The Anglican Church has been present since 1824 in what is now the Diocese of Grafton, which covers the northern rivers region of New South Wales. In that year the first Chaplain, the Reverend Thomas Hassall, was appointed to the Penal Station at Port Macquarie. In the same year work began on St Thomas’ Church, Port Macquarie, which is the fifth oldest church building in use in Australia. The second Chaplain, the Reverend John Cross, dedicated the church on 18 February 1828.
By the 1830s pastoralists were bringing their flocks and herds overland into the northern rivers, and cedar cutters were moving up the river valleys from the coast. By 1842 William Grant Broughton was Bishop of Australia and in that year he sent the first Anglican minister to Grafton. John McConnell ministered to the settlers on the Clarence and Richmond Rivers, while John Cross ministered to the Hastings and Macleay. By the 1860s there were also resident clergy in Kempsey and Casino.
From 1847 William Tyrell, as Bishop of Newcastle, led the Anglican Church from the Hawkesbury to Mackay, continually riding over this vast area on horseback. After the separation of Queensland in 1859, there was pressure for a diocese to be established that would cover the northern rivers and northern tablelands. In 1863 Royal Letters Patent authorised the creation of a Diocese of Grafton and Armidale but soon afterwards the Privy Council ruled that all such Letters Patent outside England were invalid. William Collinson Sawyer was consecrated in 1867 to be the bishop of the new diocese but under new procedures had to negotiate the extent of his diocese with the local church authorities. Having arrived late in 1867, he was drowned in the Clarence River at Grafton in March 1868 before the process was complete. Thus the new diocese was not established and Sawyer was never installed as Bishop of Grafton and Armidale.
James Frederick Turner was consecrated as bishop to replace Sawyer. On 25 August 1869, Tyrell as Bishop of Newcastle formally ceded the northern part of his diocese to be the new diocese. Turner was installed as Bishop of the Diocese of Grafton and Armidale on 10 September 1869, remaining till 1892. On his arrival, there were only ten clergy, four of them on the coast at Port Macquarie, Grafton, Lawrence and Casino. By his departure there were twenty-eight clergy and nine parishes along the coast. During his episcopate there had been rapid development in agriculture, commerce, mining and forestry industries, hence the rise of many towns and villages.
Bishop Turner believed that the union of the diverse coastal and tablelands regions was impractical. In 1881, he divided the diocese into two archdeaconries, as a first step towards having two dioceses. This was achieved in March 1914, when Cecil Henry Druitt was installed as first Bishop of Grafton. There was rapid growth in towns, villages and farming communities from 1895 onwards. The four parishes and five churches of 1869 had grown, by the time of division in 1914, to 30 parishes and 91 churches.
Bishop Druitt (1914 to 1921) and Bishop Ashton (1921 to 1937) were both English and largely regarded the traditional parish as the norm of church life but both encouraged greater lay participation in church governance in synod and parish councils. Both were also concerned with the pastoral needs of the more sparsely settled western areas of the diocese. Bishop Druitt formed the Brotherhood of Our Saviour, led by priests and using lay brothers to live and work in remote settlements. Bishop Ashton believed that this system had too many weaknesses and replaced it with a system of Home Mission Areas, partly supported by central resources. By 1950 these too had collapsed and the problem of ministering to the remote areas of the diocese still exists.
The third and first Australian-born bishop, William Stevenson, arrived in 1938 as the nation was moving from depression to war. His plans for the diocese were put into abeyance and he died on the day the war in the Pacific ended. He looked beyond the conflict to the future, calling for a more just and caring human society. Bishop Christopher Storrs (1946 to 1955) challenged the diocese to meet the post war situation. The needs of youth were addressed, evangelism was encouraged, and worship was to be more inspiring and helpful. The central resources of the diocese were enhanced so as to effectively assist the parishes. This continued under Bishop Kenneth Clements (1956 to 1961). Parish and diocesan finances were revived by canvasses, and personal potential released through group life laboratories and parish life conferences. The strengthened financial position enabled the construction of many new churches, particularly in towns, and other parish buildings. Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton, first dedicated in 1884 and extended in 1937, was finally paid for and consecrated in 1959.
The 1960s were exciting years in the life of the church, as it strove to modernise worship, cast off outmoded sexist ideas and engage with a world which was becoming increasingly secularised and apathetic towards spiritual concerns. Bishop Gordon Arthur encouraged the diocese to partake fully in the revolution while adhering to gospel principles and the diocese began to move away from its conservative Anglo-Celtic stance.
