Scots remains central to its community

11_Labyrinth-Centre-with-peopleSome years ago, a crowd of 500 people met for worship at Scots Uniting Church, in Campbellfield, about 18 km north of the Melbourne CBD.

The occasion marked a special anniversary for a church believed to be the fifth established in Melbourne in May 1842, less than seven years after the founding of Melbourne.

This year, 2015, represents 173 years of unbroken worship for this church.

In terms of worship numbers, time has not been kind to Scots. The bluestone church building, whose construction was completed in 1855, now attracts only about 20 people on a Sunday morning.

Scots holds an important position in the religious landscape of Melbourne. The first Presbyterian congregation used to meet under an ancient eucalypt which still stands proudly on the site.

The original church building has been described as “a shingle-roofed building of wattle and daub, rough-adzed beams (and) a bark roof so low that people had to stoop to enter.”

As more people came to the area – partly driven by Scots being on the road to the Bendigo goldfields – congregants moved into their new church, built for the princely sum of 2780 pounds, in 1855.

The church is one of the few surviving works of architect Charles Laing, who arrived in the city in 1840, less than five years after John Batman set foot on the land which was to become Melbourne.

The site is also home to the only private Presbyterian burial ground in Victoria, which contains the graves of many of the original Scottish settlers of the area.

Legend has it that many people who died en route to the goldfields are also buried on the site but their exact final resting place is not clearly marked.

Given their age and significance, the church building and the graveyard are under the protection of the Victorian Heritage and Building Trust, along with a small area of original native grasses in the north-west corner and the original eucalypt.

Perhaps it is this rich history which drives the current congregation to faithfully explore new ways to ‘do church’ and to offer love and care to all in their neighbourhood.

One of those expressions is a bold vision of Nev Thomas, the vice chairman of the church council and a lay preacher in training.

Mr Thomas is the inspiration behind the construction of a nine-path labyrinth (pictured) on the south side of the church building.

Completed last month, the labyrinth consists of about 340 metres of pathway in blue metallic bricks (complementing the bluestone church building) laid on their side, end-to-end in a 19.4 metre diameter circle.

There is a central cross, laid flat and an upright granite slab – to reflect the stone at Jesus’ tomb – placed at the head of the cross.

The principle of a labyrinth walk is likened to the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus walking and talking with Jesus in private meditation.

“One enters the labyrinth walk in prayerful conversation with Jesus,” Mr Thomas explained.

“We are aware that labyrinths are not for everybody, but for those who enjoy quiet meditation, they can be soul-stirring and life-changing.”

The walk will be clearly marked as being open to all people at all times, providing an important point of sanctuary for the community.

Mr Thomas sees the labyrinth drawing people to the property because of its uniqueness. He hopes this will lead to conversation and engagement which will encourage visitors to consider worshipping alongside the congregation on a Sunday.

Church council chair Lorna Brown praised the vision of Mr Thomas.

“He has done most of this on his own which is a mammoth task,” Mrs Brown said.

Mrs Brown said Scots parishioners were continually looking for new ways to express God’s love and increase the size of its congregation.

One such way has been through social evenings on the second Saturday of each month.

Offering a three-course home cooked meal and entertainment for just $7, the nights generally attract a crowd almost double the average Sunday attendance.

Rev Dr John Vander Reest, who has undertaken supply at Scots for about three years, said it was a very faithful and loyal congregation but one which was ageing.

However, the congregation was proud of its history and tradition and would like to see the congregation continue well into the future.

Dr Vander Reest said there were plans to see some land owned by the church developed as a conference centre which could serve as an additional income stream as well as generating more use of the site.

He said the congregation would continue to work with Lentara UnitingCare and the Presbytery of Port Phillip West to find fresh expressions of its faith.

“We are already attracting new members. At present we have the privilege to minister to a Syrian refugee family with three children who have brought new life and hope to our congregation,” he said.

By Nigel Tapp

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