As the death toll from the cataclysmic fires that continue to sweep rural Victoria, creeps towards 200, Anglicans from the worst affected town are determined to rebuild their devastated church.
But for Marysville residents their long journey has only just begun.
Bishop John Parkes of Wangaratta Diocese, which includes Marysville, has indicated the church, which has a congregation of approximately 50, will need a considerable amount of support a long way into the future.
“The Australian people have been hugely generous… and governments are putting lot of money into rebuilding infrastructure – but the real issue for us is going to be sustaining priestly ministry,” he says.
There are estimates that 1 in 5 residents of the picturesque tourist town, usually surrounded by lush mountain forests, perished in the fires.
Looming is the difficult prospect of conducting so many funerals, so close together. Bishop Parkes says the Victorian Council of Churches’ Emergency Chaplaincy Committee will meet today to devise a strategy, and a number of clergy from around the country have offered to help.
With the likelihood the Marysville fire was lit by arsonists, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd labelled it a scene of 'mass murder'.
Bishop Parkes, who has been with Marysville survivors this week in the nearby town of Alexandra, where many of them are staying while their ashen neighbourhood remains sealed off by police as a crime scene.
The Bishop says the church rectory is believed to have survived the blaze.
However, Christ Church Marysville’s church building was completely destroyedr, along with the majority of buildings in the town.
Rector of Marysville, Father Norman Hart had to evacuate with his wife Patti to Melbourne, but are reportedly eager to return to their congregation.
At present, the congregation, most of whom have lost their homes, cannot afford to pay their minister’s stipend, he explains.
“My diocese is not a wealthy diocese – in different circumstances, the diocese might take up the stipend of the priest in Marysville until the congregation rebuilds to the stage where it can sustain that ministry, but we just haven’t got those sorts of reserves,” he says.
Bishop Parkes indicates Marysville needs paid ministry now more than ever, with a death toll predicted to rise as high as 300, and parishioners likely to be among the dead.
“The most critical thing for us is being able to sustain ministry over the next little while as the community rebuilds, and as the enormity of what people are really dealing with dawns on them,” he explains.
“I think people are just coming out of the shock phase and dealing with the grief and reality and that’s really when ministry is going to be just so so important.”
What your church can do
Bishop Parkes says the immediate needs are obtaining a marquee and chairs so that when Marysville survivors are able to go back, there will be a community church space.
A member of clergy is also needed for the Yea evacuation centre.
He hopes to later be able to move the church into a demountable building while a new church building is built.
“Ultimately we’ll rebuild that church, whether we rebuild it as it was, or in a more contemporary form, is a matter that we’ll need to talk over with the community.”
“One of the things that is coming out strongly is that they [the church community] want to be part of rebuilding their future. They don’t want people elsewhere making those decisions for them, which you can understand when they’ve lost everything,”
Bishop Parkes indicated his thankfulness for the timely support from the Sydney Diocese, with the Archbishop’s Emergency Bushfire Appeal being set up shortly after he spoke with Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen last Sunday.
At last night’s meeting, Sydney Diocese's Standing Committee encouraged all churches in their Diocese to give generously to the Archbishop’s Emergency Bushfire Appeal, which has so far raised over $131,556.
In the same statement, Standing Committee “expresse(d) its horror at the loss of life and destruction of property and livelihood” and said it “joins with the rest of Australia in praying for those who have been affected by this tragedy”.
Ballarat bishop fights the fires
Bishop Michael Hough swapped his clerical collar for the bright yellow garb of the Country Fire Authority, fighting fires in Whittlesea, Kinglake, Mytleford, and Beechworth in the last week.
Trying to keep his focus on the job at hand, and watching constantly for dangers such as falling trees, was difficult he admits.
“You’re busy doing your firefighting, but on the other side, you’re just struck by the tragedy of it all and just how many lives have been bombed, especially when there are still bodies in the houses and cars… For all the firefighters, that’s one of the great struggles, because who’s trained to deal with that?”
Bishop Hough had been a member of the CFA in his youth, but joined up again four years ago so that he could get to know Ballarat locals better.
“I wanted to mix with people outside of the theological community,” he explains.
“Sometimes ministry can be a bit of a prop and I don’t think that’s healthy all the time… [but] when you’re at the end of a hose, they don’t care whether you’re the bishop or the bootmaker.”
Chatting to him, it becomes clear that he sees a number of benefits for gospel ministry through involvement in community services such as the CFA,
“You serve the community in whatever way the community wants or needs to be served – you don’t say ‘This is how I’m prepared to serve you’,” he says.
“And without pushing it, you do have those opportunities to talk to people about broader issues and to bring a little bit of gospel focus to things,” he says.
Amidst the many difficult things he has seen in the past week, he says he has been heartened by the community’s response to the tragedy.
“I don’t know how we tap into the compassion and generosity and love that has come out of these fires, people’s awareness of being a part of a community, and needing to feel compassion and love and to respond when our brothers and sisters are in need,” he comments.
“That to me is where we disciples of Christ can have an input, because what people see happening in these communities as love and generosity, is actually a fundamental gospel message – this is what the gospel is about all the time, this is what our human community can be like all the time if only we live in Christ, so I think there is an evangelistic opportunity there.”
Article from: Anglican Media Sydney - by Natasha Percy