The Diocese of Grafton was one of the first in Australia to legislate for gender equality in positions such as synod representatives, churchwardens and parish councillors. It was also an early adopter in ordaining women to the diaconate and priesthood and now just under half of stipended clergy are female, which is considerably higher than the national average. These movements continued under the succeeding bishops, Donald Shearman and Bruce Schultz. In 2014, the Diocesan of Grafton was the first in Australia to install a woman as Diocesan Bishop. The Diocese also embraced the Cursillo Movement which was introduced to the Diocese in the 1980’s and this contributed to a strengthening of lay ministry.
The avenues for ministry also expanded through the establishment of church schools, which had not existed in the diocese for fifty years. Church schools now operate in five major centres, Tweed Heads, Ballina, Grafton, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. Chaplaincies were established at the new university campuses, the major hospitals, and at the long term correctional centres in Grafton (now closed) and Kempsey. Some parishes, notably Tweed Heads and Ballina, have provided facilities for aged care. The Anglican Funds Grafton Diocese (formerly the Grafton Diocese Investment Fund) provided financial underpinning for many of these works.
In the early 1990s, under Bishop Bruce Schultz, the diocese compiled the first Strategic Plan, which according to the General Secretary of General Synod, The Reverend Dr Bruce Kaye, was a first for an Australian Diocese. The plan not only attempted to clarify the roles of various officers and bodies of the diocese but also provided a common understanding of the vision, mission directions and strategies. The Strategic Plan has been revised since to meet changing concepts and situations, with the current plan “Embracing the Spirit of Christ in our time” having the two goals of developing and resourcing innovative models of mission and ministry and growing and resourcing our leadership capability.
In common with much of Australia, the population has shifted towards the coast and has concentrated into the larger towns and cities. Some ten rural inland parishes have been closed, with their people placed under the care of neighbouring urban parishes. In 1979 there were 130 worship centres. In 2017, the diocese contains 28 parishes with 69 Anglican churches in use.
While there is much to rejoice and give thanks about in the 103 years of the Grafton diocese and in the pioneering years leading up to it, there has unfortunately been times and actions that has caused hurt to the people for which the church should be showing care and shame on the church in general. Bishop Donald Shearman has now been deposed from Holy Orders for abusing a pastoral relationship.
Another regrettable episode has been the abuse suffered by the residents of the North Coast Children’s Home and the diocese’s initial response to those who had suffered. More recently, the diocese has taken a more pastorally sensitive approach to the victims.
In November 2013, the Reverend Dr Sarah Macneil was elected unanimously as the 11th Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton as a bishop with a heart for mission in the 21st century and a respect for the diversity of Anglicanism. On 1st March 2014, her installation took place in Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton.
Under new leadership the diocese looks to build on its legacy of 193 years as the Anglican Church in the northern rivers and seeks to carry out God’s mission relevant to the new and rapidly changing era.
Adapted and updated from History of Grafton Diocese written by Geoffrey E Foley in 2006
Updated January 2018
Bishops Responsible for the Grafton Diocesan Area from 1836
Prior to 1836 responsibility for the “Anglican” Church in Australia resided initially with the Bishops of London and later the Bishops of Calcutta
- The Right Reverend William Grant Broughton as Bishop of Australia 1836-1847 (Newcastle Diocese created)
- The Right Reverend William Tyrell – Bishop of Newcastle 1847-1868 (Grafton & Armidale Diocese created)
Bishops of the Diocese of Grafton and Armidale
- The Right Reverend William Collinson Sawyer 1868
- The Right Reverend James Francis Turner 1869-1892
- The Right Reverend Arthur Vincent Green 1894-1900
- The Right Reverend Henry Edward Cooper 1900-1914
(Grafton Diocese created)
Bishops of the Diocese of Grafton
- The Right Reverend Cecil Henry Druitt 1914 – 1921
- The Right Reverend John William Ashton 1921 – 1938
- The Right Reverend William Henry Webster Stevenson 1938 – 1945
- The Right Reverend Christopher Storrs 1946 – 1955
- The Right Reverend Kenneth John Clements 1956 – 1961
- The Right Reverend Robert Gordon Arthur 1961 – 1973
- Donald Norman Shearman 1973 – 1985 (Deposed from Holy Orders in 2004)
- The Right Reverend Bruce Allen Schultz 1985 – 1998
- The Right Reverend Philip James Huggins 1998 – 2003
- The Right Reverend Keith Slater 2003 – 2013
- The Right Reverend Dr Sarah Macneil 2014 – Current