Transition or transformation?

Transition or transformation?
Simon Harvey

In the July edition of North West City News Brendan Rees reported on the sale of the iconic church on the corner of Queensbury and Curzon streets in North Melbourne. Apparently a Uniting Church leader said that “such a substantial landholding … no longer met their missional goals”.

This got me thinking about churches and church properties around the area. Personally, my church attendance and membership lapsed many years ago, but I nevertheless respect the right of anybody to continue to practice their faith.

However, I ask what will become of some of the beautiful church properties and invaluable community support provided by church organisations, if, as the most recent census confirms, there is steady wilting of all branches of mainstream commitment to organised religion, aka “the church”?

Today we expect our governments – federal, state and local – to provide a significant level of community support and infrastructure, but that has not always been the case.

While I am no historian, I know that in the early days of European settlement, “the church” was probably the most significant provider of the basics for those families who struggled to provide food, clothing, and housing.

Social support from “the church” continues to the present day, and there would be a significant short-fall in the provision of some social basics if that was not the case.

Think about the extensive work done by the following: The Brotherhood of St Laurence, St Vinnies, Uniting, Anglicare, Jesuit Social Services … just to name a few. Uniting, for example, has 13 different “services” listed, including caring, alcohol and drug, disability, employment, education, housing, etc. Think also, of the significant contribution of the Catholic Church to education in the north-west of Melbourne.

One might ask, how this can happen, in the context of dwindling congregations? An obvious answer is that most, if not all, of these services are heavily subsidised by state and federal governments. Provision of services is certainly not dependent on the tithing of the “faithful”.

Given this, and assuming that the wilting of religious commitment continues on the same trajectory, the “names” (Brotherhood, Vinnies, etc) will almost certainly persist as pseudo arms of the Department of Social Services (federal) and Department of Health and Human Services (state). I am not privy to the extent to which any social service, under a church banner, is funded by government; and how much things like church investments, school fees from parents, fundraising, and congregational collection plates, are still important to their bottom lines.

From a community perspective, the fate of church-owned real estate, in particular the “places of worship” become both paradoxical and potential heritage footballs. I frequently walk past an imposing ecclesiastical building and muse about its heritage value as opposed to its value as a place of worship.

As an organisation, how can a church justify the continued maintenance of an imposing edifice, if it only provides for the worshipping needs of a dozen or so of “the faithful”? If the previously cited Uniting Church in North Melbourne – St Mark the Evangelist – is anything to go by, their leadership has seen “the writing on the wall”. Indeed, one would have to be blind not to see it.

This scenario leads to a fascinating prospect – the protection (Oh God, I hope so!) and repurposing of church buildings and other church property. This has already begun locally with two cases that I know of – Christchurch in McCracken St, Kensington and St George’s in Travencore, which both feature regular concerts … churches often have great acoustics.

My guess is that the Catholic diocese might be more resistant to this trend … perhaps because they have deeper pockets.

Can you imagine the forementioned St Mark’s, St Brendan’s in Flemington, and Holy Rosary in Gower St, Kensington, all becoming centres for the performing arts?

A refreshing twist (or interpretation) on the concept of “worship”. How far can one stretch this concept? •

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