IN November Newcastle Anglican diocese’s first woman archdeacon to preside over a synod, Sonia Roulston, phoned Peter Stuart to tell him he had been elected the 14th Bishop of Newcastle.
So it was fitting that on Bishop Stuart’s first day on the job he named Archdeacon Roulston as Newcastle diocese’s first female bishop. Archdeacon Roulston and Archdeacon Charlie Murry will be installed as the diocese’s two new assistant bishops in May.
In an interview in November Bishop Stuart confirmed his “passionate support” for women in ministry, and hinted strongly that it was time for a female bishop in Newcastle.
It was a view informed by shocking evidence given to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about failures within the Newcastle Anglican diocese over decades, but more broadly within Australian institutions when dealing with child sexual abuse.
The connection between an absence of women in decision-making roles and the incidence of child sexual abuse was most stark within the institution with the most troubling child sexual abuse rates examined by the commission, the Catholic Church.
Data released by the commission showed that Adelaide Catholic diocese had the lowest rate of child sexual abuse of any Australian diocese. The commission heard Adelaide had had women lay people in senior diocesan roles with authority over priests since the 1980s.
But there are more reasons why the Hunter should celebrate the appointment of Archdeacons Roulston and Murry to the assistant bishop positions.
The region has been convulsed by the tragedy of child sexual abuse for decades, both institutional and within families. Former Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson, supported by his assistant bishop Peter Stuart, exposed the culture that supported the abuse.
The royal commission has ended, although we await institutional and government responses to its recommendations. It is up to new Bishop Stuart, supported by assistant bishops Roulston and Murry, to take the church forward.
The appointment of a woman bishop is a clear sign of a break with the past, although Archdeacon Roulston’s appointment is not just symbolism. A diocese that is determined to be relevant in its community needs to represent that community. We wish the new bishops well.