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The local church as a centre of place

A centre of place

In Camden the local non-going church community has resisted the sale by the Anglican Church of a horse paddock between St John’s Anglican Church and the former Rectory, all part of the St John’s Church precinct.

Community angst has been expressed at public meetings, protests, placards, and in articles in the press.

St Johns Church
St Johns Church Camden around 1900 (Camden Images)

 

The purpose of this blog post is to try and unravel some of the broader issues underpinning community angst around the sale of church property. The post will look at the case study of the sale of churches in Tasmania and the resultant community anxiety.

The local church in place

The local church is an important part of a local community. It has a host of meanings for both churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike.

The local church is a central part of the construction of place and people’s attachment to a cultural landscape and locality.

Place is about a sense of belonging and a sense of groundedness. It is expressed by cultural heritage, memory, nostalgia, customs, commemorations, traditions, celebrations, values, beliefs and lifestyles.

Belonging is central to placeness. It is home. A site where there is a sense of acceptance, safety and security. Home as a place is  an important source of stability in a time of chaos. Home is part of a community.

LM Miller from the University of Tasmania states that people are involved fundamentally with what constitutes place and places are involved fundamentally in the construction of persons. Place wraps around and envelopes a person. People are holders of place (Miller: 6-8)

There is a shared sense of belonging in a community where being understood is important and part of a beloved collection. A sense of belonging acts as an all encompassing set of beliefs and identity. . It enriches our identity and relationships and leads to acceptance and understanding.

A church is one of these communities.

Cobbitty St Pauls 1890s CKerry 'EnglishChurch' PHM
This Charles Kerry Image of St Paul’s Anglican Church at Cobbitty is labelled ‘English Church Cobbitty’. The image is likely to be around the 1890s and re-enforces the notion of Cobbity as an English-style pre-industriral village in the Cowpastures (PHM)

 

When a person’s sense of place is threatened then their sense of self, identity, safety, stability, and security are challenged. Where there is a loss of a person’s sense of place and belonging to a place they go through a grieving process.

The closure, sale and de-consecration of the local church are a threat to a person’s sense of place.

Local churches are part of a community’s cultural heritage.

Local churches are part of a community’s cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage consists of two parts. Firstly, tangible heritage which is made up, for example, buildings, art, objects and artefacts.

Secondly there is intangible cultural heritage which includes customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values.  This can be extended to include traditional skills and technologies, religious ceremonies, performing arts and storytelling.

 

Churchgoers and a sense of place

The link between local churches and a community’s sense of place  has been explored  by Graeme Davison in his book The Use and Abuse of Australian History. He says that churchgoers are often faced with unsustainable maintenance costs for a church. Eventually when churchgoers are forced to sell the property they:

often seemed less reluctant to give up their church than the rest of the community…and faced with the prospect of its loss, [the non-churchgoers] were often prepared to fight with surprising tenacity to save it.’ (Davision:149)

Enmore Church of Christ Tabernacle
The Enmore Church of Christ Tabernacle in the early 20th century where Frank and Ethel were married in 1925. (Jubilee Pictorial History of the Church of Christ)

 

These churches have a strong emotional attachment for their communities. These churches are loved places for their community and Davison suggests:

It is in losing loved places, as well as loved persons, that we come to recognise the nature and depth of our attachment to our past. (Davison: 150)

Davison argues that churchgoers often have a loyalty to their local place well beyond their sense of faith in Christianity.

Sale of churches in Tasmania

These issues came to the fore in Tasmania in 2018 when there was  public outrage around the sale of local churches in Tasmania.

The Hobart press ran a story with the headline ‘Emotions run high, communities vow to fight after Anglican Church votes to sell off 76 churches’. (Sunday Tasmanian, 3 June 2018)

tasmania st john's anglican church-ross-tasmania wikimedia lowres
St John’s Anglican Church Ross Tasmania (Wikimedia 2017)

The Anglican Church in Tasmania was attempting to fund the ‘redress commitment’ to the victims of clerical abuse by selling church property.

In response Central Tasmanian Highlands churchgoer Ron Sonners said that  ‘his ancestors [were] buried in the graveyard associated with St Peter’s Church at Hamilton’…and he ‘struggled with his emotions as he dealt with the fallout from his community church being listed for sale’.  (Sunday Tasmanian, 3 June 2018)

Tasmania Anglican Bishop Richard Condie says that most of opposition to the sale of churches

 is primarily people in the broader community who oppose the sales, with the potential loss of heritage and family history, including access to graveyards, their main concern. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

There have been protest meetings and some effected parishes started fundraising campaigns to keep their churches.  The Hobart Mercury reported that

The Parish of Holy Trinity Launceston, which wants to keep St Matthias’ Church at Windermere, has raised the funds, with the help of its local community, to meet its redress contribution. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

