As the Uniting our future program enters the relocation and resettlement phase, some congregations are facing the reality of leaving much-loved churches. This month Crosslight looks at the impact this has had on one congregation in particular, as well as the emotions being felt throughout the wider church. Readers are reminded they can share stories, ask questions and express opinions on The Listening Post, where they will also find the latest updates and news. Go to: www.listeningpost.victas.uca.org.au/uniting-our-future-uca-victas for more information.
Landscape and memory
Russell Green was a long-time member of the South Hawthorn Uniting Church in Tooronga Road before it closed several years ago. He shares his experience of losing a much loved church. So what became of our boasts? The Presbyterian Church (which later became the Uniting Church) was built on Tooronga Road Hawthorn in an area that was called Scotch Hill Hawthorn. We had a Christian story to share with our neighbours. The church was built in a people basin with no nearby churches in the area.
It was well led and managed its finances due to quality leadership, it was a great community with a large Sunday School and large Bible class, youth groups, five netball teams and supportive parent groups who joined us when we took the young people on camps. From its earliest days this church benefitted from a small group who would visit the neighbourhood and encourage people to come and worship. The young people began to marry and move to more affordable suburbs.
It was sad that the directed energy of a few, in visiting throughout the neighbourhood, was a model members did not continue with. The congregation became depleted. Senior members of the congregation began to join community fraternities for fellowship. The hope that becoming a Uniting Church member church might invigorate the church did not occur. An ethnic congregation did join the church for several years then dispersed. The gap between the traditional loyalty and actual belief widened in this community to the extent that what we laboured for was no longer valued.
Our earlier activist model was no longer practised. When we drive past that area now we remember a very positive experience. We were members of that church when it was a thriving community. We think of the stained glass window of Christ and the beautiful pews made of mountain ash. The capable leadership and the generous hospitality of the older families to younger couples, living in apartments, helped sustain their young lives and membership within that church. The church building and land were sold off and the building demolished. We miss the old landmarks and the familiar form of a church that once stood on Tooronga Road. But for us former members the Christian journey is not yet over.
A time of listening and lament
Rev Beth Hancock Heidelberg East Ivanhoe congregation
Many congregations, groups and individuals in the presbytery of Yarra Yarra have experienced pain and loss through Uniting our future and the sale of Acacia College. In its concern for these people the November gathering of the presbytery decided to offer a time of listening and lament to enable participants to hear the stories, lament the loss and seek glimmers of hope for the future.
On Saturday 22 March approximately 20 people, including the Moderator Dan Wootton, gathered in the beautiful sacred space at Glen Iris Uniting Church. Led by Rev Fiona Winn, our presbytery ministers, and the artists of Playback Theatre we entered a time of reflection on the theme ‘Living Water’ from John 4. We were reminded that the living water we receive from Jesus is ‘a spring gushing up to eternal life’ which keeps on slaking our spiritual thirst.
While small in number the group represented a broad range of experiences. One congregation was preparing to close and disperse to neighbouring churches because their building had been sold. Another expressed grief at the loss of a long-term mission relationship with migrants and asylum seekers due to the sale of the house that provided accommodation.
A member of the Property Control Group spoke of his experience. The most challenging aspect for my congregation occurred after our property failed to sell. We were asked to allow one of our church agencies, displaced by Uniting our future, to use part of that property. Suddenly we needed to make a decision and to make it quickly.
Each of these stories found creative expression through the gifts of the Playback Theatre. We listened, cried and even laughed with one another. Following a short break for fellowship over morning tea, the group reconvened to consider the way forward. As travellers in the wilderness we placed stones representing our burdens at the foot of the cross and dipped our hands in a bowl of refreshing water. In small groups we considered questions about healing, vision and what was needed to enable us to move forward. The morning ended with Holy Communion and a blessing. With so few participants one might wonder whether this event was worthwhile. One person commented:
“Throughout the day I experienced many emotions – sorrow and empathy for those who shared their stories of disbelief, frustration and loss; hope and optimism with others who shared stories of new opportunities which have arisen from the ashes; and peace and joy in the knowledge that through this difficult journey, we have not been alone as Christ continues to walk with us.” Another reflected: “What brought tears to my eyes was to sense that they really understood, and felt, my feelings. It was a good way for the others present to be confronted by what we have experienced. No solutions were offered there and then, but I sensed that each of those who had responsibilities for helping us go forward got a deeper appreciation of our pain and would have a deeper commitment to help.” This service was an opportunity to share just a few hours with others travelling a difficult path. I came away feeling at peace and with hope for the future.
Wendy McLean, B.Mus.Edn. Director of Music
St Columba’s Uniting Church in Balwyn has had a long tradition of music. It is one of the few congregations to have a choir which still rehearses weekly to prepare anthems, and leads the congregation in singing the Psalms and communion settings.
Over the years we have, as a congregation, sung 650 of the 783 contents of Together in Song. One choir member is a professional violinist who improvises during the hymns, along with pipe organ or piano; sometimes we have together played music for a time of reflection, or to celebrate the Christmas or Easter season.
When we received the distressing news of the sale of all our buildings, with a scheduled closing at the end of April, we made a positive decision to record much of our music, to provide us with memories for the future when we will no longer be together. Consequently Peter Wakeley, of 3MBS, who selects and presents the ‘Hymns old and new’ on Sunday mornings, has undertaken to do the recording for us. This has involved four lengthy sessions, commencing in December and concluding mid-March.
