Archbishop celebrates 65th birthday with singing, supper - and a book in his honour

Book of essays on diocesan theme 'Making the Word of God Fully Known' published to celebrate Dr Freier's milestone.

Archbishop Freier and his friend and fellow Primate Archbishop Philip Richardson of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia with the book published in honour of Dr Freier at his 65th birthday supper at Bishopscourt.

By Mark Brolly

February 11 2020 

Archbishop Philip Freier was the “victim” of a year-long plot by his family, episcopal colleagues and other leading Anglicans to mark his 65th birthday on Sunday 9 February, with acclamation at Evensong he attended with his family and a surprise supper at his official residence, the highlight of which was the presentation of a book published in his honour.

Dr Freier, who last year celebrated his 20th anniversary as a bishop and 35th anniversary as a priest, had intended to mark the day quietly with an early supper with his wife Joy and his eldest son Michael and his family before attending Sunday Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Cathedral organist and choir led a rendition of Happy Birthday and two of his four assistant bishops, Paul Barker and Brad Billings, insisted he join them in the procession out of St Paul’s, where he was greeted with applause.

He then went to Bishopscourt where family, friends and contributors to the book, Making the Word of God Fully Known: Essays on Church, Culture and Mission in Honour of Archbishop Philip Freier, were waiting.

Bishop Barker, who conceived the idea exactly a year earlier when he arranged a Happy Birthday for Dr Freier’s 64th at the ordination of 20 deacons, did a double act with Bishop Billings on the night, as they had in editing the book, to finally unveil the “conspiracy” to surprise the Archbishop on his 65th birthday.

“We are each pleased and proud to have been able to collate and edit these essays, and to contribute an essay ourselves, in honour of Dr Freier,” Bishop Billings told the gathering. “As two of his four Assistant bishops (with our colleagues Bishop Genieve Blackwell and Bishop Kate Prowd) in the Diocese of Melbourne, together with Bishop John Harrower, the Bishop assisting the Primate who has also contributed an essay to this volume, we have had ample opportunity to observe first-hand the extraordinary energy and enthusiasm Dr Freier brings to his various roles, the graciousness with which he deals with those who are the recipients of his leadership even in the face of the enormity of the demands placed upon him, and his steadfast dedication to the Gospel of our Lord and to making that as fully known as possible across the diversity of his leadership and ministry roles. Additionally, working closely with Dr Freier, we (and our episcopal colleagues) have each experienced and known his unwavering friendship, support and encouragement for us as colleagues in ministry, and for our respective ministries. For all of this we are profoundly grateful and thankful to God.

“This small and modest volume, dedicated in his honour on the occasion of his 65th birthday,  9 February 2020, constitutes, we hope and pray, a fitting gesture of thanksgiving and appreciation to the ministry of the Most Revd Dr Philip L Freier, Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne, and a lasting testimony to the large and important contribution he has made to the life of the Church in Melbourne, Australia, and across the Anglican Communion.”

The book includes a Foreword by Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and contributors including Bishops Barker and Billings, the Very Revd Dr Dean Andreas Loewe, the Revd Dr Peter Adam, The Revd Professor Dorothy Lee and Dr Muriel Porter, Bishops Andrew Curnow and John Harrower (who assist Dr Freier in his duties as Metropolitan of Victoria and Primate of Australia respectively) and Archbishop Philip Richardson, one of three Primates of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

The Victorian Director of the Church Missionary Society, the Revd Dr Wei-Han Kuan, wrote a chapter on pioneer Indigenous Anglican missionaries James and Angelina Noble, who are heroes of Dr Freier – all of whose ministry as a teacher, priest and bishop was spent in northern Australia, on Cape York and as Bishop of the Northern Territory before his episcopate in Melbourne began in December 2006.

“It’s very touching to receive this and for it to be such a surprise and what I’m really looking forward to is to read how people developed some theological thinking around some of the themes that have been important to me in my ministry, particularly here in Melbourne as Archbishop and over the longer period of my work as a bishop,” Dr Freier told TMA.

“Looking at some of the chapter headings, I can see that this will be a valuable contribution to the wider reflection of the Church, so I’m glad that this has been written and I’m very honoured that the two editors, Bishop Paul Barker and Bishop Brad Billings, were taking this project forward.

