Australia's first female diocesan bishop to retire early for health reasons

Grafton's Bishop Sarah Macneil expresses disappointment at having to call time on her four-year tenure in March 2018

By Mark Brolly

November 6 2017The first woman to lead an Australian diocese, Bishop Sarah Macneil of Grafton, is to retire on 3 March next year.

In a pastoral letter to her northern NSW diocese, Dr Macneil wrote that health concerns for herself and her husband, the Revd Ian Chaplin, had led to her decision.

Bishop Macneil, a former Dean of Adelaide and rector and archdeacon in Canberra where she has spent most of her ministry since her ordination as a priest in 1994, became leader of Grafton’s Anglicans on 1 March 2014.

Her announcement comes as another pioneer of women’s ministry, Bishop Kay Goldsworthy, prepares to leave the Diocese of Gippsland she has led since March 2015 to become Australia’s first female archbishop, when she is enthroned as Archbishop of Perth on 10 February 2018.

“I had both hoped and expected that I would continue in office until my 65th birthday in early 2020, and have been planning on that basis,” Dr Macneil wrote in her pastoral letter, published in full on Archbishop Philip Freier’s primatial website on 6 November at “Some of you will be aware, however, that the last little while has presented health challenges for both me and for Ian. The medical advice we have received is that continuing to do what we are doing is simply not sustainable. As a consequence, I am retiring with effect from Saturday 3 March 2018. I will lay up my pastoral staff in the Cathedral on that day.

“From 4 March 2018 the Diocesan Archdeacon, Gail Hagon, will be the Administrator of the Diocese. The transitional arrangements will be discussed in the 16 November 2017 meeting of Bishop-in-Council. There is great strength in the clergy and lay leadership of the Diocese and I am confident that you will be well cared for and well led. It is my hope and prayer that the work we have done together will prove to be a solid platform on which to build and I would like to pay tribute to those who serve the Diocese so selflessly in leadership positions.

“Ian and I have been prayerfully and lovingly supported by you in our ministry here and it has been a privilege to serve you. We have come to know and love you and are disappointed that our time here has been shorter than we had hoped. God’s love for us all is steadfast and we know that, in God’s providence, all shall be well. You shall always be in our prayers and in our hearts.”

Bishop Macneil’s tenure in Grafton has been short and testing as it coincided with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Grafton was one of the Royal Commission’s earliest case studies, for which public hearings were held in in November 2013 and January 2014 (see,-november-2013,-sydney). The case study examined the response of the diocese to abuse at the North Coast Children’s home in Lismore between 1940 and 1985 and the Commission’s report, published seven months after Dr Macneil assumed office in Grafton, criticised her predecessor, Bishop Keith Slater.

On 14 October 2015, Dr Macneil deposed Bishop Slater from Holy Orders in the Anglican Church of Australia in accordance with the recommendation of the Professional Standards Board of her diocese. Bishop Slater challenged the deposition before the Church’s Appellate Tribunal, which on 19 January this year ruled that it lacked appellate jurisdiction in the matter but also concluded “that the deposition of Bishop Slater from Holy Orders was null and void on various grounds”.

In her pastoral letter, Bishop Macneil alluded to the abuse crisis, writing that when she and her husband arrived in Grafton, Anglicans there had already faced some significant challenges, including “facing the legacy of past abuse in the life of the Diocese”.

“There was a sense of deep lament for that dark part of our history and a determination to make amends and embrace God’s calling into the future,” she wrote.

“Over the last three and a half years we have done much together to strengthen the life of the diocese… We are living into the future we had hoped for, as followers of Christ, and are increasingly prepared to make the difficult decisions necessary for our communities of faith to adapt to the changing times.”

Archbishop Freier wrote to Bishop Macneil, expressing his hope that her farewells from parishes across the diocese were warm and affirming.

“Every blessing to you and to Ian as you make the journey of transition over these next months,” he wrote.