Will challenges notion of a typical Anglican deacon

Somewhere between boyhood and manhood Will Johnston wandered into a church service.

Will Johnston.

Will Johnston.

Having consumed a bit too much alcohol the night before, Will was walking the streets of Newcastle des­perate to rid himself of a hangover.

Along the way something biblical happened.

“I really wasn’t living for anything, I guess I was a normal kind of teenager, but one day after a night out drinking I was walking off my hangover and I walked into a Sunday service,” Will said.

“I sat down and something just clicked. There was something in the light, something in the music, something that just spoke to me about a love beyond our comprehension and I became addicted. 

 “It was a massive conversion experience and I haven’t missed a day of church since, except when I had appen­dicitis but I think God ­understands.”

“I was sent out here as a student and they liked me so much they decided to employ me as a deacon,” Will said.

“So I’ll be here for the next few years; this year as deacon and next year as a priest.”

Given Will’s extreme pull to the religious world, you’d be forgiven for thinking he progressed through a rather religious upbringing.

This, however, is simply not the case.

“My dad is some kind of secular humanist and my mum was raised Mormon [Will’s grandfather was a Mormon bishop], but she fell out of that before I was born,” he said.

“So I didn’t really have much knowledge of God. I mean, I searched a bit here and there and I think I was always more interested in religion than other people my age, but I never thought it would be Christianity, or I never wanted it to be.”

For the past three years, Will has been working at the University of Newcastle campus in ministry while also helping to build an emerging theological community in Islington.

“It’s all about people coming together to closely look at the nuts and bolts of who we are, what we believe and what God is,” Will said.

And for Will – who proudly wears a nose ring along with his ­cassock – this also means breaking down public perceptions of God and the church.

“People have a lot of preconceived notions,” Will said.

“The other day when I was on the train in my gear a lady turned to me and said: ‘What are you?’ I said I was a minister and she replied, ‘Can ministers have nose rings?’

“The media and overall culture seems to depict Christians as old, homophobic, daggy, hateful people and that’s not true.

“So here in East Maitland we want to set up a place where people who are unchurched or de-churched can come and really look and discover what this is all about.”

But while Will is firmly committed to a life within the church, he also surrounds himself with people of various faiths and beliefs.

“I’ve got a lot of friends who are in the church and a lot of friends who aren’t in the church and I think it’s healthy to have that dialogue with people who are outside,” Will said.

“Something like a difference of religion does not separate us. It just makes for interesting times.

“For me, the more I got involved in this life, the more I wanted to do and it became apparent to me that God wanted me to give up an ­ordinary life to follow him and help people.”

At 22, Will is the youngest Anglican deacon in Australia (“God has a massive history of calling people of all ages to him”) and next year he will be ordained a priest within the East Maitland parish.

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