50 Years in Northern Australia

Bishop Greg Anderson | Diocese of the Northern Territory

Not many Anglican dioceses could round up every diocesan bishop who has ever served there. The Diocese of the Northern Territory, Australia’s youngest diocese, has had six bishops in its 50-year history, and they are all still alive.

From Bishop Ken Mason to the current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Greg Anderson, they have been part of the diocese’s celebrations to mark its half-century. Services have been held across the diocese and throughout Australia.

A clergy conference in the state’s largest city, Darwin, preceded the final formal celebration.

The diocese is sparsely populated: just 15 Anglican centres in 1.42 million square kilometers (548,000 square miles), an area roughly twice the size of Texas.

As Bishop Anderson explained to TLC, it has challenges unique in Australia, having so many parishes in which an indigenous language, rather than English, is the main language.

Six of the church’s centers are in remote Aboriginal communities. “They had been missions until the 1970s, and of course Aboriginal people and their ancestors have lived there since time immemorial,” Anderson said.

The Bible and liturgy are in an Aboriginal language. Nearly 40 percent of the clergy in the diocese are indigenous.

Bishop Anderson estimates there are around 50 indigenous languages in the territory, and some are becoming extinct. Many of those languages lack a translation of the New Testament or the full Bible. The bishop appreciates the challenges of understanding the good news in your native tongue. He is fluent in three Aboriginal languages because he spent a year in the territory doing PhD studies in in ethnomusicology and later worked as a missionary for 12 years.

He said Christianity in the territory is something of a “patchwork quilt” — it was brought through various missionary efforts, and there are still areas that are Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Baptist. The showpiece of the Northern Territory churches is Nungalinya College, an ecumenical training college for Aboriginal church leaders.

“Its governance and teaching staff are Anglican, Uniting Church, and Catholic, and it trains students of all denominations,” he said.

The college serves a diocese in which almost all Aboriginal clergy are older than 60, which Anderson describes as the greatest challenge for the diocese.

“We need succession planning … we need to find the next generation of church leaders,” he said, and it is a challenge for white churches as much as their indigenous counterparts.

Despite these challenges, the bishop is enthusiastic about his diocese: “It’s a wonderful place to live.”

The diocese marked its 50th anniversary with a dedication on Aug. 1 of the first complete New Testament in the Kunwinjku language.

Kunwinjku is spoken by about 2,000 people around Gunbalanya in the far north of the state. Anderson said it previously had a “mini Bible” — four books of the New Testament and three of the Old Testament.

The testament has been produced by the Bible Society Australia, in partnership with the diocese. The first Kunwinjku Bible translations were done by missionary Nell Harris with two Aboriginal women in 1936.

Jonathan Harris, grandson of Nell, is Bible Society Australia’s national manager of church and community relations.

It was only a few years ago that he and his family found his grandmother’s school notebook in which she had written the first translations.

“The missionary societies were trying to westernize Aboriginal people and teach them English. My grandmother realised that they had to have the good news in their own language,” he said. “They started by doing five verses a day of St. Mark’s gospel.”

Jonathan said his grandmother would be astonished that the books are now printed in China by Amity Press. The books are stitched rather than glued, and have gold edging — not just for decoration, but to protect the pages from dust and moisture in the hot and humid tropical climate.

Robyn Douglass


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