Finding a voice in our 'transitional times'

The church needs to think about how it uses its voice, says new Melbourne bishop Genieve Blackwell

Bishop Genieve Blackwell: Finding a voice in our

Bishop Genieve Blackwell

By Emma Halgren

July 13 2015Finding new ways to connect with people and speak into a society where the church is no longer at the centre of life will be a priority for new Melbourne assistant bishop Genieve Blackwell, who was commissioned at St Paul’s Cathedral on 19 June.

Bishop Blackwell, who has moved from the Canberra-Goulburn diocese, where she was assistant bishop and in parish ministry at St Paul’s Turvey Park in Wagga Wagga, said that with both the church and society in “transitional times”, the church needed to think about how it used its voice.

“The world we live in is such a changing world at the moment and that’s, I think, a lot of the challenge for the church, as we hold on to what we value in terms of the core of our faith and traditions, but also being able to be the church in the 21st century,” she said.

“I think how we speak really matters, and part of it is around recognising that the church isn’t at the centre anymore. So we’ve got to have an opinion worth having and put it forward in a way that recognises that there’s a whole range of other views out there and we’re not necessarily the main players in it either.”

The daughter of a Methodist minister, Bishop Blackwell grew up in Wagga Wagga in the Methodist and then Uniting Church, with strong female role models at home and at church. After her father died when she was six, Bishop Blackwell’s mother raised five children on her own. She had an important role in shaping her daughter’s faith.

“I think what I got from my mother growing up was the importance of gathering for weekly worship. Church and faith have been very much the centre of her life and I very much imbibed that,” said Bishop Blackwell. “There’s never really been a time that I didn’t know about God.”

In her twenties, studying arts at the University of Sydney, Bishop Blackwell turned to Anglicanism and was actively involved at the nearby parish of St Barnabas’ Broadway. She went on to study theology through Moore College, became a deacon in the Diocese of Sydney, and later moved to the Bathurst diocese where she was ordained priest in 1998.

Bishop Blackwell said that while she had been able to contribute to the church through a number of “firsts” — including being the first woman bishop in New South Wales, and the first woman to be priest in charge in a number of the parishes she had worked in — she was also very aware of being the beneficiary of the efforts of women who had gone before her.

“I’m sort of the second generation — I’m very conscious of the fact that I have reaped the benefits of the work of organisations like the Movement for the Ordination of Women. I’ve reaped the benefit of it; I haven’t had to fight the battle.

“I feel I’ve been very blessed and there is a responsibility that comes with that, in terms of having the opportunities to use my gifts and develop them, and also have them developed by the church.”

She said that in the small group of female Anglican bishops in Australia the presence of Bishop Barbara Darling, who died suddenly in February 2015 after having retired in October as Bishop of the Eastern Region of the Diocese of Melbourne, was greatly missed.

“I really valued her wisdom and guidance, and her thoughtfulness. I think she was really moving into being the first woman retired Bishop, moving into that sort of mother-role, and we were quite looking forward to being cared for!” she said.

Bishop Blackwell said her path in ministry had been made immeasurably easier by having a supportive family and in particular by being able to do what she calls a “role-reversal” with her husband, John Silversides, who stayed at home to look after their two children so that she could pursue full time ministry.

“I just took three months’ leave with each baby and I could really only do that because of my husband,” she said. “We worked out that we would put my vocation first at that time.”

In the ten years that followed the birth of their first child, Bishop Blackwell was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Bathurst and served at Gulgong and Grenfell in the central west of New South Wales.

“We could only do that, go to those different country places and me be able to do my role, because John was at home. It was a great gift. I’ve been very blessed in the way that family has enabled me to do what I’m doing,” she said.

When it came time for John to retrain and return to the workforce, the family moved to the Canberra-Goulburn diocese where Bishop Blackwell became rector of Yass and was Archdeacon for Goulburn and Rural Ministry from 2007 to 2011. Her husband now works as a criminal justice chaplain and will begin soon at Barwon Prison and the Melbourne Remand and Assessment Centre. Their son, Harry, who is in year 8, has moved to Melbourne, and their daughter, Baith, is in her first year of nursing studies at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney.

Working in rural parishes with fewer resources had meant being creative about connecting with the community, but it was an approach that was transferable to the very different context of a major cosmopolitan city like Melbourne, she said.

“Part of that is recognising that the church is no longer at the centre of the community, so we need to go where the gathering places are. Now in a rural community that’s very obvious — it’s the school and sporting clubs and things like that. In the city there’s different places where people connect. It’s working out where people gather and the natural networks that aren’t all about physical places anymore.”

Finding ways to connect with people who hold other views is a focus for Bishop Blackwell, who has a particular interest in the twelfth century mystic Hildegard of Bingen.

She said, “In terms of mission, I’ve always had a particular interest in connecting with people, exploring alternate spiritualities, and I have found that within our tradition the mystics often really do connect with people exploring alternate spiritualities, people on the fringe.”

Under the new “mission-shaped structures” of the diocese, Bishop Blackwell will not be responsible for the Eastern Region as her predecessor Bishop Darling was, but for parishes in the city and inner suburbs.

She said part of the challenge for the church was working out how best to use the resources it has.

“At the heart of the mission-shaped structures is the idea, let’s not let the structures get in the way, but support what we’re doing. We’re in an institution which was shaped very much in the 19th century; we’re now in the 21st, and the 20th century has just passed us by. Let’s actually have our structures support what we’re doing. I want to be part of helping that to evolve.”