Some family members from other churches, who regularly sing with us for Christmas and Easter, have joined us, as well as a former chorister who has come three times from Hobart. In all we anticipate producing two CDs which journey through the liturgical year from Advent to Christ the King, including various styles of Psalms and Anthems, which represent music from the 1400s until very contemporary; and music for organ and violin or organ alone. This is our positive response to a decision beyond our control.
As readers will have been aware, we believed that over 50 properties were listed for sale, but it seems that only 29 were actually sold to reach the target, with some properties which were reprieved having subsequently asked to be sold. Of course our large property of church, halls, kindergarten, tennis courts and manse, being situated in prime real estate, has been targeted for its land value.
We even had to take action to save our pipe organ from being declared a fixture (which it is not) and therefore being the property of the developer whose name was withheld from us. We hope that some congregation, probably Roman Catholic, will be glad to receive our instrument.
In the March edition of Crosslight, an article on divestment details stated that “of the 29 properties divested, seven involve congregations needing to move. Some of those had been considering such a move already”.
It went on to list those seven, naming St Columba’s first, implying that this was our decision. This was certainly not the case. With income from all our tenants we were financially able and hoping to continue. However, once informed that our property was completely sold, we took time in January to visit other churches in the area before deciding our future on 23 February.
Although most may stay together, some will choose to go to various churches and so we will lose what has been a most loyal Christ-centred group of friends who have long been committed to working for social justice, and the ‘Monthly Mart’ in cooperation with Koonung Heights church, and Asylum Seekers and other causes, organising wonderful Childrens’ Workshops each Easter and Christmas, and involved in ‘Kid’s Hope’ mentoring in local schools. You asked for stories of congregations impacted by the divestment program, so here is the positive and the painful story from St Columba’s in Balwyn.
St Columba’s – Salt and Light
Back in 1923 Balwyn was an outer suburb, plenty of vacant land, grassy paddocks and empty spaces to play on, but it was growing fast and the Assembly was anxious to start a new Presbyterian church in the area.
On 6 December a small group of interested people met together to commit themselves to enabling this to happen. The first service was held in a rented hall in Balwyn Road on 27 April 1924. That was a busy year.
It was not long before a Sunday school was opened, a home missioner, the Rev A Yule, appointed and a block of land purchased. Anecdotal evidence suggests that early in 1925, when the weekly rental of 25 shillings was raised by 2/6d the young congregation could not find the extra money so with “tremendous faith and courage”1 it was decided to build a temporary wooden church on their block of land. The congregation set to work and in three weeks of intense activity on Saturdays and the Easter holiday they completed the building at a cost of £950.
The people of St Columba’s took Christ’s call to be salt and light to the world seriously but with the practical understanding that recreation was important too. Rev Yule, a keen tennis player, encouraged a local builder, also a keen tennis player, to carve two tennis courts out of the hills. “They were just cut out of virgin land really.
It was just a grassy paddock on a steep slope. He had this great steel scoop thing with handles and harness and two Clydesdales and he would drive into the up end of the hill up against our side fence and carve that out and then cart it across and tip it.”2 A tennis club was formed on 21 July 1925. Growth continued. In 1930 a kindergarten was dedicated, in 1940 a Hammond organ donated, in 1941 a manse purchased. Then in 1948 it was time to consider the provision of a new church.
The foundation stone was laid on 28 March 1953 by the Prime Minister of Australia Robert Menzies. Not quite a year later the new church was dedicated and named St Columba’s. Eastern suburbs churches boomed in the 1950s and St Columba’s was no exception, not just a tennis club and kindergarten but a football club, a cricket club, a Presbyterian Girls Fellowship, choirs for children and adults, a dramatic club, a Ladies’ Auxiliary and of course a Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union.
At a time without many commercially provided leisure activities the church was the focus of attention. At the formation of the Uniting Church in 1977, St Columba’s joined with Koonung Heights and Benson St Churches to become the Balwyn Heights Parish, a successful collaboration for just over 25 years. Benson St shared a minister with St Columba’s and it closed in 1984, soon after its Sunday school moved to St Columba’s to take advantage of an earlier service time. Music has always been a significant witness at St Columba’s and in the early 1990s a pipe organ was purchased and installed. This cost $11,500.
In raising the necessary funds, St Columba’s vowed to raise an equivalent sum for the work of the wider church, a commitment that was honoured by many members of the present congregation. In 2012 the congregation of St Columba’s had dwindled to only 52 confirmed members but in the Collaborative Consultation Report of that year a link was made between St Columba’s and Iona.
The report described St Columba’s in George MacLeod’s words as “a ‘thin place’ where there is only a tissue paper between the material and the spiritual.”3 In October 2013 St Columba’s congregation learned that they were listed for divestment and now we know that our church has been sold. Our 90th anniversary celebration will also be our last service. In the November 2013 issue of Crosslight we shared our acceptance of the Synod’s decision.
Now we would also like to share our prayer for ourselves and for the other congregations who must find new ways to be salt and light to their communities. God of love, In this time of pain and sadness it is ourselves we’re really thinking of, but if we can stand back a bit we would ask That our sense of homelessness will give us new understanding of those who are truly homeless, That our sense of injustice will help us stand in solidarity with those whose very lives are threatened by injustice and discrimination, That when we must learn a new language of worship we will think of those who must learn a new language to survive. We thank you for all this place has meant for our lives and remember all who have worked and prayed here in the past. We pray for our tenants who must also find a new home.
We pray for the Uniting Church administration especially for those who have the job of fielding our anger and caring for our hurt. Amen.
Footnotes. Margaret McCrae – speech at the 75th anniversary celebration Keith Alder – interview with former neighbour St Columba’s Collaborative Consultation Report 2012