Cultural historian and churchgoer Dr Caroline Miley said that:

the churches are an important part of Australian history… It is unconscionable that such a massive number of buildings, artefacts and precincts should be lost to the National Estate in one fell swoop…These are buildings built and attended by convicts and their jailers. They were built on land donated by early state governors, notable pioneers and state politicians, with funds donated by these colonials and opened by the likes of Sir John Franklin…As well, she says, they contain the honour boards, memorials and graves of those who fought and died in conflicts from the 19th century onwards…Some are in the rare (in Australia) Georgian style or in idiosyncratic Tasmanian Carpenter Gothic. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

Amanda Ducker of the Hobart Mercury summarises of the whole fuss surrounding the sale of churches in Tasmania this way:

Condie’s use-it-or-lose-it approach clashes with the keep-it-at-all-costs mentality. But while some opponents of the bishop’s plan refuse to sell their church buildings, neither do they want to go to church regularly. They rather prefer just to gather on special occasions: baptisms, weddings, funerals and perhaps at Christmas and Easter if they are leaning towards piety. But the rest of the year? Well, a sleep-in, potter at home or cafe brunch of eggs benedict (but sans ministering) are pretty tempting on Sunday morning. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

Others Anglicans in Tasmania see the whole argument differently. Emeritus Professor and Anglican Peter Boyce AO see it as fight over the spiritual traditions linked to the low and high Anglican traditions in Tasmania.   (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

All these arguments are characteristic of how people, their traditions, their values, their past, their memories are all rooted in a location and in particular a building like a church.

 

Other dimensions to the argument

The dualism expressed in the sale of church land and buildings can be likened to the difference between sacred and secular. These two polar opposites are explored in popular culture in the form of music by Nick Cave and others on The Conversation.

Another perspective on this area was aired on ABC Radio Local Sydney in December 2018 by Dr David Newheiser. In the discussion he examined  the differences between Christians and aethiests.  He maintained that there are strong sentiments in the community around tradition and ritual in the community and if you lose a church you lose all of this.

The binary position of churchgoers and non-churchgoers can also be expressed in ethical terms as the difference between good and evil, or right and wrong, or moral and immoral, just and unjust and so on. This dichotomy has ancient roots dating back to pre-Biblical times across many cultures.

So what does all this mean?

Churches have an important role to play in the construction of place in communities. This role is played out in different ways for different actors in the story.

As far as the dichotomy presented here in the story of the sale of church property and land, there is really no conclusion that satisfies all stakeholders.

There is no right or wrong position to the opposing views between churchgoers and non-churchgoers. The differences remain an unresolved ethical dilemma.

An iconic Camden image of St Johns Anglican Church in the 1890s.

Cover Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)

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GLAM, trusted sources and the local museum

In these days of fake news and social media hype people have lost trust in many public institutions. Social media is king and the prominence of news can be driven by clicks and algorithms.

 

Trust is difficult concept to define and measure. It is a fragile belief that people and institutions can be relied upon to be ethical and responsible. Trust is critical in the effective functioning of a democracy.

 

It is more important than ever that there are sources that are trustworthy and produce credible evidence-based information, particularly around scientific and cultural issues.

 

Dr. David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC states in reference to recent controversies:

More and more, the trustworthiness of information is based on the perceived trustworthiness of the source. Libraries and museums are considered honest purveyors of information and places for conversation on issues of local and national significance. Today’s museums are dynamic learning hubs, using the power of art and artifacts to engage, teach and inspire. Museums touch lives and transform the way people see the world and each other.

One group of trusted institutions are museums, galleries and libraries, and within these are local community and folk museums, pioneer villages and house museums. They are genuinely authentic.

camden-library museum
Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden. The Camden Museum is a volunteer-run local social history museum that tells the story of the Cowpastures and Camden Districts. It has a significant collection of local artefacts and objects, archives and image collection. (I Willis, 2016)

 

 The landscape of local museums is one of the characteristics of rural and regional Australia. These local museums are managed and conducted by a host of local community organisations.  According to the National Museum of Australia there are over 1,000 local and provincial museums across Australia.

 

Local museums tell local truths and are trusted sources of local stories and histories.  Local museums are stores of memory that are built on nostalgia and contribute to well-being of the community. They are sites of volunteerism and strengthening of community. They promote local tourism, local employment, skill enhancement and training opportunities for local people.

Aust Day 2018 Museum Open Frances&Harry
Two local sages on Australia Day 2018 at the Camden Museum. Frances and Harry are two larger than life local characters who are well known local identities. They have spent their life devoted to their community. They have a vast trove of local stories and knowledge that they willing share with others. (I Willis)

 

Centred on local history local museums are not fake. They are are honest and straightforward. What you see is what you get.

 

 The local museum tells local stories about local identities and local events, and are driven by local patriotism, parochialism and localism. They celebrate local traditions, myths and commemorations.

 

The local museum can vary from world class to cringingly kitsch, from antiquarian and to professional.  Individuals create them from ‘mad ambition’ and shear enthusiasm.

 

For all their foibles they can build trust within a community. The local museum can help to build resilience through strengthening community identity and a sense of place. Local museums are a trusted local institutions, contribute to a dynamic democracy and active citizenship.

 

This post was originally published on the ISAA blog.