Sitting at the table with four women from St Stephen’s Williamstown Uniting Church feels a little like intruding on a wake. Each of the women has agreed to speak with Crosslight about the impact the decision is having, both on them personally and on the church and wider community.
Mary Burbidge explains her association with the church is much deeper than just attending Sunday services. She spent much of her youth at the church and eventually married the minister’s foster son.
“I was married in the church, we’ve celebrated baptisms, Mum and Dad’s funerals, Pa and Nan’s funerals, my daughter’s funeral,” Mary breaks down but keeps talking, she says it’s important that people realise the impact of decisions made. “I’m really stunned. I want to get buried from here and I want my husband Andrew to get buried from here. It’s just tearing at our heart.”
The range of emotions being felt throughout the synod – anger, bewilderment and sadness –are compounded with an overwhelming feeling of shock. For these women, the decision to sell their entire church and its buildings has been, according to them, a bolt from the blue.
Iris Whitehurst is the presbytery representative of St Stephens Church. She has been coming to the church on Melbourne Road since her mother sent her and her brother to playgroup 67 years ago.
“From the age of 16 I have been on a committee of some sort of this church,” Iris said.
“I was involved when we merged with Newport Methodist Church just up the road in the 70s, before the Uniting Church. So we’ve seen masses of change.
“I have helped sell properties, lease properties and build properties – we built this. So it’s not just that my Sunday is going. My children are saying ‘mum what are you going to do with your life?’
“I do other things but so much of my brain, body and heart has been with this church, especially my adult life.”
Being the presbytery representative, Iris thought that she was well informed on the decisions being made about divestment. She continually asked questions about which properties were being considered, but says she was never given any definitive answers.
“I thought I was in the know and I knew nothing. We had no chance to sit together and negotiate. Where has the process fallen down?”
Church secretary Elaine Peck said the congregation was prepared to lose some property, but they felt that given the criteria for divestment, the church and its social programs would be safe.
The special circumstances Divestment Principle resolution 184.108.40.206 states in (a) iii:
Decisions relating to the sale of real estate under the provisions of Special Circumstances shall be made after discussion with Presbytery Standing Committees, congregations, faith communities and stakeholders about issues including discernment of missional directions.
“We got continuous messages out from synod that consultations would take place between congregations, presbyteries and the Project Control Group (PCG).
“The word we were getting was that missional, vibrant churches wouldn’t be sold.”
Elaine then lists the many and varied activities that take place in the church. As well as a regular attendance at Sunday services of more than 70 people, she said that approximately 400 people access weekly services including emergency relief, ESL programs, crisis counselling, playgroup and a nursing mothers group. Elaine said that through the local Op Shop and other fund raising activities, more than $40,000 is donated to the church each year.
Elaine took the call on the Tuesday morning informing her the whole church would be sold.
“That was the first time we knew that we were even being considered”, Elaine said. “I was told: ‘I’ve got bad news for you, all your property is being sold’.
“It makes me wonder how the consultation process is working; this presbytery seemed to behave differently to the other presbyteries.”
Like the others in the group, Janet Howie has been a member of the church for many years.
“What concerns me is the debt I owe to my ancestors on the Methodist side and my husband’s on the Presbyterian side. What would they think if they knew?” Janet said.
But it is not just the past that Janet is concerned about. She worried that much of the community work being done by the church will be difficult if they are forced to close.
“I take goods into the Asylum Seeker Centre every month, we’ve been doing it since November 2002 and are totally committed to seeing a better policy for asylum seekers,” Janet said. “It would be much more difficult to do this without having a base where people come and bring their goods. The same applies to all of the other community programs we run, this is the base for so much in the community.
“This is not a church on Sundays. This is a Christian community that is open every day of the week. We do so much more than worship here.”
As if to prove Janet’s point, a group of volunteers arrive to sort goods and food for the emergency relief program. Church member Allan Kerss arrives to put the rubbish bins out.
