News

Thespian Bishop of the Bush finds a national stage

By Mark Brolly

March 20 2016Bishop Rob Gillion of the Riverina has played many roles on wildly diverse stages – and now he has reached a national audience with a profile on ABC TV's weekly rural affairs program, Landline.

The Englishman and former professional actor, who little more than 18 months ago became chief pastor of the vast NSW diocese stretching from the Murray River to the Queensland border, west to South Australia and east almost to Wagga Wagga (an area as large as England, Scotland and Wales combined), was profiled in a 22-minute segment entitled "Outback Bishop: Divine State"on 19 and 20 March.

Victorian-based reporter Tim Lee followed Bishop Gillion as he visited his "far-flung flock" in areas as diverse as Broken Hill, Wilcannia on the Darling River and Ivanhoe Correctional Centre, north of Hay. In one scene, the former Shakespearean actor, cabaret performer, cruise ship entertainer, mime artist and song-and-dance man puts on a one-man stage show in Broken Hill in which he plays the Vicar of St Thomas the Doubter, who on the eve of Christmas discovers that Jesus is to visit the parish.

Bishop Gillion's wife Janine, who met her husband in drama school, is stage manager and looks after the props.

"Drama always asks the questions, rather than give the answers, and I love that," he says. "I love that you just ask them a question and say, 'What do you think? How would you respond in this situation?' And you draw them in. And – well, for me, theatre is magic and I think that the Church is also theatre."

Bishop Gillion grew up in rectories in and around Norwich and was a chorister in the city's famed cathedral. In the 1920s, his grandfather had been a priest in Broome and Derby, in Western Australia's vast Kimberley region.

He turned to the ordained ministry in his 30s and has worked in areas as diverse as rural ministry in Norfolk, a parish in London and prison chaplaincy in Hong Kong, where he once spent a week locked up in a maximum security prison to better understand life inside the walls. Now, he looks after scattered communities making up 21 parishes in an area comprising more than one-third the area of NSW.

"Sixty-five thousand kilometres I've travelled in a year, visiting all the different parishes and you'd have thought at my age, for goodness sake, I'd be exhausted, but it's invigorating and I hope other people are inspired by the fact that I'm with them and I'm here for the long term," he says. "I don't intend to go anywhere."

But the program also explores themes common across rural Australia – declining populations, isolation, drought, economic challenges and social disadvantage – as well as factors familiar also to many urban-based churches, such as ageing, dwindling congregations and secularism.

As Tim Lee reports: "A few decades ago, Broken Hill had a population of 36,000. Mining was the mainstay and most young people stayed in the district. Today, there's half that number and any downturn in the mining industry is keenly felt."

Bishop Gillion says: "Some of the places in my vast diocese are declining in population, they're declining with industry. Things are tough. And the Church still to be there when people would say, 'But it's not viable'. Never mind about being viable. We need to be there and we need to resource ministry in the places where it's a challenge and a struggle.

"It's a pretty challenging place to be, but it's a wonderful place, otherwise I wouldn't be here."

* "Outback Bishop: Divine Stage" may be viewed at http://www.abc.net.au/landline/content/2016/s4428270.htm.

* Landline is broadcast on ABC TV on Sundays at noon and Saturdays at 4.30pm.