“I think as you look back over life, you can see God’s Providence at work in your life, and even things that at the time you don’t see adding up as to where you later go to work and serve God being at work … I think God’s Providence doesn’t waste the experiences we have and they’re built on as we give ourselves in Christian ministry.

“I think I’ve approached quite a lot of things in ministry as exercises in cross-cultural communication. I think often one of the mistakes we can make in Australia is thinking that everything’s the same and there often are subtle differences of culture between our capital cities, even different parts of our cities, and I think we need to be attentive to the things where people are different from us and try as much as we can to look at life as people live it in their own skin as they walk the journey in their own shoes because it’s easy for us to miss that step and then miss the communication with people.

“If you want to make the Word of God fully known, we have to deeply communicate with people and be attentive as learners as much as we are people who earnestly want to open up the Gospel to people who don’t know it yet.”

Archbishop Freier said the transition from a life spent in northern Australia to Melbourne more than 13 years ago was not as great as that from being a parish priest to a bishop.

“… The biggest transition is to go from being a parish priest to a bishop wherever you are in that you don’t have the immediate Sunday community that you have as a parish priest and you don’t have the engagement in all of the life events – the happiness, the tragedies of people – which is very purposeful and fulfilling,” he said. “You don’t have the same congregation to preach to. So I think in a way, the bigger transition is learning to adjust to that new responsibility, to cope with the often weighty responsibility that you are the final decision-maker often in serious things, which could be to do with the vocation of other clergy and other important matters.

“I’ve found my ministry in Melbourne, which is now in its 14th year, to be a very rich opportunity. I think Melbourne’s a great diocese, I think we achieve a lot together, through many challenges … always dissatisfied with where we’ve got to and in a sense have a restlessness for what more we might do and the bigger vision we might have. But I think Melbourne’s a great place, a great community and I’m really touched by this (book) picking up the Colossians 1:25 verse about making the word of God fully known as something that I’ve wanted to open up to our community and I think people have responded with purpose and this book may well be a very helpful resource for people as they seek to go a bit deeper in theological understanding of that theme.

“It’s been a valuable focusing point for us, it’s helped us embrace more some of the things that were first developed theologically under Archbishop David Penman (Archbishop from 1984-89) about a ministry amongst people of different cultures and cultural identities and languages. I think we’ve seen a very flourishing period of that and I’m thankful for that ...”

Archbishop Richardson told TMA he and Dr Freier were ordained bishop within a few months of each other in 1999, “so we’re kind of last millennium bishops and Philip came within a few months of his ordination to the NZ bishops conference”.

“… Because we were the two junior bishops at the meeting, we kind of got to make the tea. So we formed a bit of friendship. A couple of years later, I went and stayed with Joy and Philip in the Northern Territory and had three weeks with them. That was just prior to me attending the Australian bishops conference, which I believe for the first time was outside Sydney, it was actually in Perth. So we had three weeks, just Philip doing his work and me following him around talking about what it was like to be two years into episcopacy. And then we flew to Perth together.”

They also became Primates of their respective churches within a year of each other.

“I think that friendship, as I said in the sermon tonight, has really helped the relationships across the Tasman and just knowing that we can easily get on the phone or Skype … Philip’s deep love for Aboriginal language, art, culture, cosmology means that he kind of gets us in Aotearoa New Zealand instinctively. So there’s a whole lot that just doesn’t need to be said. And so there’ve been a number of times when things have needed to be resolved and he’s just instinctively known how to approach us, how to deal with our diversity, how to deal with our commitment to language and biculturalism. As a consequence, he’s really highly respected in Aotearoa New Zealand and seen as an Australian brother who is as respectful of our particular journey and the challenges we face.”

Mrs Joy Freier said the life she and the Archbishop had lived in 43 years of marriage, from working among Aboriginal people in Far North Queensland, to Brisbane and Bundaberg in parish life, to Darwin and then to Melbourne was “beyond imagination”.

“We’ve never really ever done anything like this for Philip, we’ve never had big parties,” she said. “We just have family meals usually.

“To think that they (Bishops Barker and Billings and contributors) did it in a year is quite extraordinary.

“It’s a very nice way to honour Philip because he has done some quite remarkable things but he doesn’t see it that way. He just sees that this is what God has called him to do and he just does it.”