Victorian province to get new Anglican disaster plan to coordinate relief efforts

Meeting of provincial leaders aims to coordinate relief and recovery efforts for future disasters.

L to R: Dean Andres Loewe of St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne, Bishop-Elect of Wangaratta Clarence Bester, Bishop of Ballarat and acting Metropolitan Garry Weatherill, Melbourne Bishops Kate Prowd and Brad Billings, Provincial Officer Bishop Andrew Curnow, and Bishop of Gippsland Richard Treloar.

PHOTO: Chris Shearer

By Chris Shearer

The Anglican Province of Victoria is establishing a taskforce to create a state-wide disaster response plan that will coordinate the efforts of the five provincial dioceses in times of crisis.

The decision came as representatives from across the state met in Melbourne on Monday to discuss coordinating their relief efforts in the dioceses of Wangaratta and Gippsland, where bushfires have killed three people, destroyed hundreds of homes and burnt around 1.2 million hectares.

Provincial Officer Bishop Andrew Curnow said that while coordination between dioceses around this current disaster would continue as they have, he hopes the taskforce would be underway in the next month. 

“The taskforce’s job is to really develop an Anglican disaster plan which would particularly say how we as an Anglican Church across Victoria can respond to these disasters, such as we’ve experienced,” he told TMA.

“And not just for bushfires, but for any sort of significant disaster in Victoria, how we as a church can best respond and support the emergencies services and the ongoing work that will need to be done.”

Acting Metropolitan and Bishop of Ballarat Garry Weatherill said it was time that the five Victorian dioceses had a coordinated response to disasters.

This meeting has come together today because we haven’t had a coordinated understanding of how we can best respond to each other’s needs. We’re trying to work out how we can do some stuff in this immediate situation but longer term put in place a kind of structure so that next time there’s a provincial disaster or something happens in the province that needs work, we’ve already got it.

“This meeting would have been more useful 10 days ago when the fires first happened. We were really behind the eight-ball a bit. It doesn’t matter, we were still working. But next time, if we have a provincial disaster team they’ll be able to swing into action.” 

The meeting also heard from Bishop Richard Treloar from Gippsland and Bishop-Elect Clarence Bester from Wangaratta about what their community needs are likely to be in the coming weeks and months, Bishop Curnow said.

“Things are very much in the stage of still being sorted out because there’s fires still live in the two dioceses, but certainly quite a number of communities have been severely impacted and today I think we were just trying to see or be clear about how we in particular, as Anglicans … what are things we can do in particular.”

Some of the suggested actions arising from the meeting included:

- Establishing parish to parish relationships, where metropolitan and rural parishes could work out ways to partner with each other.

- Sending support clergy to fire affected regions to help carry the burden of clergy there. Many local  clergy in fire zones have been working tirelessly since their parishes were threatened.

- Encourage more Anglican clergy to join the Victorian Council of Churches Emergency Ministries. Around 113 Anglicans have been mobilised by VCCEM for the current fire crisis.

- Encourage Anglicans to give to appeals within their own dioceses, with each then remitting funds to Wangaratta and Gippsland “when it’s clearer what are their particular needs”.

“I think we’ll find in the next month those needs will start to emerge,” Bishop Curnow said. “Both the Bishop of Gippsland and the administrator of Wangaratta are in the process of visiting the fire grounds and they have to depend on access and the goodwill of emergency management personnel to do that, but they are, from what we’ve heard this morning, starting to get a much clearer picture of what the impact is in local communities.”

Bishop-Elect Clarence Bester, who has been Administrator of Wangaratta diocese since the retirement of Bishop John Parkes last month, told TMA it’s been a nervous wait for news from the regions of the Diocese of Wangaratta that have been cut off by fire.

“For us it was, because there was no communication for four days to Corryong. We couldn’t get in. So we had to rely on news sources,” he said.

“We’re not sure of the extent in the alpine area because we haven’t been able to get there, but in terms of information that we’ve been fed, you know, in relation to Corryong, quite a few farms burnt.

“All churches were saved amazingly. Cudgewa church we expected would go. It was just restored after 12 years a couple of months ago. Everything [one] side of the road went, everything [on the other] side of the road stayed.”

Bishop Treloar said that on top of the significant loss of homes in the Diocese of Gippsland was the compounding its of loss of farming infrastructure in a region already suffering through drought.

“A lot of farms and fencing and out-buildings [were lost], so that really essential infrastructure and that creates really huge problems with stock,” he said.  

“There are stock losses in any event, but then you add the loss of that essential infrastructure and it’s highly problematic. So, there are some of the kind of longer-term, medium-term economic factors that I think we need to address.”

Both Bishop-Elect Bester and Dr Treloar said the ongoing mental health tolls of the bushfires and their impacts would need to be monitored over the long term as communities struggle to regain their footing.

“There’s a lot of trauma around, a lot of grief, a lot of anxiety,” Dr Treloar said.

“There’s also some incredible resilient people in the community, so there’s some great stories of courage and kindness and generosity around those. But people will be up and down for a long time around this.”