[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The Archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Freier, has set out four priorities for 2017 in a speech broadcast by Australia’s Victory Christian Radio. The future of the rural church at a time of depopulation; the need to build new churches in major urban housing developments; the development of new leaders; and the need to respond to increasing multiculturalism are his main areas of concern, he said. Archbishop Freier also spoke about the foiled Christmas Day terrorist attack on Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral; and his role as a recently-elected member of the Anglican Communion’s Primates’ Standing Committee.
His remarks about the foiled terror attack came in response to a question at the end of his speech. He told the audience that the existence of home-grown terrorism was “very alarming”. “From the little bit that I know about the people who were planning to do harm in St Paul’s Cathedral, [they] are what might be called self-radicalised,” he said. “They pick these ideas up from the internet or from reading literature. As far as I know they are not part of any organised group; but a group of people who formed something and they become like-minded with others even if they haven't met the other people. That is very concerning.
“I am really keen that as Christians we hold those young people in our concern because I think the Gospel is good news for them as it is for every other person. I think we need more of the Gospel being proclaimed in our world today – especially to people who haven’t heard it. I think they are often locked in very destructive ideas and the Christian gospel comes and changes that perspective for people when they experience conversion to being a disciple of Christ. That is the Gospel we want to proclaim.”
He spoke of the “great solidarity” he experienced when news of the foiled attack was reported, with messages from Australia and around the world. And he said that, despite the threats, a record number of people – some 6,500 – attended services at the cathedral on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It was, he said, “a great blessing that that could happen.”
He spoke about the need to build friendships across different religious and cultural groups in the community, and to “model what it means to be a good neighbour.”
He said: “Christians are called to be good neighbours and even at times of heightened anxiety and people easily collapsing back to their former identities, it is really important that we keep conversation going in our community.
“We need to be quite clear about our own identity as Christians and we need to proclaim the good news of the Gospel to other people who aren’t Christians; but we need to do that in a context of friendship.
“And I think it is important for people who think they might have some Christian ideas or [who are] Christian by culture, to go really go deeper and become real disciples of Jesus Christ – to become Christians not just in a name on a census form; but in the living of their life and in the understanding of their faith and their willingness to share that with others.”
Speaking about his four priorities, he said that almost every rural community in Australia was seeing a contraction in population numbers. “The life of small rural communities is getting harder and harder to sustain because there’s fewer people there and not much incentive for young people to stay there,” he said. “You combine that with the fact that all of the churches that were built in those areas are 100-years-old or 120-years old and need a lot of maintenance. It is a really difficult time for most churches to keep a presence in what you’d call rural Australia.”
In contrast, he said that state capitals in Australia were growing and that a new development in the north-western suburbs of Melbourne would see homes built to cater for residents equal in size to the population of Adelaide. “Just how we are going to be able to be present there in those new communities is a big challenge for us and for all the churches,” he said. “It probably costs us between $5 to $6 million [AUD, approximately £3 to £3.6 million GBP] to buy some land and build some buildings on that land which is suitable for community expectations. That’s a big challenge.”
On the issue of multiculturalism, he said that there were more languages spoken in Melbourne than there were countries in the world. He was active in ordaining people from Chinese, African and Indonesian backgrounds, and was trying to recruit more Indian priests because of growing migration from India. “We think that in the next 25 years, Indians will be the biggest group of people born outside of Australia in Melbourne,” he said. “I am really eager that the church can respond to that multi-culturalism. I think it is always the case that people will need to have people from their own language and culture to help best relate the Gospel to them.”
And he said that there was a need for a renewal of leadership – including increasing the number of younger ordinands and people choosing the ordained ministry as a first career. “It is really good for the leadership of the church in the long term that we have a lot of people coming in as first careers,” he said. “In most professions, whether it is medicine, law, accounting, whatever it is – most people will choose something in their 20s then they will really develop and gain experience over a long period of time.
“So if you see people who have got . . . the signs of a vocation to ordained ministry; it is really important that we all encourage them towards that and try to give them some steps of leadership development to help them achieve that potential. We do need the renewal of leadership in the Church, and I think that needs to happen right around the country.”
Archbishop Freier told his audience that he was elected as the Primate of Australia two-and-a-half years ago; and is expected to serve six years in his first term. This can be extended up to another three years. Last January he was elected as one of the Primates’ members of the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee.
“We have some tasks to work with the worldwide Anglican Communion because we are a church in many countries [with] about 80 million members internationally,” Archbishop Freier said. “There are a lot of assumptions about what it means to be an Anglican that are not always shared by everyone, so we really need to be working on that communication. It is very important that we have those connections.”