Stories from the visit of Canon Nicholas Wheeler
Touring around with Fr Nicholas -Jeanette Johnston
TWO nights before the Diocesan Convention, some friends and I had the privilege of sharing dinner with Canon Nicholas Wheeler from Rio de Janeiro who had just arrived in Australia. We found him to be a delightful guest, very excited to be in Australia, interested to know how our different parishes were engaging in mission, encouraging of our efforts, and understanding of our struggles. I always enjoy the Diocesan Convention – meeting up with friends from near and far, the corporate worship, being introduced to the new clergy, and hearing how other parishes are engaging in mission (this year Scone and Forster/Tuncurry) – and this Convention did not disappoint.
Having already met Fr Nicholas, I was particularly looking forward to his presentations, and they proved to be not only most inspiring, but challenging too. In the two deprived places where he has served (Camden Town in London as Priest and The City of God in Rio as Priest Missioner) he has worked to bring new life not only to the dying Anglican churches there, but also to their surrounding communities. Fr Nicholas’ stories of “doing mission” at St Michael’s and Christ the King were powerful. The following weekend Fr Nicholas stayed in the Parish of Merewether, running a workshop for us on the Saturday, and preaching and presiding at the Eucharist on Sunday. One of our activities at the workshop was to walk around our community, “beating the bounds”, so to speak, although we actually did not stray a great distance from the church property. We walked in silence, stopping at various places along the way - Souths Leagues Club, the new offi ces of Family and Community Services, the Fire Station, the Medical Centre, the Preschool and playground and the Community Centre.
At each place we stopped we considered who went there, what happened there, and how each place contributed to the life of the community and whether it served body, mind or spirit. We sang Bless the Lord, my soul at each spot, and we took turns to pray for those who worked and were served there. At the Fire Station it was Open Day, so we learnt fi rst-hand how it functioned, and the Firies heard us pray for them fi rst-hand – “God organises things”, one of us said later. At the Community Centre we recalled that it was named after one of our past parishioners. But in the Church we were reminded that only here was the symbol of the Cross of Christ, and that we had something unique and truly life-giving for our community. And we also realised that our Church is planted right in the centre of the community. We agreed it was a good thing just to be out there together, to be seen and heard being there, to be generally interested in ourcommunity, holding it before God for his blessing, and having our eyes opened anew to our neighbourhood, and our minds and hearts to new possibilities for us for mission.
While in the diocese Fr Nicholas also attended Clergy Conference at the Potter’s Brewery (he is more used to ex-convents for such gatherings!) and the NSTM Learning Weekend at Quorrobolong, so I am sure that many diocesan folk have been inspired and challenged by his visit among us.
Thank you, Fr Nicholas!
By Jeanette Johnston Parish of Merewether
FATHER David spoke with Canon Nicholas Wheeler as he prepared to leave the Diocese after his presentations at the Diocesan Convention, Diocesan Leaders’ Conference, OLM Formation Weekend, and his conversations with clergy in Deanery gatherings around the Diocese. The fi rst thing that I noticed in Australia was the strange absence of the police.
I am used to living in a community where there are 300 police on the streets so being here has been quite different. I have also been amazed at how very well resourced the church is here in Newcastle: beautiful buildings in good repair, programs co-ordinated across the Diocese, and lots of enthusiastic priests and people who are committed to the task of the Gospel. I have been greatly inspired by the people of the Diocese. I have seen a huge desire in people to learn the story of Jesus Christ and its implications for the world. The fact that Anglicans in the Diocese will drive huge distances, and make a commitment to give up long periods of time to do this is extraordinarily impressive and I shall never forget that passion to pursue the story. During my visit I have been trying to encourage us to change our language.
The danger is that we can reduce the vision of the community that we are serving, from “the community around us” to the rather small group of people who enter the doors of our church buildings. So I have been suggesting that we need to stop calling our congregations “the parish”, and start calling the geographical area we are serving “the parish”, and the building in which we worship the “Parish Church”. I hope for local churches that will be champions of their local communities.
We discussed this idea at a number of the deanery gatherings. Imagine people coming to your local church because they know that that is where the story of the community of the parish can be learnt, and where community identity can be discovered. We are a small church in the City of God, and we are promoting a weekend long refl ection on the fi lm that transformed the image of our community. We cannot do that alone, we would not want to do that alone. We are working with different groups in the community. I think that when you start to take those kinds of initiatives, people start to understand better what the function of the Church is in its local context. We need to be prepared to learn from one another in creative ways.
How are we learning from the poor in the projects that we run to serve them? How can older people learn from younger people, and younger people from older people? It might be that we just need to have more meals together, where everyone is sitting down around the same table. We need to move from a focus on the informative to the performative. We spend a lot of time trying to work out what we believe as Anglicans, and I have been trying to suggest that we need to spend more time being attentive to what we should be as Anglicans. I believe that we are called to be a generous space in the life of the world: a space that is located in and committed to communities, and that seeks to enable and facilitate social transformation. It is part of the comprehensive nature of what Anglicans are called to be. My parish in the City of God, like the Cathedral in Newcastle, is dedicated to Christ the King.
If we say that Christ is the King, then we are proclaiming that Christ has the last word. On my way back to Brazil I will be visiting the parish of Christ the King in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. I particularly want to see what life in a South African township is like, and how that compares to life in the favelas in Rio De Janeiro.
I am returning to the City of God with a fresh determination. I have been struck by people’s willingness to learn here, and that in turn has renewed my own commitment to mission and the need to strengthen the investment in lay ministry and education as I have now experienced it amongst you in an exemplary way. I did not come to Newcastle to sell a theory or promote a “how to” book, just to share some experiences. The fact that people have had the humility to listen attentively and to learn, reminds me that I must continue to listen attentively to God where I am based, and to continue to unfold this story which seems to be a source of encouragement.
If I could leave the Diocese with a word of challenge, I would say, never forget that life in the company of Jesus Christ is an adventurous journey, so be ready to live that life more adventurously, be ready to leave behind things, in order to take the risks the Church needs to, in order to embody the life of Jesus Christ. In other words, do what you can to get out into the world, to make the local community your parish and not the church community your parish, and be ready to roll your sleeves up and engage.