From Sudan to St Paul's

Going to Church at All Saints’, North Footscray is a remarkable experience. The congregation arrives by the mini-busload over a period of close to an hour, from well before the service begins until well after. From the buses spill unlikely numbers of laughing children, women elegantly attired in colourful prints, and men in suits and ties. All of them are black.

Inside the Church a faithful remnant of Anglo-Celtic locals, as well as Asian and Pacific Islander members, join with this predominantly Sudanese group in a liturgy that has a wildly eclectic set of rituals, music and moods. Players of drums and electric guitars alternate with a surplice-clad organist who produces the 16th-century tones of Merbecke’s settings for the Book of Common Prayer. Incense and candles adorn the sanctuary, while hands and voices are raised unpredictably in spontaneous prayer.

Until two weeks ago, the Vicar of the Anglican Parish of Footscray was Donald Edgar, a Trinity College student in the 1960s who was greatly influenced by Barry Marshall, chaplain and lecturer in the Theological School at the time. Don also went on to study from and emulate the Worker Priest movement, which in France around that same time had been leading clergy to move their attention from Churches to factory floors. In more recent times he had come to Footscray, and led the parish to a high level of engagement with the new arrivals from the southern Sudan. He has just retired after a remarkable and fruitful ministry.

I saw Don today at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the largest group of candidates ever has been ordained as deacons in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. The size but also the diversity, age and talent of this group of people sit awkwardly with widespread assumptions that the institutional Church is on its last legs.

Among those 27 was one Sudanese refugee, the aptly-named Chaplain Soma Jackson, who was a parishioner at All Saints’ and who has been engaged in study at Trinity’s Theological School since 2004. Although other Sudanese Anglicans have been studying or ordained in Australia, we believe Chaplain is the first Sudanese theological student who has completed the entire process of selection and discernment here as well as obtaining a recognized tertiary qualification.

Chaplain’s is a remarkable story in many respects. He and his family escaped persecution in the Sudan – he himself was arrested on multiple occasions, and subjected to detention, interrogation and torture – and then like so many others, faced the enormous challenges of refugee and migrant families on the other side of the world. Having been educated partly in Uganda and thus with more English language experience than many other Sudanese migrants, Chaplain was able to seek employment and to undertake study.

Don Edgar encouraged Chaplain and other leaders in the Sudanese Anglican community to come to Trinity and study theology at a level well beyond what civil war and lack of resources had allowed them and their peers in the Sudan. It has been a challenge for us and a challenge for them, but today is a great celebration of what this partnership has achieved.

It is also, I believe, a powerful statement about the capacity of a comprehensive and generous Anglicanism to flourish in Australia and elsewhere. The members of the Theological School community such as those ordained deacon today - Sam, Philip, Raffaella, Dorothy, Matthew, Ian, Deidre and Rosemary, as well as Chaplain - are a microcosm of global Anglicanism. They are racially and ethnically diverse, from more catholic and from more evangelical backgrounds, theologically and politically varied. Yet they manage to co-exist, and more than that they prosper, because they are committed to each other and to openness as well as to the foundational expressions of our faith. As at the international level, the only thing that could stop us growing together is the refusal of some to do so.

The Theological School’s character is also a reflection of what we might call “Collegiate” education – education that values community as well as excellence. Across all our programs Trinity College seeks to embody this ethos, the rich inheritance of our past, and to give it fresh expression.

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