HISTORIC ROLE: New Anglican bishop of the Grafton Diocese, Rev Dr Sarah Macneil. PHOTOS: ADAM HOURIGAN
HISTORIC ROLE: New Anglican bishop of the Grafton Diocese, Rev Dr Sarah Macneil. PHOTOS: ADAM HOURIGAN

Rev Sarah prepared to step into history

A THUNDERSTORM was crashing and flashing around Rev Dr Sarah Macneil the day she took the phone call that left her thunderstruck.

It was a phone call that was to move her life in an unexpected direction and create a breakthrough for the Anglican Church in Australia.

The 59-year-old had been among three people interviewed to become the new Bishop of Grafton, but was left stunned when the caller invited her to take up the position and become the church's first female bishop to take charge of a diocese.

"I thought they were ringing to invite me to come back for another interview, so I was standing there going oh...oh....OH, REALLY!" Dr Macneil said.

"It was the middle of an electrical storm, I couldn't hear properly. I was out in an open plaza thinking I'm about to be zapped by lightning. It was very Shakespearean."

Today one of the last stained-glass ceilings will be broken when Dr Macneil is consecrated at Grafton's Christ Church Cathedral and becomes Bishop Sarah, the 11th bishop of the diocese.

she didn't think she would be offered the post.

"I thought they may well take me into the final cut and at that point think it's a step too far, particularly because this is not a big diocese," she said.

"I thought they might feel it's a step too far because the other dioceses felt that until now.

"When they invited me to take the position I thought, 'Good on you, Grafton, for being prepared to take this step'.

"Ever since Kay Goldsworthy was consecrated as the first woman to be a bishop in the Australian church (in 2008) it's been inevitable but it is still a big step. I don't think you can quantify it but clearly it's not just everyday."

From today Dr Macneil will occupy what has been a hot seat for the past nine months since her predecessor, Keith Slater, resigned after failing to properly handle complaints of abuse of children at the North Coast Children's Home in Lismore.

Before her appointment she was working part time for the church and ready to "gently trickle into retirement".

But that phone call in an electrical storm and "a strong sense of calling" changed all that.

Now she knows just how she handles her new responsibilities will be watched not only by the worshippers of the diocese, but by the wider church as well.

Dr Macneil admits to feeling the weight of expectation.

"I was asked that question not long after the announcement and I think the first couple of interviews I said no, then I thought more and realised, yes, there is, because you do become in a sense a lightning rod for people's opinions about women doing certain things."

She also realises there may be differing opinions of her performance among church's progressive and conservative elements.

"The poster child of the progressive end and the dart board target of the conservative end," she said.

"I long ago came to the conclusion that you can't control people's opinion of you and you can't control how people use you, use your example, your image, whatever it is.

"It is essentially beyond your control and if you try to control it then you actually lose who you are in all of that.

"I suspect that already in my life my name's been attached to points of view that I would not espouse, and that could be from either end, I don't know.

"You'd wish that that wouldn't happen but I suspect it does. I'd rather not be anybody's poster girl."

The reaction in her new diocese, which stretches from Port Macquarie to the Queensland border, has, she said, been very positive.

"There have been a few people who have felt this is not according to the teachings of The Bible and it's not what God wants of us, but on the whole those views have just been stated respectfully - not completely, there has been some regrettable stuff but it's been small - and the overwhelming response has been 'yes, right person, right place'.


 Today's service at Christ Church Cathedral, starting at 10am, is expected to attract more than 500 guests and worshippers. The service will take about two hours.

 Seating in the cathedral is restricted but extra seating will be available in the neighbouring Hunt Hall where a television feed from the cathedral will be shown.

 The consecrating bishop will be the Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, the Rt. Rev. Stuart Robinson. The preacher/speaker will be either Bishop Stuart or the Bishop of Ballarat, Rt Rev Garry Weaterill .

 The moment of consecration will be when all the bishops present will lay their hands on Dr Macneil.


To read the full story and Rev Dr Macneil's responses on the recent royal commission into child
 abuse at the Anglican Church's North Coast Children's Home, pick up Saturday's DEX.

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