happen by acknowledging the devastating impact of the church at its worst and making substantial changes, he said.
Decades of child sexual abuse within Newcastle diocese had shattered many lives, and revelations from a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse public hearing in Newcastle in 2016 – with the report of that hearing expected in coming weeks – had shamed the church, he said.
Some of the most shocking revelations were about the treatment of former Bishop Greg Thompson by senior Anglican lay people in the diocese after he spoke of his own abuse at the hands of two senior Anglican clergymen, and tried to break a culture where “mates looked after mates”.
Bishop Thompson, who retired in May, had become the model for many clergy shamed by decades of sexual abuse in the diocese, Bishop Stuart said.
“There was a man who’d experienced so much angst in his own life, yet he fully committed to God and loving the people around him,” he said.
“Greg led us to get much closer to the experience of survivors. I felt a deep sense of angst for him as my leader, my friend and colleague on those days when I could tell he was really, really carrying it.
“I have a vivid sense of being called to continue the ministry that Bishop Greg Thompson began. His episcopate was cut short and there is important work still do in addressing the past.”
The Diocese of Newcastle is still waiting for the Royal Commission’s report on the Newcastle Anglican hearing. Bishop Stuart said he had been deeply moved by the commitment of clergy and laity to properly face the past.
“There has been a consistent resolve throughout the year to listen, learn and change,” he said.
The diocese has recently employed two dedicated, trained support staff to help survivors of child sexual abuse. It has used Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese’s Zimmerman House as a model for responding to Anglican survivors and has many more lay people involved in decision-making positions to address the issue of power being concentrated in few hands.
Bishop Stuart said the church faced a “demanding future” in the Hunter.
“Religious participation continues to decline according to the Census. Clergy, once one of the most trusted professions, often experience mistrust,” he said.
“I will be holding a special meeting with all of the clergy early next year to take careful stock of our circumstances. I want us to plan our future together. The clergy are key leaders and have a central role in continuing to change the culture. Together we can make a difference.”
Bishop Stuart is 54 and has been in Newcastle since 2009 under Bishops Brian Farran and Greg Thompson. He has been administering the diocese since December, 2016.