A GROUP of Anglican parishioners has called for a controversial plan that flags the sale of more than half the Newcastle Diocese’s churches to be officially put on hold pending the appointment of a new bishop.
About 25 people, including members of the parish councils of Adamstown and Hamilton, met on Monday night to discuss the draft masterplan, which says nine of its 15 Newcastle and Newcastle West churches could be sold for commercial and residential development.
The report, from consultants, details falling congregation numbers, maintenance problems, lack of financial contributions, no on-site parking, fire risk issues and disconnection with community.
Participants at the meeting, held at St Stephen’s Church Adamstown and chaired by Father Chris Bird, backed unanimously motions calling for their parishes, through parish councils, to request that the diocese administrator, Bishop Peter Stuart, withdraw the draft.
Consideration of it should be put on hold until the appointment of a new bishop, following the retirement of Dr Brian Farran as Bishop of Newcastle in early December.
Parishioner and former Charlestown MP Richard Face likened the intervening period to a ‘‘caretaker mode’’ for government before an election, during which major policy decisions should not be made. He said the plan as it stood would ‘‘affect the fabric of the diocese’’.
‘‘The new bishop is coming in and they should be able to get an overview of what’s going on,’’ he said.
Dr Stuart said he had written to all Newcastle parishes indicating ‘‘that I will not authorise any action arising from the report against the wishes of a parish prior to the enthronement of the next bishop’’.
Power to sell church property rested with the synod, which had long delegated the responsibility to the diocesan council.
However, rules of the diocese required consultation with specific parishes before any changes affecting them could be implemented.
‘‘It is important to stress again the importance of this review and the goodwill of those charged with conducting it,’’ he said.
Read the church’s full response
While a proposed meeting of the parishioners had been identified in the Newcastle Herald no one from the Diocese was invited to be present.
I have not been contacted by the parishes about the meeting or the result of the meeting.
In formal terms, the former Bishop of Newcastle sought the advice on the best way of providing for Anglican ministry in the main parts of Newcastle City into the future.
The Diocesan Council established a process by which that advice would be given.
As part of that process a working group was established in April 2012.
The working group comprises four clergy from the Deanery, four laity from the Deanery, a member of
the clergy from outside the Deanery and an additional lay person.
It is chaired by the Archdeacon of Newcastle.
The group was established before the NBRS research was even commissioned and, as it turns out, 2 of the clergy and one of the laity represent parishes in which there is church recommended for closing in that report.
The review group simply has the responsibility to provide advice and make recommendations about the structure of future ministry in Newcastle. It is a thoughtful and careful process which should result in a report to the Diocesan Council at the end of April.
The group as it is currently structured needs the opportunity to complete its work. The issues facing our churches are significant. The Anglican Church will benefit greatly from a carefully prepared report.
On December 16th I became Bishop Administrator. An Administrator has all the powers of the bishop while the Diocese seeks to elect a new bishop.
By tradition this is a role of guardianship but also one in which the Administrator is required to make decisions for the good ordering of the Diocese.
This period would be better understood by comparison to the appointment of an acting CEO rather than to the much shorter election period between governments.
Any recommendation in the report is by no means the last word.
The Diocese has a complex legal structure.
The Synod has the formal power to sell church property and authorise the variation of trusts in specific circumstances.
For nearly a century the Synod has exercised its discretion to delegate this responsibility to the Diocesan Council.
Matters such as these can be initiated by a number of places but the rules of the Diocese require consultation with specific parishes before any change affecting them can be implemented.
I have already indicated in writing to all the parishes of Newcastle that I will not authorise any action arising from the report against the wishes of a parish prior to the enthronement of the next Bishop.
It is important to stress again the importance of this review and the goodwill of those charged with conducting it.
The changing nature of Australian society and its engagement with churches means that we have to adapt our work. This is not new. We have been opening and closing church buildings and restructuring parishes for decades.
On this occasion the Diocese has sought a more wide-ranging strategic review to ensure the best outcomes.
Dr Peter Stuart, the Bishop Administrator