by Liz Hogarth
A former Latin teacher from Bulli near Wollongong retired recently as Bishop of North West Australia. Bishop Anthony Nichols, also at different times in his life a missionary in Indonesia, a tutor at Moore College and the Principal of a college to train Aboriginal ordinands in Darwin, acknowledges that his appointment, nearly 12 years ago, was ‘fairly unusual’.
“I had never even been a rector of a parish,” says the 65-year-old Bishop. “The prospect was daunting. The Diocese was lacking in material resources, and huge [the largest in the world] and largely made up of transient, fragile communities.”
The very vastness of the Diocese is hard to grasp, even by Australian standards. “The Bishop of the Arctic did question it once, but he included a few icebergs in his diocese,” Bishop Nichols jokingly says of other challengers to the title, ‘largest Anglican diocese’. Staying in touch with his clergy required considerable effort. He sometimes had to travel 3000 kilometres to visit the most far-flung parishes.
But a far bigger problem for Bishop Nichols and his clergy was the transience of many of the residents. In mining or tourist centres there can be a 100 per cent turnover of a community in a year, making it very difficult for local clergy to establish a congregation.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of his tenure was to recognise that the pastor of a flock in North West Australia needed to be something of an entrepreneur. He therefore looked to recruit clergy who had worked in other fields before being ordained and had proved they could think for themselves and be self-reliant. “Clergy in North West Australia need a lot of imagination and flexibility to get the ear of the community and to encourage their Christian flock to make an impact,” he says.
One of Tony Nichols’s guiding principles is that ‘it is only the teaching of the Bible that changes people’s lives’. On a personal level he can attest to the change the Bible brought about in his own life. Born in Sheffield, in the north of England, towards the end of the Second World War, he and his family came to Australia when he was nine. As a young man he attended what he describes as a ‘fairly dead church’ in Bulli, which perhaps explains why, at the age of 13, and with no real understanding of God, he was asked to lead a Sunday school class. “So I started to read the Bible to find out what it was all about,” he says. “I guess I came to faith in the Lord Jesus through that personal Bible reading.”
However, it was not until he qualified as a Latin teacher, and had taught for a few years, that he decided to be ordained. A spell at Moore College followed, where he met and married Judith. Soon after, the couple became CMS missionaries and trainers in Borneo and then Indonesia, where their four children were born.
From there Bishop Nichols became Principal of Nungalinya College in Darwin, which fostered the first group of Aboriginal ordinands. A period at a CMS training college in Melbourne followed, before the call to Western Australia.
As one would expect of a former student and tutor at Moore College, he retains an affection for the Diocese that nurtured his faith. “At its best Sydney is the spiritual powerhouse of the Anglican Church in Australia,” he says. But that affection did not persuade him or Judith, once retired, to return home.
The couple’s decision to stay in Western Australia – they are currently preparing for their new roles as part-time tutors at Trinity Theological College, Perth – says much about the acceptance and love they received from the people of the Bishop’s former diocese. Jocelyn Ross, a contributor to the North West Australia diocesan news service, doubtless speaks for many when she says: “It is lovely for Northwesters to know that they are staying in WA.”