There is an easy familiarity among the group as they talk about growing up together in the church and watching their children and now grandchildren form friendships through playgroups and choir. As we are shown around the church we reach the piano, and the group of old friends gather and sing – an impromptu display that highlights all they hold dear at St Stephens.
Listening to them sing ‘Oh Jesus I have promised’ it is clear that the buildings, the peace garden, memorial windows and playground are not what holds this group together. Like so many congregations throughout the synod, it is their love, friendship and faith that will guide them through the difficult times ahead.
A letter to the Church from the Moderator
I write on behalf of the Standing Committee of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania to express our very deep regret that the failure of Acacia College and the need to replenish missional reserves has resulted in this Synod incurring a significant debt.
Many letters and phone calls have been received which question how such a failure happened, and which seek to discover who is to blame. We need to repeat, as we have said previously, that no single person, committee or presbytery is entirely at fault in this situation, no single person, committee or presbytery can be blamed.
Nonetheless the Synod Standing Committee, for itself, for the past Standing Committees and for all of the many individuals, committees and councils of the church that contributed to this failure deeply regrets the outcome and offers our apology for this debt being incurred by the Church.
The Acacia College debt and much of the reserves that now need to be replenished occurred as a result of earnestly striving to be at mission, and as a result of being a Church willing to take risks in this striving. As a result of resolutions from the May 2013 Synod meeting, to repay these debts heavy burdens are now being placed on the Church.
The Standing Committee is aware of the pain that many parts of the Church are bearing, including presbyteries, congregations and agencies across the Synod. For this whole situation we offer our apology.
For the reality of the financial situation of the Synod and the liabilities that have arisen; for the need to act so promptly to bring about financial stability for the Synod; and for the pain carried by congregations, presbyteries and agencies as we work together to resolve this, we offer our apology.
We are also humbled by the generous and gracious responses we have experienced from presbytery, congregational and agency leaders as we talk to them about divestment. In the midst of pain and loss, some are also seeing new possibilities and options for mission and worship.
As the Basis of Union reminds us, we are a pilgrim people always on the way. We hope that we will all be able to move forward in the power of the Spirit together as a Church, continuing to serve the Gospel of Christ, a Gospel of love and forgiveness, hope and joy. We offer this apology in that spirit.
Grace and peace,
As there appeared to be some confusion regarding the level of consultation throughout the discernment process Crosslight contacted the Port Phillip Presbytery for clarification. We have published their response below:
Comment from Robert Renton on behalf of the presbytery ministers and presbytery chairperson
From the beginning of the work of the Project Control Group it was made very clear to us that the list of properties was to be regarded as “strictly confidential”, and that the only congregational “consultation” was, to quote the message from the PCG, “to understand/measure the various factors that will need to be taken into account”. It must be clear that consultation with congregations did not mean participate in the decision to divest a property.
It is wrong to even use the word “consultation” as this only creates the illusion of a mutual decision-making process. The Presbytery’s representatives were asked for their assessment of properties determined by the PCG based on a financial assessment. The input of the Presbytery was always to share information about the congregations. At no point was it suggested that consultation, meaning participation in a decision, was to occur. This idea has only developed once the decisions were made by the Property Board and Synod Standing Committee and is causing confusion for congregations like St Stephen’s.
The Presbytery representatives working with the PCG were well aware of not just St Stephen’s congregation’s size, activities and community use of the facilities but the details of all the congregations in the final list, as they have been active leaders in the Presbytery over many years and have had much involvement with St Stephen’s and the other affected congregations.
As a consequence, it was decided that the best we could do would be to inform all congregations about the UOF process in detail, provide information about how to deal with the situation if a particular congregation’s properties were to be nominated for divestment, and how ministers can be supported by the Presbytery through that situation. This information, including urging Church Councils to meet to work through the “what if” situation and offering the support of the Presbytery Ministers in this, was repeated several times.